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  • Writer's pictureDr. Brian Harke

Between College and That First Job

Q. You’ve just graduated from college but couldn’t find a job or internship in advance — so you are moving back in with your parents. Can you take some time off before restarting your job search?

A. No, because taking time off will be hard to explain in an interview and can make you less employable. Kathy Kane, senior vice president for talent management of Adecco Group North America in Melville, N.Y., says that because of the state of the economy, new grads think they have a free pass to take it easy for a while, but they don’t. “When I look to fill a position, I’m not looking for someone who’s been sitting around with idle hands.”

It’s easy for unemployed college graduates to feel sorry for themselves and mope, but they shouldn’t fall prey to that, says Dan Black, Americas director of campus recruiting for the professional services firm Ernst & Young in New York. As a recruiter, Mr. Black says he looks for those who have been “keeping themselves meaningfully busy.”

Q. What’s the best way to use the time between graduation and employment?

A. Your focus should be on developing skills you need for employment and learning about your industry, says Katharine Brooks, director of liberal arts career services at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of “You Majored in What?”This is also a good time to build your network. Use your college’s alumni office to seek out professionals in your industry, she says.

Do some virtual networking through a social media campaign. “Create a LinkedIn profile, because recruiters use that as a primary way of sourcing candidates,” she says. Twitter and Facebook enable you to have conversations with people in your field. “Use Twitter to begin to establish yourself as someone who is knowledgeable about your industry,” Ms. Brooks says. “Start tweeting about articles of interest in your field and the latest research findings.”

Being comfortable with social media, however, doesn’t mean you are familiar with the technology used in a corporate environment, says Jeffrey Livingston, senior vice president for college and career readiness at McGraw-Hill Educationin Columbus, Ohio. “Use this time to learn the software companies want, like Excel and PowerPoint, and read up on search engine optimization,” he says.

Q. Is there a way to develop skills you need for your chosen field, without yet having a job in that field?

A. Talk to people in the industry and read job ads to learn what employers are looking for, Ms. Brooks says, then determine what you can do to get the necessary skills and experience. If you know you need more customer-service experience, for example, you might volunteer to answer phones at a charitable organization or try to get a job at a call center, she says.

If you register at temporary agencies, Ms. Kane says, “don’t focus on the job title — focus on skills development.” “No matter what job you’re doing,” she adds, “you will learn how a company operates and develop business communication skills.”

Volunteer work is another option, but choose work that enhances your résumé, Mr. Black says. “Find ways of using your degree to help the organization — it might be marketing, finance or event planning,” he says. Don’t just look at established charities; find some small local businesses and offer to volunteer, while learning at the same time.

Q. What if the only job you can find involves waiting tables or working as a clerk in a retail store? Could that reflect negatively on you when you interview for jobs in your industry?

A. In this economy, any job is more valuable than no job, Ms. Kane says, especially if you approach it with the attitude: What can I learn? A job in retail or in a restaurant will teach about sales, time management and working as part of a team. “If you take the initiative and excel at the job,” she says, “you might become crew chief or shift supervisor — that’s managerial experience.”

Many companies use behavioral interviews in making hiring decisions, Ms. Kane says, asking for examples of how you developed or used a skill in real life. “If you were working at the Gap this summer, you can talk about how you sold to customers based on how they interacted with the merchandise,” she says. “Those are sales and marketing skills.”

Q. Since you can’t find a job in your field, should you try starting your own business?

A. Starting a business is one of the most “profound résumé-building experiences you can have,” says Leonard Schlesinger, president of Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., a business college that specializes in entrepreneurship. The most important thing is to find something you are interested in pursuing, he says, then invite input from people who might buy what you want to sell.

Keep in mind that a low-tech business may showcase your talents as much as a high-tech one. “A dog-walking business, lawn care, even a lemonade stand — are all fine,” he says. “Just get started, and you’ll have a set of experiences to reflect upon and talk about.”

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