It's Still Who You Know...

  • Michael Kim, 27, a violinist turned first-year finance-and-information-management student, has gone high tech to get help in landing that perfect job after graduation from the business school at the University of Texas at Austin. He is using an online service called BranchOut--not to look at help-wanted ads but to network with other professionals in the world of finance who might be able to point him in the right direction. The website offers Kim a nationwide choice of 40,000 potential tipsters, organized by school, industry, company, geography and job function. Kim spent barely two hours tapping out 25 e-mails to outline his needs; the very next day, he got five answers from knowledgeable guides who were willing to offer him advice or job suggestions. "This online network is kind of cool and very futuristic," says Kim. "And you can talk to these people and ask them important job questions with just the press of a button."

    In the booming U.S. economy, with unemployment at lows not seen since the late 1960s, it's easy to forget that job hunting is still one of the most important rites of adult life--maybe now more than ever. High-tech whizzes and software wonks may be snapped up barely out of their mother's womb. But the structure of working life has changed to the point that virtually everyone will be looking for a new job--and the people who can help them get it--far more often than in the past. Since the downsizing of the early 1990s and the blitzkrieg arrival of the New Economy, millions of Americans have come to realize that they are not going to spend their life working for just one, two or even three different employers. In fact, the average number of job changes in a professional career is now hovering between eight and 10, and half of them are made by age 40, says John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a Chicago outplacement firm. And, of course, there is that all-important first job, as Kim's search suggests.

    When it comes to job hunting, the old bromide that it's not what you know, it's who you know is even more pertinent in a fast-moving, fluid economy. While Internetworking is about to become the wave of the future, even tried-and-true methods of touching base and gathering tips are useful--and perhaps even essential. There are no hard data on the networking phenomenon, but career consultants and outplacement specialists estimate that as many as 70% to 80% of the best jobs come from effective, consistent networking, as opposed to using headhunters, blind resume mailings and job ads. At the Harvard Business School, for example, 80% of alumni find jobs via networking, says Bob Gardella, assistant director of alumni career services.

    For all that, the job is as much art as science. "It's six degrees of separation. Within six people, you will probably meet someone who knows somebody that you know who can have a profound influence on your career," says Eva Wisnik, president of Wisnik Career Strategies, a New York City career consultancy. Adds Challenger: "Make up a list of the 25 people in your industry or your town whom you would want to work for and try to find the contacts who will get you to these people." Some other tips:

    --GIVE YOURSELF TIME If you are looking for a lower management position, it can take up to about six months of consistent networking on average to find the position you want, says Deborah Arron, a Seattle career consultant. A middle-management job could take up to one year, and an upper-management position could involve a two-year networking crusade.

    --JOINING IS NETWORKING Mingling with people who have formed an association around a common interest is as old a custom in job seeking as in politics. But be sure you are really willing to get involved. Consider Lawrence Tabas, 45, partner in the Philadelphia law firm of Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel LLP, whose passion for local politics helped land him his current position. Tabas was running as a Republican for a city-council seat in 1991 when the chairman of his current law firm, Marvin Weinberg, a staunch Democrat who was backing Tabas' opponent, took notice of his vigorous, well-endorsed campaign efforts. Weinberg ultimately lured Tabas away from his job at another law firm. "I love the thrill of politics and how much you can do to help people while you are in political office," says Tabas, who lost the race but still spends about 25% of his time on political activities. "But it also gives you the chance to meet all kinds of people who can become very important to you."

    The same can be said for charity work. Susan Riker Dolan, 41, a former nurse turned attorney, began volunteering at a hospice in Madison, Wis., in 1995. She started spending four hours a week comforting dying patients and their families. When she married and moved to her current home of Park Ridge, Ill., Dolan continued her volunteer work. She began spending time with hospice administrators, lunching with the executive director and assisting the group with volunteer training. Eventually she signed on as a marketing and promotions manager. "I can't wait to go to work each day," Dolan says. "I guess I was meant to do this."

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