Networking & career changes

No matter where you are in your career, these tips can help you take the next step.

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Job networking

Whether you’re new to the workforce, an experienced professional, or looking for a career change, networking can be vital to your job search.

For young people

Young people may feel at a disadvantage when networking. If you haven't worked in your chosen profession for a long time, you'll need to build some connections from scratch. The good news is many people would be happy to talk to someone just starting out and find it flattering to be sought out for sage advice.

Reaching out to someone already doing what you'd like to do and asking about their experiences is a great way to start building your network. But there's a right way and a wrong way to go about it. The wrong way would be asking for a job or a referral before you've established a relationship. The right way takes some time.

Start by researching potential contacts. You may find them on LinkedIn® professional networking services, on business websites, as experts quoted in the media, or even through industry associations or clubs. Reach out to one or more of the people you identify and ask if they'd consider speaking to you, an up-and-coming go-getter, about their experiences. Then consider asking for advice or asking general career questions.

The next part is key—you must build and maintain the relationship by checking in regularly. Not necessarily to ask for advice, but to ask about them as a person, email articles about the industry, or send birthday or holiday wishes. Being likable and memorable helps people get to know you. Once they know you and like you, they may be happy to help when you're in the market for a new job.

Don't forget about relationships established in school too. Staying in touch with people you went to school with can help your friendships survive over time. It can also prove useful when you want to ask about any openings at that awesome organization they just started at.

For experienced professionals

Even experts in their fields can benefit from networking. It may be a little easier once you've been around the block a few times. You probably already have a long list of people who know you and your work well. As time passes, letting connections fade is easy, so work against that by keeping your relationships fresh. Get in touch regularly with little tidbits of industry information, relevant articles, or personal notes. If you send out holiday cards, that can be an easy way to remind friends and former colleagues of your relationship.

Expanding your network can be worthwhile too. Attend conferences or join professional organizations to meet new people in your field. Connecting with people outside of your profession can be helpful too. Join sports teams or go to meetups to meet people you wouldn't normally get the chance to interact with. Successful networking at this point in your career is about maintaining connections while expanding your circle over time.

For a career change

Transitioning to a new career can be challenging. Like workers who are starting out, people entering a new industry benefit from starting at the beginning. As a beginner, don't be afraid to ask people for help. Having an open mind and willingness to learn are strengths.

Consider reaching out to people who have interesting careers in your new field and ask about their experiences. Enroll in classes to further your skills and knowledge, which may also provide an opportunity to make new contacts for the future. Conferences and industry-related clubs and associations are a great place to meet people too.

Finally, don't discount job fairs. Colleges and trade schools often host these on campus so students can learn about the kinds of jobs out there and apply for open positions. Sometimes hours are available for nonstudents or, if you're feeling brazen, you could try to just go on in. Being prepared with a short pitch about yourself, plenty of energy, and a stack of resumes couldn't hurt.

Climbing the career ladder

  • Track your wins—Having rock-solid evidence that you're qualified for a more advanced position can go a long way. Start gathering a portfolio of your best work—especially work that improves the bottom line. Showcase projects that have been successful and praise you've received.
  • Be a team player—Strong references from your peers and your manager can reassure the person hiring you. Make yourself an indispensable part of a team: Volunteer to take on tasks, show initiative where you see improvements, and avoid gossip and other self-destructive behaviors.
  • Ask—Assuming you've established yourself as a reliable, high-achieving, drama-free employee, let management know that you're interested in moving up. This takes some humility.

Breaking into a new field

You may love your job—but not your boss. Or you may decide to shake things up and pursue a passion, or simply find a new professional mountain to climb. Here are some strategies for breaking into a new field.

  • Find opportunities where you are—Often, you may be able to gain relevant experience within your current job or industry. Volunteer to take on a new task or shadow someone in your organization. If you're a software engineer, for example, but really want to work in public relations, you may already have a relevant department or team to connect with. Getting a little experience could help you find an entry-level position that would typically require some exposure to the field—maybe even with your current employer.
  • Get certified—See if your current job offers opportunities to get certified in a skill that's translatable to a new field. Or use your off-work hours to pursue a degree or certification. Having a proven mastery of skills can make you a logical candidate for a new field.
  • Don't wait for permission—Breaking into a new field can be more complicated than moving up, because not all your experience is transferrable. But people change careers all the time, at every life stage. Identify some achievable steps that you can do now, like learning a new kind of software, setting up informational interviews, and subscribing to industry newsletters.

Before taking drastic steps, consider speaking with someone in the field already. They can offer insight into how difficult getting started may be. Changing industries often requires starting at the bottom, which could be daunting if you've gained some expertise in your current career.

Getting back to work after an extended leave

People take extended leaves from work for all kinds of reasons, and it's much more accepted than in the past. Build confidence with these tips.

  • Take advantage of free training—Online courses, volunteer opportunities, and internships can all offer valuable training and education. And this kind of self-directed learning may paint you positively as a proactive, curious, and ambitious professional.
  • Front-load your resume with your skills, then experience—A summary of your skills and strengths can establish your qualifications first—before a hiring manager even notices an employment gap.
  • Get your story straight—Prepare in advance for how you'll answer the inevitable questions. Think about how you'll account for an extended leave and practice telling the story. A short, clear, and well-rehearsed explanation can quiet the alarm bells in a hiring manager's head while also making you more relatable and nuanced as a candidate. Focus on the skills you continued to use while out of the workforce and how you'll apply them in your new job. Remember that volunteering and other activities can provide relevant context and experience as well.
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