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Looking for a job? Know your potential employer before you're interviewed

It's the time of year when spirited young women and men graduate from the joyous, beer-soaked, afternoon-napping-allowed world of college and enter the soul-crushing, coffee-soaked, afternoon-napping-frowned-upon world of work.

I kid, of course — graduates, you'll love the real world! (No, you won't. ... Return to school immediately. ... I haven't had fun in 20 years. Please take me with you!!)

As most of you know, the first post-graduation step is to get the throw-up off the shoes you rented for your graduation ceremony. The next is to get a job, which is unfortunate because there aren't quite as many of those as there used to be.

I consulted with job search experts and business owners to come up with some pragmatic tips for young job seekers — not the "add some zazz to your resume!" or "make sure to wear a power tie" type of advice. Concrete, sensible stuff that fits the modern business world.

Tom Walter is head of a company called Tasty Catering and co-author of the coming book It's My Company Too! He said the vast majority of companies that are hiring are smaller ones with fewer than 500 employees. Yet many college graduates are still being taught job search and interview approaches tailored for large, monolithic corporations.

Smaller businesses, Walter said, tend to look for employees they believe will fit into the company's culture — they're "hiring for attitude."

"If you're looking for a job, you don't want to just take something that comes along," he said. "You need to find a place that matches your core values. That's a place where you'll be recognized, and that's a place where you'll have a better chance of getting hired."

This requires research. Simply applying for every job you hear about isn't going to get it done. You need to take some time, reflect on what inspires you, talk to people in the field about what they do and then start finding companies that match your desires.

"What they should do is investigate the company and deeply dive into it and figure out if their personal skills and values line up," Walter said. "Ask about the culture, ask about core values, ask about how they measure your performance.

"We had this young man come in here once for an interview, and he knew about our culture and he said what was important to him was that he be respected from the day he starts working. That was clearly a differentiator. That stood out."

The young man got the job.

So the lesson here is that before you find work, you've got to do work. And if it goes right, you'll wind up in a job that's a good fit, which is a rare feat for a person just out of college.

Along with researching the daylights out of companies, graduates need to network like never before. Talk to alumni, friends of family, friends of friends, strangers you meet on the street. (Okay, maybe not that last one.)

Kathy Ver Eecke, a marketing expert who works with early stage startups, suggests finding the heads of smaller companies on social media and interacting with them. Comment on their tweets or shoot them links to stories you think might be of interest. Ask whether you can meet them for coffee or try to set up an informational interview.

She suggests that candidates "express enthusiasm for the business that borders on obsession." Smaller companies are looking for people who are driven, informed and can bring something to the table right off the bat.

Given the competitive nature of the job market, you might have to settle for part-time opportunities or contract work at first. But remember, anything you do, whether it's paid or volunteer, provides critical experience and opens more networking doors.

Once you land an interview with a target company, be prepared to ask questions that show you care not just about the job but also about the company's character.

"If you come in just like every other person and talk the applicant talk, the stuff many 45-year-old people are telling college students to do, that's not going to work," Walter said. "You need to ask questions like: What are your core values and what does your company stand for? How do you make your culture work? As an employee, what would your organization judge me on most?"

Don't ask questions like this just to suck up to the interviewer. You should be asking them earnestly, because if your beliefs and desires line up with the company's, you'll be a far better and happier worker. Fresh out of college, this is the right time to figure out what you need to feel fulfilled at work. It gets harder to do that later in life.

Walter summed it up nicely in a recent post on his blog, "Thomas J Walter The Serial Entrepreneur" ( thomasjwalter.com): "As a graduate trying to gain employment, screen companies for their ability to provide you an income, but join a company that shares your attitude and core values. Skills can be taught to an individual, but an individual's attitude can rarely be changed."

I came out of college, believe it or not, as a chemical engineer. I worked, miserably, for several years before realizing that writing was my passion. It took several more years to find my path, but once I got there I never looked back.

And now I'm American's most beloved workplace advice columnist, self-declared.

So regardless of how cheesy it might sound, find what drives you. Then find the job that matches and go after it like a rabid bulldog.

And if you decide to return to college, give me a shout. I'm totally gonna crash on your futon.

Looking for a job? Know your potential employer before you're interviewed 05/19/12 [Last modified: Saturday, May 19, 2012 4:30am]
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