How to Crack into the Hidden Job Market for Summer Internships, Coops and First Jobs Out of College


“Five out of 1000 online job applications ever make it to the hiring manager’s desk.” Career Confidential CEO, Peggy McKee

Bottom Line: Nothing can happen until you meet with the key decision maker. To reach the decision maker, you’ll need to do more than send a resume to a company’s online resume collection system. You need a compelling reason for that person or their closest gatekeeper to start a dialogue with you. That first dialogue needs to lead to an ongoing relationship which leads to the right opportunities for you.

It is not unusual for a position that would be ideal for you not to exist when you initially contact those key decision makers. That fact means the job isn’t posted either.

Start by identifying the ideal companies for your desired career direction. What most students don’t realize is that when a key decision maker sees a value in you, they have the power to create the opportunity. That won’t happen with a shotgun approach to resume distribution. And it won’t happen without a face-to-face meeting.

A REALITY CHECK: NETWORKING IS THE ONLY STRATEGY

2013 Update: We’ve posted a presentation called Job Hunting in the 21st Century for Students and Recent Grads that you might find helpful.

Networking is the #1 most effective tool to get to key decision makers and land that job. Most of your immediate contacts do not realize how helpful they can be in expanding your network.

The first step in networking is to tell each person in your network that you are trying to expand your network – not get referred to a job. It is best to approach a personal contact with the purpose of seeking industry information or to explore referrals who your contact knows who could be of value. Their contact might be a person in a company that you have an interest in or in an industry of interest to you. By using this approach you are not putting your contact in a position where he or she feels obligated to push your resume in his or her company. If the offer is made [to push your resume], accept it but focus more on who he or she knows that could help your cause.

Develop a third party letter of recommendation that your associate can use, as it removes this task from your being assumed by your contact, which can get in the way of the referral. Having your contact send this letter first followed by a phone call from you is far better than simply calling unannounced to the referral.

THE KEY TO GETTING TO THE RIGHT PERSON

As indicated earlier, you must have a compelling message that makes its way into the hands of the right person and then have a means to get directly to that person. You need to either bypass the gate keepers or become successful at going through them. The typical generic introduction letter with a request for the recipient to call seldom works.

You must approach the decision maker positioning yourself as a TALENT VALUE that has the potential to be part of the solution to their KEY CHALLENGES – and not as a person seeking employment.

Too often college students see themselves as “low value” due to the lack of experience. For the employer, the lack of experience may not be as important as the “entry level pay level” that their budget supports. Or they might need your professional potential in 6 months but able to hire you into a “cover” job immediately if you are willing to trust the long term potential. For that reason, targeting your “ideal” employers is critical. You may have to start in a job that isn’t so ideal.

The only reason that an opportunity will be opened for you is that the core competencies, skill sets and accomplishments you bring to the organization are consistent with the immediate needs the organization is facing. As they say, timing is everything. Any good decision maker will look at you as a potential asset and will be looking at the return he or she will get on that asset. Your first mission is to communicate a high enough potential return that encourages the decision maker to open the dialogue. Once opened, the mission is to continue building the potential return. A willingness to start in something that is slightly outside your comfort zone is a plus. Many CEOs will tell you they started in the mailroom, as secretary or as a lowly junior salesperson. Contrary to much of what you read that says job hopping is “ok”, look at each company you target as the company you want to work at for 30 years.

There are two types of job opportunity strategies that you need to use: Individual and Group.

THE INDIVIDUAL STRATEGY

This will be specific to ONE company. Identify the ideal companies and use sourcing strategies such as LinkedIn to find people in those companies. Once you’ve targeted a person you want to reach, identify a strategy for reaching that person that involves those already in your network. Going directly to the person through a social media tool such as LinkedIn can work effectively if you are asking for “their industry advice and to share their experience” rather than “a job”.

Attend Industry Conferences

You can also identify these opportunities at trade shows (keynote speakers, session presenters, other attendees in the sessions you attend). There are usually student discounts available. Attending a conference and making contact with a speaker immediately after their presentation can be effective if you have a follow-up strategy to that first contact.

STUDENT BEST PRACTICE EXAMPLE TIP Within an industry, there are professional associations. Find the association’s website and see if there is a membership list that is openly published. Sometimes a list of member companies (or individuals) may be available. This is a quick way to find companies you might have overlooked if relying just on the college career and placement office. Exhibitor contacts may also be of use.

A Student Best Practice: Daniel Lewis, a college junior looking for both internship/coop opportunities as well as wanting to scout out high-potential employers upon graduation is attending a conference this summer being held across the country. His degree will be in mechanical engineering and his passion is in sports equipment design and manufacturing. The conference he is attending is the ISEA’s 9th International Sports Engineering conference in Lowell, MA.  Many students might feel attending a conference for experienced professionals to be outside their comfort zone. But for the student that goes outside their comfort zone, this can be a huge competitive advantage upon graduation. I salute the college students that take advantage and create these opportunities for themselves. These students will move to the front of the line with the contacts they make – avoiding all the fire walls along the way.

Contact a speaker by email about 3 – 5 days after the presentation. The opening paragraph should state that you attended their session and thought it was excellent. Also share in one sentence some benefit you gained from their presentation. Then request a 10 minute phone call appointment for the purpose of getting their advice about your desire to [find a position in xyz industry] or [find a [intern] position at 123, abc or xyz companies]. Again, your goal is to expand your network. Ask for “who” they recommend you talk with. Ask for their permission to say they referred you.

The next paragraph may come from your resume and include your positioning statement and four or five relevant and impactful achievements including your education. The last paragraph is a call to action in which you reiterate your request for a 10 minute call and confirm a time that you will follow-up. This follow-up time is critical as it is a very powerful tool to help you get by the gate keepers and to encourage the decision maker to accept your call.

This approach is also used for implementing group opportunity strategies and for approaching a company that has advertised a position of interest. Never indicate that you are responding to a specific position if responding to a job posting. Instead, use the information to customize your resume and cover letter to fit that opening while also expressing broader value (they may see you fitting another position you didn’t know existed).

THE GROUP STRATEGY

This is a highly efficient way of creating opportunities. Again the communication vehicle is not unlike that used for individual situations.

Identify 10-to-12 companies of similar size in an industry and send the group letter with a staggered but specific time for follow-up. As with all letters, use a spreadsheet and MS Word Merge tools to be efficient but be sure you are customizing specific to that industry.

THE PROCESS

Whether Individual or Group, the process is the same. The Group is simply replicating the Individual model.

  1. Using LinkedIn, Hoovers or some other available source, build target lists by industries of highest interest. Keep the industry selection to 3 or 4. Within each target list select 10 to 12 companies of great interest. Within this short list, if there are specific companies of highest interest, mark those for priority research. If you have specific companies outside of the industries you’ve selected that you would like to include, list those separately for an individual approach.
  2. Create a cover letter for each industry. In most cases one will suit all companies in the same industry.
  3. Identify the person(s) and their direct mailing address in each company who would be the most appropriate targets. Typically you would target a person two levels above your target position. If that person’s name is not readily available from LinkedIn or Hoovers, the company website or some other public source, pick up the phone and call the company and ask for the person’s name. If you are asked the purpose simply state you wish to mail a thank you as a follow-up to [a presentation they made at a conference or their recent help].
  4. Set up the letter on your computer and use the mail merge capability to generate the hard copy (always use first class not e-mail for this). Type each letter with a unique and specific “time” for follow-up. Allow four to five working days after mailing date for the follow-up date/time. If you are doing a group campaign leave an hour between each call so that if a discussion is opened you have time to close for the meeting and can take a breather between each.
  5. Send the letter (letters) out and follow up as stated in your letter.

There are at least three firewalls you must get by: the front desk (switchboard), the admin assistant and the targeted recipient. In each case the objective is to get to the decision maker and not simply be sent to HR or told “We are not hiring. The content of the letter is designed to help. If the front desk asks the nature of the call, simply confirm you are contacting the recipient per a scheduled time. If the admin assistant asks, respond in the same way. Engage with the admin assistant and respect their power. You can often turn a gatekeeper from a major roadblock into a willing helper if done properly. If you get directly to the recipient, confirm receipt and immediately steer the conversation.

DO NOT COME ACROSS AS A JOB SEEKER AS YOU WILL BE SENT TO HR. POSITION YOURSELF AS LOOKING FOR ADVICE.

Once the dialogue is opened, respect the time of the recipient. The objective is to get a face-to-face meeting. Speak long enough to achieve a high enough level of interest to get the recipient to agree to a meeting. If you get the target recipient’s voice mail simply confirm you are calling at the time indicated and that you will try back at the same time tomorrow. Do not go into a “sales pitch” as you will come across as just one more person trying to waste their time.

The key to success is persistence. Continue contacting people to grow your network in each target company until you are successful in getting to the decision maker or it becomes very clear that it is not to be.

Carl Nielson is an organizational development consultant, professional career and executive/leadership coach and creator of the nationally recognized program Career Coaching for Students™ . Career Coaching for Students is available as a district-wide high school program and in group and on-one-one offerings through certified career coaches throughout the United States, Canada and other countries. Contact Carl Nielson at carl@successdiscoveries.com or call 972-346-2892 to discuss specific needs.

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