A Challenging Job Market for New Grads: How You Can Come Out on Top

Graduation is a happy day, but unless new grads are summa cum lucky, have the networking contacts of a Clinton or a Trump, or have an occupation-specific major, chances are they will face periods of frustration, self-doubt and failure in the days, weeks and months ahead.

Even though employers say they expect to hire 5.2 percent more new grads this year according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), that prediction is down from last fall when employers estimated they would increase hiring by 11 percent. New grads still face an unemployment rate roughly twice the overall average and stagnant wages according to a new study by the Economic Policy Institute. Look at New York City. The average 23-year-old earned $23,543 in 2014 compared to $27,731 in 2000, adjusted for inflation, according to a new report by New York City comptroller Scott Stringer. Plus many new grads come equipped with high student debt loads.

So what's a freshly minted BA to do?

In talking to over one hundred new and upcoming grads researching my new book, Graduate to a Great Career, How Smart Students, New Graduates and Young Professionals Can Launch Brand You, there were four habits that differentiated the winning job seekers from those who struggled in today's tough job market:

1. Focus on networking into the "hidden job market rather than endlessly browsing online job boards. Some 70 percent of jobs are gotten through networking according to the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, not through endlessly cruising job boards and filling out online applications, which is how most young professionals spend their time. Remember, online job applications only work when you have a near perfect match with the keywords in the job listing, which is difficult for new grads with limited job experience. A smarter strategy is to focus the majority of your time on networking and marketing activities to tap into the "hidden job market," the majority of the best jobs that are unadvertised and can only be discovered through networking and marketing activities.

2. "Follow" key executives and companies on social media. Today, you're as likely to build a career relationship on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook as in person. You don't want to work just anywhere, so put together a list of 20 dream companies and key players in each and start following them online. Byron Cordero, a 2015 grad, got his first job by building a relationship on Twitter with a key executive at one of his target companies. He began by following, then retweeting and sending direct messages. When there was a job opening, Cordero was invited to interview and got a job offer.

3. Seek out internships and certifications to get relevant skills. Today, occupation-specific majors like accounting, computer science and engineering have an advantage according to a study by the New York Fed. Gone are the days when you could major in philosophy, wait tables in the summer and land a good job after graduation - no prior relevant work experience required. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, internships are almost three times more important than grades or coursework in snaring a job. Why? Employers feel that actual job experience is the best predictor of career success. You can even do an internship a couple of days a week while job hunting. Plus there's a bonus: the majority of paid internships lead to a job offer according to NACE (The National Association of Colleges and Employers).

4. Approach the job hunt like an entrepreneur or marketer. The "product" you are selling is Brand You. Thinking like a brand means developing a marketing plan and a system for keeping track of job-hunting activities and next steps. If your cover letters, applications and interviews aren't going well, devise a new pitch or USP (Unique Selling Proposition) or improve your "product offering" with an online certification or internship to acquire a needed skill.

Getting a job offer is a mix of hard power strengths (degrees, internships, skills) and soft power ability (networking, image, personal branding, communications agility). You can't focus on one and neglect the other.

When the job outlook seems gloomy, put things in perspective. It usually takes ten to fifteen tries to get an interview, and maybe the same number of interviews to get a job offer. So, it's best to get started accumulating the rejections so that you get the job you've worked so hard to earn.

Catherine Kaputa is the author of the recently published, Graduate to a Great Career: How Smart Students, New Graduates and Young Professionals Can Launch Brand You. She is the founder of Selfbrand, a New York City personal branding company (selfbrand.com)