The Young and The Feckless: Nothin' but Net(working)

J. Maureen Henderson
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It should come as no surprise to anyone who's been on the job search in the last two or three years that networking is now being held up as the be all and end all of job hunting strategies. Normally, I simply skim this ubiquitous and rather facile advice (it's on par with Cosmo beauty tips when it comes to regurgitating the same ol' same ol'), but this piece from the Wall Street Journal was effectively the straw that broke the camel's back. I think it was the use of voila. It's a recession, lady. There ain't a whole lotta voila-ing going on, ya dig?

What I want to know and what is never addressed by those who champion the power of leveraging your connections for employment aid is what about young people without networks? What are they supposed to do? Are they just SOL?

Photo by Richard-G

There are certain assumptions (both explicit and implicit) behind the network your way to a job mantra. The most obvious one being that you went to college. And not only did you go to college, you went to one with a strong alumni community and while you were there, you built connections and immersed yourself in campus life (joined clubs, volunteered, maybe did student government, built relationships within your program or dept.) and then maintained these connections after graduation. But what if you didn't go to college? Or you took distance classes? Or went part-time at night because of family responsibilities? And what if your school doesn't have a thriving alumni culture? Or what if you were too busy working three jobs to pay your tuition and rent to join societies and clubs? Or you have social anxiety that makes interpersonal contact with strangers feel akin to crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope made of dental floss? Or what if you do have a network, but they're concentrated on the other side of the country or in a field you'd like to get out of? Well, sucks to be you, say the job-hunting gurus.

The fact of the matter is that not everyone has a ready-made network that they can leverage to bolster their job-hunting efforts. Not everyone has the resources or the know-how at their disposal to build or tap into one. While the whole It's not what you know, it's who you know/who knows you trope has been around since we were living in caves and hiring our next-cave neighbor's nephew to built an extension on the back, the idea of the professional network as THE job-finding tool has only taken off in the last few years (growing in tandem with social media, I'd argue). Hiring practices were far from perfectly meritocratic before then, but people weren't casting networking as the holy grail of the job hunt. It could help of course, but you could still get in the door with a solid resume. Heck, every job I've ever gotten (save for the first after school one when a friend-of-a-family-friend needed an assistant to merchandise for a local dairy) has come from applying to public job postings. Credit dumb luck, strong experience or divine intervention, but the inside track was not at play. And I'm not exactly long in the tooth.

But the world has changed, you say. The economy crashed and social media soared. Fair enough. But I say that those who are doling out the job search advice need a wake-up call of their own. They need to understand that not everyone can check out their "college's or graduate program's database of alumni. Search for alumni employed by the firms you wish to join, and request an informational meeting." as the WSJ recommends. The people who have the resources to network? I guaran-damn-tee you that they're already out there networking. They don't need your tips or your bullet lists. These sisters and brothers are doing it for themselves (whether it actually lands them positions is another question entirely). The people who need advice on networking are those without networks, who don't have databases of alumni to scroll through or mentors in Corporate America or connections they've made through internships or via Twitter stalking. They're possibly starting from square one and they deserve to be enfranchised by and inducted into the magical reality of the familiarity-based hiring culture just like those whose mental rolodexes are overflowing with names and numbers of "internal allies and champions." Start talking to these people and discovering their varied job search needs. And start aiming your well-meaning articles, posts and Good Morning, America soundbytes at them. Or better yet, figure out the communication channels the unnetworked are using and meet them on their own turf.

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11 Comments Have Been Posted


"Or you have social anxiety that makes interpersonal contact with strangers feel akin to crossing the Grand Canyon on a tightrope made of dental floss?"

Or what if you were so desperate to get away from some of the fucks you knew in college that you can't bring yourself to "network," no matter how beneficial it could be?

Maybe I'm just too neurotic, but networking to me is the opposite of building respect and trust, and while someone I don't trust or respect might help me land a job, I'm inclined not to want to tell them when I'm strapped for cash, desperate for gainful employment, etc. Isn't all this networking bullshit supposed to be about projecting an image of success anyway? Ugh.

Re: Or...

Heh. I come up against the "image of success" thing, too, but I think it's personal branding (or what I call "peeing all over the internet to mark your territory") wherein you're supposed to project the aura of supreme confidence and competence. But humbling one's self in the job hunt (thereby priming the pump for others to exercise their magnanimity by coming to your aid) is apparently networking de rigueur. It raises all sorts of weirdness about power dynamics, autonomy, etc. that really do merit discussion. Ugh indeed.

Glad this was written.

Because honestly, networking never helped me any.

I actually did/do have crippling social anxiety in college which prevented me from getting to know my peers. And while my school does have a strong alumnae network, every time I tried to connect with someone, like Brittany kind of pointed out, it felt a lot more like begging than I was comfortable with. And even then, all I got was standard job advice that I could have found in any book--never anything like a job, like some of my classmates got from their contacts.

And the few times I did get something more than tips, and something more along the lines of a job offer, nothing came to fruition--most memorable among them was my aunt's realtor's daughter, who is in publishing. I contacted her first for industry advice (again, very standard and everything I already knew) and then again with my resume when a position in her firm became available. She sent it along, and I didn't even get an interview. I know, it's publishing, and you need internships to get ahead, which I didn't have--partly because of lack of connections--but still.

How I got the job I have now: they found my resume on Monster and called me. And I didn't have a single in. And I'm lucky enough to have gone to a school with a strong alumnae association. WTF?

it's always been

i agree with your complaints (i can't network and it's one reason why after graduating with a film production degree i was unable to work in that field). and the 'who you know' factor has fostered institutionalized racism/sexism/classism.

but i don't think it's true that networking wasn't thrown out as the holy grail of jobhunting. i think it's always been considered The Way to get a good job.

Re: it's always been

I agree that networking has always been in the mix, but I think there was still acknowledged room for landing a job on the strength of your qualifications and skills. Rhetorically, these aspects are now being swept under the carpet and the talk has more or less morphed into network or die.

I think the personal

I think the personal branding and social networking dialog is skewed towards people with college degrees because that's frankly where the money is. That's the audience with the most competition too because everyone's in debt (unless their parents are loaded) and everyone's looking for work and trying to get an edge. Hence why there are so many snake oil sales people out there selling secrets to social networking. Bullshit-pedalers they be.

I think the people that NEED social networking skills more than anyone and can apply them creatively and outside of the institutional box that it's been framed in. People who sell goods and services that aren't college educated can benefit from all of this. It's just the college educated stories are more glamorous.

However, if these people who don't have access to personal networking expertise are not open to it either, then it's all equal. I've done work with very small businesses, like mom and pop flower stores, picture framers, landscapers, etc. A small percentage of them buy the idea of social networking in a progressive manner. Most of them pay high fees to join chambers of commerce, BNI's and other (what I find to be) corny networking groups. The zero cost options of Twitter, Linkedin, Facebook low cost options of blogging all come with a learning curve that is frowned upon.

The thing that pisses me off is when people want a simple, one size fits all social media solution to their business. They don't want to take the time or invest what's needed into it. That is why they look foolish when they go and buy 10thousand followers and Tweet bullshit all day long.

I guess your frustration seems to be that the idea of social networking hasn't diffused to the masses yet and therefor isn't relevant or something like that. I can appreciate that you might think it's an elitist sort of endeavor, but that's usually what doing anything innovative is going to be associated with. Once it's accessible to everyone, like a telephone or light-bulb, then it'll be just like applying to a job through a job board.

Then someone will have to come up with a better idea to get ahead of the crowd. Around we go again.

Re: I think the personal

I’m not saying that social networking itself is elitist in its most neutral form (break it down and we’re just talking about community, social capital, etc., but in a corporatist context), nor would I argue against the fact that it yields results for many, many people, but the way it’s being held up as the key job search tool is highly presumptuous and problematic. It’s one thing to willfully shun networking as a strategy, but quite another not to have the tools and resources to network even if you were so inclined. That’s the population I’m most concerned with – those who would benefit from practical, tailored advice and an introduction to the basics of networking, but lack the access or resources to implement it as a strategy. And it’s these individuals and groups who are completely under-served (actually not served at all) by the current hype/dialogue/discussion around networking. The people who are ready, willing and able to network are either A) already doing so and don’t need the guidance or B) deciding not to because it isn’t relevant to the vagaries of their job search or they deliberately choose to opt out for their own reasons. There’s a big opportunity (both altruistic and business-related) to reach out to the unnetworked population and to equip those who seek them with the tools and resources to join their well-connected peers in the networking-for-upward-mobility fray. Information interviews and business card swapping for all!

Well, add that to the

Well, add that to the financial literacy courses that most don't have access to. Yes, this knowledge is very useful for life skills in general and everyone should have access. Do I sense a non-profit foundation coming on? First one to register a name gets to be executive director ;-)

My cat is in my network

Networking isn’t solely about a college network. It’s about having a social network, and that is your relatives, your friends, your co-workers, and your managers--even if they are all former relatives, friends, co-workers, and managers. The point is that by having a wide network you can get information about opportunities from more sources just by asking people who know you. And then you might find someone working at a company which is hiring who can help you get past just being another application.

Having a network that you utilize to find a job isn’t necessary, but it helps. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say it was necessary to get a job. It’s just that when you get a job using those means, “leveraging your network”, you’re going to extol the benefits of having one. It also helps to come from an atmosphere that pounds that idea into your head, so, like was explained in the post, you’re already doing all these step and don’t need the advice. How to build a network would be definitely be a far more interesting read than why to have one.

Re: My cat is in my network

"How to build a network would be definitely be a far more interesting read than why to have one."

AMEN! That's exactly the sort of info that's not only more interesting, but sorely lacking.

And while the WSJ piece focused mostly on education-based networks, there is definitely attention paid to the idea of making everyone in your acquaintance (from former supervisors to the checkout clerk at Kroeger) aware of your job search, which, as was pointed out in a previous comment, is problematic when contrasted with the idea of putting on a successful front.

Networking is the real "N" word.

I detest networkers. No, I am not socially inept. I was a fraternity president at a top tier private school and a raconteur. Having said that, I have never networked and have resisted the advice/pressure to do it during my occasional unemployment periods. If I perceive that someone is trying to network me, I usually ignore them unless they are persistent enough to annoy me. Then, I try to find a way to pay them back for the waste of my time.

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