SINGAPORE: When it became apparent that COVID-19’s economic impact would be prolonged, fresh graduate, Jasmine* braced herself for a long period of unemployment.
Her peers’ horror stories of previously offered jobs and internships being withdrawn and a lack of responses to applications caused her a great deal of anxiety, but she was not entirely ready to give up.
She did her research and identified hiring managers in specific departments of companies where her skills might be useful.
As a communications graduate, she had several transferable skills such as writing and crafting compelling messages. She highlighted these in her e-mails to them, sent them examples of work she had done as part of school projects, admitted to having little or no work experience, but asked them for a chance to get some through an apprenticeship.
Many companies she wrote to were not even overtly hiring. Out of 50 companies, three responded and one finally took her on as an intern for their in-house public relations team with a possibility of converting her three-month internship into a permanent position.
During the three-month period, Jasmine got a chance to learn from her more experienced colleagues, improve her skills and shine. She was finally offered a full-time position.
The current crisis has made the task of landing a job even more daunting.
While companies have started hiring again, they are generally more cautious as hiring mistakes are obviously costlier during continued economic uncertainty. Fresh graduates with virtually no work experience often say companies seem less willing to take a chance on them now than before.
The Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) labour market report shows the annual average youth unemployment rate was 10.6 per cent in 2020.
This is higher than during previous economic downturns — 8.8 per cent during the 2009 global financial crisis, and 9.3 per cent during the 2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) pandemic.
The figure would have been even higher had a number not taken on temporary positions, many of which were created under government-initiated schemes, such as the SGUnited Traineeships Programme.
News reports detailing the experiences of graduates from last year’s cohort show that the struggle is real in spite of an expected recovery.
Moreover, last year’s graduates will now have to compete with this year’s graduating classes.
Against this backdrop, approaches such as Jasmine’s have become necessary.
Most job seekers, especially fresh graduates, cannot afford to take the usual approach of scouring job boards and companies’ career pages, sending out hundreds of resumes and waiting to be called for an interview.
To make up for their lack of experience, they have to be highly strategic and proactive.
BUILDING A RESUME WITH NO WORK EXPERIENCE
When assessing candidates today, employers are looking for skills and capabilities that have become more important since the crisis.
Considering that even digital skills in demand today will need to be updated as the pace of technological advancements accelerates, employers are looking for individuals with learning agility.
This relates to both hard and soft skills. If while looking for a job, you also embarked on learning experiences that could help you do the job better, make sure you mention these in your resume.
According to an IBM survey with executives across 50 countries in 2019, the largest skills gaps were not digital but behavioural. These include complex problem solving, teamwork, leadership, communication, agility and adaptability.
Anything that demonstrates these traits should be highlighted in resumes.
Perhaps you overcame academic challenges with creative methods, led school projects and co-curricular activities teams or had other experiences that showcase traits such as problem solving, resilience and leadership.
Increasingly, employers want individuals keen on solving problems within their communities so volunteering or contributing to the community, including in industry associations, matters.
Such activities can also help you discover what you’re good at and provide opportunities to widen your network.
Fresh graduates should also author well-thought-out articles - industry-centric or reflecting their interests - on professional networking platforms, to give employers a better picture of who you are and what you stand for.
It is foolish to assume prospective employers won’t look you up on social media to get a glimpse of your personality, habits, behaviour and maturity level.
BE BOLD AND REACH OUT WITH SOLUTIONS
A good resume and online profile also need to be put in front of the right people. By the time a job is posted on career pages and job boards, it’s likely to be inundated with applications.
Instead of merely responding to job ads, reach out to relevant hiring managers and decision-makers in companies you want to work for, including those not currently advertising job vacancies.
Research their business challenges and write to them directly with your ideas for how to solve these and achieve their business goals in spite of the crisis.
This can make a lasting impression. If, with your skills and capabilities, you can help them execute these ideas, they would have a good reason to at least meet you.
In a 2017 TED talk, entrepreneur and talent expert Jason Shen described how he landed a job as a product manager at American e-commerce site Etsy.
“The company had recently gone public, so as part of my job application, I read the IPO filings from cover to cover and built a website from scratch which included my analysis of the business and four ideas for new features. It turned out the team was actively working on two of those ideas and had seriously considered a third," he said.
This landed him the job.
All job seekers should pursue this deft method for a position they really want as it shows you to be a problem-solver and more than just a resume. Likewise, during job interviews, be sure to demonstrate your ability to help employers solve their business challenges and meet their goals.
READ: Commentary: Here’s what Singapore’s human capital index in a world of disruption should look like
FORM MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS
Networking with the right people is a must.
A 2017 LinkedIn global survey found that 70 per cent of people were hired at a company where they had a prior connection.
Aside from the usual networks, fresh graduates shouldn’t hesitate to network directly with recruiters and employers to get access to jobs not widely advertised.
In interacting with people from the industry, take the approach of asking for career advice instead of asking for a job upfront.
For one, you can learn a lot about an industry or company. This can help sharpen your job search and possibly land you a trusted mentor who can vouch for you should an opportunity arise at their company or among their networks.
Second, by reaching out and making a connection, you show yourself to be proactive and action-oriented which is likely to make them remember you should they be looking to fill a position today or even in the future. This is why it’s important to form meaningful relationships that go beyond transactional interactions.
A TIME FOR SELF-DISCOVERY AND LEARNING
As you figure out how you can apply your skills to various job roles and industries, you are likely to discover skills gaps.
But instead of merely picking up new skills for the sake of landing a job, think about what you really want to apply yourself to. Perhaps you have an interest in digital marketing and just need to finesse your copywriting or design skills to land a job.
Discovering your aptitude and interests before identifying how they intersect with employability will allow you to apply for jobs you might actually enjoy and increase your career longevity.
Reflecting on what business or societal problems you’re keen on solving and what motivates you is a good start to deciding how you want to begin your career.
If needed, don’t hesitate to get help from experts such as career coaches. Organisations such as e2i and Workforce Singapore offer these free-of-charge.
As you identify your desired job, be open-minded. Most of us end up in professions we weren’t trained for in university, so look into developing transferable skills that can be applied to adjacent industries.
For instance, a journalist with writing skills could apply for corporate communications, public relations, or even advertising jobs. Always be open to the possibilities.
YOU DON’T NEED A JOB TO BUILD A PORTFOLIO
Not having a job doesn’t mean that your chances of accumulating experience and building a portfolio are non-existent.
You can build these on your own.
If you’d like a job in digital marketing, why not volunteer to help a friend market his or her home business? This can form a crucial part of your portfolio and shows employers that you are proactive about honing and growing your skills independently.
Self-awareness, boldness, adaptability and resilience are more important today than ever before to ensure that you survive and thrive amid ubiquitous change.
*Pseudonyms have been used in this commentary.
Jaime Lim is Group Business Leader of PeopleSearch, an executive search and outplacement services firm with a presence in six cities including Singapore.