When beginning any job search, which is essentially a process of getting oneself out of a comfort zone and extending ones’ reach, there is an implicit (and at times explicit) understanding that connecting with people you may not be used to connecting with is a part of the game. Before continuing, I will preface this with the point that what I’m about to say does not necessarily apply to all careers or job opportunities.
The first job I had was as a summer camp counselor for elementary school students, a typical job for a middle schooler in the environment I grew up in. I didn’t fill out lengthy applications for this job, or get multiple callbacks before receiving an in person interview, I simply stated that I was interested in the job and the adults who ran the summer camp hired me almost on the spot. Now, it may seem trivial to bring up a middle school job which was mostly just an opportunity to play some board games with campers and hang out with my buddies during our breaks. But the actual job is not the important part, it’s the process through which I got that job which is relevant.
Many lucrative, and I mean that in the broadest sense, jobs are filled through the vehicle of social networks. Whether you are an employee at a mom and pop store, or a privileged graduate student like I am, the way we tend to fill job vacancies is through the networks we have access to. While this point is arguable, as almost anything is, I doubt you’ll find many people who disagree. This, afterall, lines up with our idea of the “old boys network,” people in our inner circles tend to get priority over those that are not, it’s human nature. I had access to my summer camp job because I had a good relationship with the adults who ran the camp and they had actually been my counselors when I was an elementary school student myself, they had watched me grow up.
If we accept this as a positive, not normative, process then the question becomes how do we break into these networks. I believe most people have some experience being an outsider trying to break into an inner circle, in some senses we do this in our everyday lives when we try to find friends, start relationships, and become closer to our colleagues and peers. We are a social animal and we seek interaction to keep us happy and healthy. That’s fine, the problem for some of us, and I can only speak personally, is that the way we make these connections with others is through storytelling. Telling stories is how we connect with one another; good storytelling is how we identify the charismatic and the witty from the average and the mundane, almost by definition. I find this unfortunate because I consider myself a good candidate for many jobs but I cannot tell stories and this gives me great anxiety because I know I am expected to, especially in the social networks I am trying to break into. Networking is, afterall, the process of socializing among potential colleagues and peers. This is also why I consider myself a bad graduate student because I have not been able to network in the way I am supposed to.
I anticipate that the way I will finally land my first career-job is through informal connections that I make with peers and my success on whatever job I do get will be determined by how well I manage my relationships in these career networks. Sending out dozens (or hundreds) of applications is a necessary but not sufficient condition for many professional jobs and often times the real legwork of finding a job is not in how many positions one applies to, but the connections one makes along the way.
Again, I cannot speak for all Millennials, but being charismatic is not in my specific skillset and telling stories, even my story, is a daunting task when I do not have the luxury of spending time writing about it, as I do on this blog.
It’s possible that telling good stories is a product of age and experience, maybe being forced to be on the spot will activate an innate ability to entertain and be witty. That’s the hope anyway, to be honest, maybe I’ve been drawn to government service because it is seemingly the last environment that requires, encourages, and celebrates meritocracy over connections and networks/patronage. My educational background and achievements is a crutch in some respects, something to tout where I lack experience, connections, and charisma.
Maybe the national problem of youth unemployment can be partially solved by concentrating on the merits of our educational achievements and spending less time on the networking abilities and the charisma (or lack thereof) of potential workers. Maybe the way we look at and evaluate potential job candidates in this country needs to dramatically change in order to give those of my generation a fighting chance.