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Career Launch: Strategies for Young HR Professionals

Moving from college to career is exciting. It can also be daunting, as you take steps toward independence and begin the professional activities that will occupy a great deal of your time and energy in the years and decades ahead.

When a project seems overwhelming, a process can help! The following articles outline the three distinct stages—Plan, Prepare and Propel—of the job-finding process. They can be your guide today and in the future as you navigate ever-changing career waters.

Part I: Plan

Before launching any aspect of your job search, take some time for reflection and planning. Your reward? You'll be prepared when opportunities (and good fortune) start coming your way.

1. Set your career goal.

Even within a specific field like human resources, entry-level/early-career jobs are quite diverse. Do you want to gain HR generalist experience, or are you interested in a specific function, such as data analyst or compensation analyst? Does recruiting feel like a good fit, or is learning and development where your heart lies?

If you're unsure how HR roles differ, or unclear about your preference, take some time to consult your network (college career center, friends' parents, parents' friends, neighbors, professors, past employers, relatives). Anyone you know or can get to know through your network is a potential source of valuable information.

A great thing about HR is that the function exists in just about every organization—corporations and nonprofits, service industries and goods producers, global corporations and local businesses, and academic and government institutions. The more you talk with people who hold a variety of HR roles, the better you'll be able to define the type of position that will best suit you at this starting point of your career.

Some things you might ask as you are conducting this due diligence:

  • What does a typical day look like?
  • How do you spend most of your time?
  • What do you love about the job?
  • What frustrates you?
  • What skills do you use most often?
  • What skills do you wish were stronger?
  • Who do you interact with outside of HR?
  • At this company, how is HR involved with other areas of the business?
  • How did you get where you are today? What was your career path?
  • What surprises you about how your career has evolved?

Most people, you'll find, love to talk about their careers and will be happy to share helpful information with you.

 Pro Tip: If you’re concerned that setting a specific goal will limit your career options, here’s a paradox: When you set a broad goal in an attempt to appeal to many, often you don’t appeal strongly to any. You look like a mediocre candidate for lots of jobs. When you have a specific goal—the type of job and the kinds of work you’ll do, the type of company and culture, perhaps the industry or location—you can position yourself as a great candidate for that specific goal. What’s more, you’ll immediately make yourself attractive for other, similar opportunities that fit the same general parameters and tap into your core skills and interests.

2. Identify what you have to offer.
Now that you've decided in which direction you'd like to steer your career (at least for now), it's time to turn your thinking around. Rather than musing about what you're interested in, think about things from the employer's view: Why would they be interested in you?

The first and most basic comparison you can make is from relevant job postings. What specific qualifications are required for the jobs you're interested in? Peruse a handful of postings and highlight the skills, experience and attributes the employers are looking for. Add to it the things that you learned from earlier research and conversations. Visit the employment websites of your target companies and see what they say about their mission and culture.

Now, make a list of your skills, experiences and attributes—both to confirm that your target jobs are a good fit and to begin the process of developing your career marketing materials. (We'll be talking about those materials—resume, LinkedIn profile and cover letter—in the next article, Part II: Prepare.)

Your list will likely include hard skills, qualifications, and soft skills.

  • Hard Skills: Job-related knowledge and abilities—what you need to know and know how to do in order to perform the job.
    Examples: Data analysis, advanced Excel, public speaking, knowledge of a specific applicant tracking system, understanding of behavior-based interviewing, candidate sourcing skills.
  • Qualifications: Minimum requirements and credentials.
    Examples: College degree (perhaps with a specific major), 2 years' experience performing similar job functions, a particular professional certification.
  • Soft Skills: Personal qualities that enable you to thrive in the workplace.
    Examples: Communication and interpersonal skills, problem-solving abilities, team orientation, leadership talents, flexibility and adaptability, work ethic, curiosity, initiative.

The process of matching what you have to what the employer wants will help confirm your career goal and give you a great starting point for pursuing those jobs.

 Pro Tip: Soft skills are just as important in hiring as hard skills and qualifications—sometimes even more so. Soft skills are what will make you a great employee. And often they are intrinsic—they can't easily be taught. Especially in the early stages of your career, where your relevant work experience is minimal or nonexistent, employers will evaluate you based on your future potential rather than primarily on past performance. So it will be important for you to express those intrinsic qualities in your written materials and in interviews once you begin your job search.

3. Create a support and accountability team.
Looking for a job is hard work, and it's often discouraging. You can prepare for this reality by pulling together a small group of people who can serve as advisors, resources and supporters.

Your parents and other family members might be great additions to this team, but sometimes they're too close to be objective. Others you might consider:

  • College career center advisor or other professional in the career services field.
  • Friend, relative or friend of the family who works in HR.
  • An older sibling (yours or a friend's) who launched a career a few years ago.
  • Someone you like who is successful in any field.
  • A retired person—someone with a wealth of wisdom and experience.

Ask each prospective team member if they'd be willing to advise you throughout your search. Promise not to overwhelm them, and assure them you're not asking them to find you a job. Most likely, they'll be honored to be asked and happy to share their wisdom. And you'll start your job search with confidence, knowing you have people to turn to who can help you solve every problem that arises.

 Pro Tip: Don't forget to share your progress and good news, along with questions and problems, with your support team. When they see you taking their advice, learning from rookie mistakes and making progress, they'll be even more committed to helping you reach the finish line.

With planning under your belt, it's time to move into the next part of the process: Prepare.

Part II: Prepare

You're eager to begin your job search. You've defined your target, you've cross-checked your qualifications, and you see opportunities that excite you. But before you can leap into action, you must first prepare your career marketing materials: your resume, cover letter and LinkedIn profile. The guidelines in this article will help—but also be sure to investigate other resources, including:

  • Articles, resume templates, and other information on the SHRM website—vetted, valuable resources and the best source for HR-specific information.
  • Your college or university career center—resources, services, and expertise available, free of charge, to students and alumni.
  • Thousands of blog posts, LinkedIn postings, media interviews, and other articles written by or featuring career experts—most offering sound and valuable information (but do read critically and look for confirmation from more than one source).
  • Books that provide strategies and examples for writing your career documents and managing your search—great inspiration and loads of practical advice (make sure they are fairly current, published no more than 4-5 years ago).

The following strategies will help as you choose what to include in your documents, how to say it and how to distinguish your resume (and yourself) from every other candidate.

1. Write Your Success Stories
Not everyone has a long list of traditional "accomplishments"—numbers and results from past jobs and leadership experiences. But everyone has success stories—specific examples of problems they've solved, challenges they've overcome, situations when they had to step up. Your unique success stories are valuable for several reasons:

  • They provide evidence of your abilities. It's easy for any job candidate to say, "I have good problem-solving skills." It's much harder for many to provide examples of those skills. When you feature your success stories in your resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile and interviews, you reveal a great deal of valuable, concrete and provable information about yourself.
  • They distinguish you from other candidates with similar qualifications. Everyone who applies for a job meets (or should meet) the basic requirements. Your success stories will make you stand out because they are specific, memorable and unique to you.
  • They are interesting! Lengthy lists of job duties and generic skills summaries are, let's face it, rather boring. You will keep the interest of your readers/listeners if, instead of reciting skills, you tell a story.

In writing your success stories, focus on the specific skills that you will use on the job. For every skill, try to come up with three or four examples of when you used those skills. A helpful framing format is to use the CAR Story approach. CAR stands for Challenge–Action–Result, and that is exactly the formula you should follow as you prepare each story:

C—What was the challenge or problem or situation? Provide just enough detail to put readers/listeners in the picture—so they understand the context of your story and appreciate why it was a problem.
A—What did you do about it? Here is where you describe your approach, the skills you used, what factors you considered and how you went about implementing the solution.
R—What were the results or outcome? Whenever possible, include numbers or other hard results.

Your CAR stories can be used in many ways throughout your job search: in your resume (typically a much-abbreviated version, sometimes just the results); in your cover letter and LinkedIn profile (citing a few brief examples that illustrate the key skills you want to get across); and in interviews (sharing more detailed stories to provide insight into your problem-solving approach and evidence of your future value).

 Pro Tip: CAR stories are particularly effective at illustrating the soft skills that indicate you will thrive on the job. You're not just claiming to have a particular skill (e.g., leadership or initiative or work ethic); you're sharing an example of when, how and why you used that skill and the positive results.

2. Highlight What the Employer Is Looking For
Of course, your success stories need to be relevant. They need to showcase the specific skills that you will use on the job.

Your work in the Plan stage uncovered the hard skills, qualifications and soft skills that employers are seeking for the jobs you're interested in. Now, take some time to recall, draft and polish several success stories for each of those skills and qualifications.

 Pro Tip: One success story can often be adapted to showcase different skills. Let's say one of your CAR stories described how you stepped up when a project was floundering and led it to success. That single story might illustrate skills in different areas: leadership, communication, problem solving, initiative, technology aptitude, creativity and more. First write your story with one skill in mind; then edit to highlight a different skill. You'll find it's not all that difficult to come up with many different stories to support your core abilities.

3. Draft Your Documents
When you write your resume, start with a clear picture of your dream job. As you are choosing the material to include, ask yourself how relevant it is to the dream job. If it's relevant and important, make sure it is prominent in the resume. If it's less important, it can be minimized or even omitted.

Write a template cover letter that you can customize and adapt for individual job opportunities.

Create content for your LinkedIn profile that reveals a bit more than your resume about who you are, what you love to and how you got where you are today. Your writing can be less formal, more conversational. Share some of your success stories to give readers an idea of how you go about solving problems.

Once you've completed your drafts, you can ask your support team for feedback. You will likely get many opinions—and different opinions! Weigh all of the feedback and edit your documents as appropriate. 

Careful proofreading is an important final step. Check for spelling and grammatical errors … formatting glitches … awkward wording … anything that will create an immediate "thumbs down" reaction from readers. Your resume, letter, and LinkedIn profile are important first-impression messages. You want to come across as professional, knowledgeable, and in tune with current standards and practices.

Pro Tip: Be prepared to customize your resume and cover letter for individual opportunities. In many cases the changes will be minor, but it is a smart strategy to carefully compare yourself to the picture of the ideal candidate that is shared in a job posting or other description. You should not have to rewrite extensively, but do take the time to make small changes to position yourself more strongly.

You've sharpened your ax, and you're ready to take advantage of every opportunity that comes your way. Now you can move on to the action phase of launching your career. Part III: Propel is next, and it will give you strategies and guidelines for putting all of your planning and preparation to work.

Part III: Propel

How do you start? There's no defined path or automatic 10-step process for finding a job. You'll need to take action in a variety of areas and keep several initiatives moving forward at the same time. Focus on the steps below to help drive continuous progress toward your goal.

1. Get Organized.
You'll be doing a lot of e-mailing and uploading, messaging via LinkedIn, sending texts, and making phone calls. It is a challenge to keep track of all that activity, but it is essential. Otherwise, you might miss out on potential opportunities, or you could damage your professional image with potential employers and helpful network contacts.

Use whatever system works best for you: a spreadsheet (probably the easiest method), a text document, an app or tool, or a simple notebook. Record when you send a resume, which version of the document you used, to whom you sent it, and notes/dates for follow-up. Keep a list of your network contacts and make notes whenever you interact with them.

Pro Tip: This is probably the most tedious part of the entire job-search process, but if you establish a method and stick to it, you'll be rewarded by having vital information at your fingertips. Your entire search will be smoother and less frustrating.

2. Respond to Posted Job Openings
Applying to posted jobs is a widely available but only semi-effective job-search strategy. Because it's easy, anyone can do it. Most openings have dozens, if not hundreds, of candidates, so it's hard to rise to the top. Think of this activity as something that is relatively quick and easy for you to do regularly but is not the only, or even most effective, way to spend your time.

Develop a consistent process:

  • Pick your spots. Identify a handful (not dozens) of sites that you'll scan for jobs. Ideally, set up job alerts so you are notified when appropriate openings are listed. This article can help you choose your sites: Career Sherpa's 33 Best Job Search Websites To Use In 2021.
  • Read each posting carefully and respond only if you're well-qualified and truly interested.
  • Compare your resume to the posting and make appropriate changes for a better match.
  • Customize your cover letter to the job and, if known, the company. (Always send a cover letter, even if it's optional.)

Pro Tip: Lift yourself above the horde of applicants by getting a personal referral. After viewing a posting, tap into your network to see if you can find a connection to the company. If so, contact that person and ask for a referral—or even just to share information about the company. Without a recommendation, you are one in a crowd. When you are referred, you are virtually guaranteed a conversation, if not an interview.

3. Let Your Network Help You
You might have heard that networking is your best route to a new job. That's true—and it's true at every stage of your career. Good networking skills are an asset you can use today and many years into the future.

What do we mean by networking? In essence, it means "talking to people." Perhaps more specifically, "talking to people with a purpose." Your purpose, ultimately, is to land a job, and it's likely that your network will be the path to that job. But that doesn't mean you should approach everyone you know and ask if they know of any jobs for you. You won't find that method very effective.

Instead, your purpose in networking is to make your contacts aware of what you're looking for and what you have to offer. You can do that, quite easily, by engaging them in conversation about their careers, their work experiences, their knowledge of a specific job function or company or industry.

Tap into what people do (their careers) and what most everyone loves to do (give advice).

Start your networking with your closest circle of friends and relatives—people who like you and want you to succeed. Ask them if they have a few minutes to share some advice with you. You can set up the meeting via text or e-mail, but hold the actual conversation on the phone or in person. Here are some script ideas:

Can you give me some advice? I'm about to graduate with a degree in business, and I've decided that I'm most interested in a career in Human Resources—specifically, I want to do data analysis within an HR department. I know you've worked for many years at [name of target company], so I wonder if you could share what it's like to work there.

I wonder if you'd have a few minutes to share some wisdom with me. I'm about to graduate with a degree in business, and I'm pursuing HR jobs, specifically in the hiring area. I'd love to get advice from your perspective as a recruiter. I want to be sure I know what I'm getting into.

Two golden rules of networking will help you get the most from this valuable process:

  1. Never ask your contacts for something they can't give—such as a job. Ask them to share advice, ideas, leads, referrals, wisdom, experience—things they can give and are probably happy to share.
  2. Make it a two-way street. If you can offer something specific to your contact, that's great. Even if you can't, offer to return the favor in the future.

When you meet, be prepared to share your career goal—what you're looking for, why it's a good fit, and a brief synopsis of the educational/work/life experiences that led you to your current goal. Listen to what your contact tells you—what advice, wisdom and insights they are sharing. Take notes and ask intelligent follow-up questions. Ask what they recommend you do next—and be sure to follow their recommendations. Then you can report back and perhaps schedule another conversation.

Pro Tip: Most people love to give advice and truly want to help people they know and like. You are giving them that opportunity, and it is likely to be as satisfying to them as it is helpful to you. So never hesitate to ask. Again, don't ask your contacts if they know of any jobs. If they don't, they'll feel bad about saying no. If they do, they will speak up.

4. Increase Your Exposure to Potential Opportunities.
Put your antennae up! Increase the flow of information coming your way by hunting down and reading HR-related articles, posts from leaders in your industry and at your target companies, and general business information that will alert you to what's going on. Follow industry leaders on LinkedIn. Look into SHRM events that you can attend. See if there is an HR professional organization in your area that you can join to make local connections.

You can never tell where or when a specific job lead might occur. By extending your web of contacts and sources of information, you multiply your ability to uncover leads. When you are referred for an opportunity, you automatically have one foot in the door. Next, it's up to you to convert that lead into a job offer.

Pro Tip for Job-Search Success: Keep things in perspective. Quiz the experienced professionals in your network, and you're likely to hear some variation on this theme: "I never thought I'd end up where I am today."

It's great to set ambitious goals and even better to create a plan to achieve them. But careers often take unexpected turns. Opportunities arise and disappear; companies are bought and sold; personal situations change; interests shift. You can envision your future, plan for it, and start to take the steps toward it. Just don't be surprised if you don't end up tomorrow where you think you want to go today.

This is not meant to discourage you! Rather, it's to encourage you to go for your goal, but be prepared for that goal to change as you gain experience in your career and in life. With every shift in your career, take time to reflect, re-establish your goal or set a new goal, and follow the same steps to achieve it: Plan, Prepare and Propel. It's a formula that will help you make wise choices as you steer your career in the direction that will give you the greatest personal and professional happiness.