Visiting with about 20 recent graduates of Baruch College in Manhattan, Donna Sweidan asked who had participated in events held by the college's alumni club.
"Almost no one had been involved," said Sweidan, a career counselor and coach from Stamford, Conn. All the graduates from Baruch, the City University of New York's main business school, attended the recent meeting to discuss strategies for job hunting. But they weren't taking into account the maxim, "It's not what you know, it's who you know," by seeking out other graduates of their alma mater.
It's not impossible to find a job by replying to Internet job postings or other methods, Sweidan said, but it's much easier to mount a search for a new or better job through people with whom you already have a relationship. "I think that's where a lot of people fall short, is that they don't realize how important it is to engage in active networking activities," she said, estimating that 75 percent of people find their job through personal connection.
The unemployment rate is at 6.1 percent and has been growing fairly steadily since mid-2007, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"Who you know" soon may become an even more important factor in a job search, as competition for jobs becomes even tougher in the weakening economy.
Always "make sure you're building and nurturing a network before you ever need one," said Jocelyn Lincoln, an executive with Kelly Services, the Detroit, Mich.-based staffing agency.
Many people hesitate to use professional connections to generate job leads, but Sweidan said it's the approach that matters, not the fact that you're asking someone for help. "You don't go out and ask, 'Do you have a job for me?' That's the worst thing that anybody can say," she explained. "You want to go out there to cultivate relationships."
But as you're getting to know someone, make it clear you are looking for a new spot, and you could find a hidden job market — jobs that are not advertised. Sweidan recommends asking contacts for a brief meeting to share advice, rather than to help you find a job.
One step that brings together traditional face-to-face networking with more modern methods is inviting new contacts to join an online business-related network like LinkedIn. Launched in 2003, Linked-In has more than 30-million users.
Debby Afraimi, a recruiting consultant in the New York, encourages job hunters to join professional groups and networking organizations. But she doesn't think a face-to-face relationship is needed before seeking help from someone you find online.
"We really are sort of a short attention span culture and I think that getting straight to the point is what we do," Afraimi said. "I just think the key lies in how you make the approach, not so much what you're asking for in the first e-mail." Make sure your note doesn't appear to be a mass e-mail or generic, she said, and reference something you've learned about the person in your first contact.
5 steps to more effective networking
1Find one or more groups that interest you and volunteer. It could be an alumni group, a professional organization related to your current job or the career you aspire to, or even a civic organization. Offering to assist will get you engaged and give you an opportunity to showcase some of your skills while cultivating relationships, says career coach Donna Sweidan.
2Use the Internet to your advantage. Sign up for discussion forums on professional organization's Web site, register with business networking sites like LinkedIn.com and Ryze.com, or search sites like Meetup.com for groups that interest you or even start your own. Search the sites you join for contacts and invite people you meet to join. After you establish online relationships, move toward trying to meet new contacts face-to-face.
3Develop a plan to market yourself that goes beyond your resume. Research the field you're interested in or the companies you'd like to work for, and use that information to ask questions when you meet people in the industry. Try to come away from any meetings with the name of someone else to contact.
4Ask for advice, not a job. If you meet someone who works for a company you're interested in or a field you'd like to enter, "The last thing you want to do is ask for a job," Sweidan said. "You want to ask for advice." Send an e-mail and ask for a brief meeting to discuss the best ways to work toward your goal. "People don't necessarily have a job for you, so they'll feel helpless and they can't help you," she said. "If you're just looking for advice, they can help you."
5Don't badger people. Persistence is key, but some people might not be interested or able to help you. Sweidan suggests sending a follow-up query to someone who did not respond to a first request to meet about a week after the first, and then just one more some time later. If they don't get back to you, move on.