Rarely have recent college graduates faced an employment landscape as tumultuous as the current one.
As job openings have returned to pre-pandemic levels, competition for entry-level positions remains fierce. Recent grads are up against not just each other, but also those who waited out the pandemic in graduate school and more experienced workers who have been laid off.
The Wall Street Journal spoke with five workers in their mid-20s who have pursued careers in fields from engineering to entrepreneurship. Despite disparate goals and backgrounds, they agree that the key to any successful job hunt is relationships.
Here are tips from young workers who have chased childhood passions professionally, networked even when it felt intimidating and unearthed opportunity where they didn’t expect it.
Sergio Santamaria, data analyst, Detroit Pistons
A childhood obsession with basketball led Mr. Santamaria to study sports management and data science. As an intern with the NBA’s Houston Rockets, he tracked stats, filmed games, contributed to scouting reports and wiped down the occasional floor.
He says that understanding the challenges facing the industry you’re hoping to work in—and then positioning yourself as a person with the skills to address them—is key to landing a job in a coveted field.
“I was really aware that the NBA was shifting more and more toward analytics and technology,” he says. “I knew having those skills would serve me really well as a candidate for a job.”
Read more from Mr. Santamaria:An Obsession With Sports Turned into a Career as an NBA Data Analyst
Cheyenne Chapel, set dressing technical director, Pixar Animation Studios
Ms. Chapel always loved disappearing into the immersive worlds of animated movies and games. Now, as a set modeler and dresser for Walt Disney Co.’s Pixar Animation Studios, she builds the digital assets—buildings, vehicles, landscapes—that conjure vivid environments where moviegoers lose themselves.
She brings a technical background to her job, but credits the sense of wonder she felt watching animated movies as a child with maintaining her motivation for the job hunt.
“Keeping that same energy that you had when you’re a kid and translating that to the application process, even though I know it can be difficult and rough, it will all work out just as long as you keep trying,” says Ms. Chapel.
Read more from Ms. Chapel: A Childhood Love of ‘Toy Story’ Led to a Job at Pixar
Josh Belinsky, co-founder, Slate Milk
Mr. Belinsky started working as a golf caddie when he was eight years old, and after a string of internships and a job at a tech startup during college, he was well positioned for a successful sales career after graduation. Instead, he decided to launch his own business in 2018, co-founding Slate Milk, which makes ultrafiltered, lactose-free chocolate milk.
He relied on his ability to form relationships on the job hunt and recommends that college students and graduates—even those who may lack his gift for gab—do so as well.
“Just start talking to people,” he says. “I would joke in my cold emails to people, ‘I’m a third-year in college and I’ve been in sales for 20 years. If you’re wondering how, it’s because I’ve been caddying since I was eight years old.’ Something like that, just a way of showing your personality. You’d be amazed how much people are willing to help.”
Read more from Mr. Belinsky:Poised for a Career in Tech Sales, He Founded a Chocolate-Milk Startup Instead
Madeline Firkser, special projects associate, JustLeadershipUSA
A college internship showed sociology major Madeline Firkser that she wanted to work in criminal-justice reform, but the pressure to have a job locked in after graduation led her to accept a role that turned out to be a bad fit.
“I spoke with a lot of trusted mentors and family members, a couple of people in the criminal legal reform movement who I trust,” says Ms. Firkser, who felt embarrassed about wanting to quit a job she’d recently started. “They encouraged me to just keep applying for other stuff that would actually align with who I am.”
Relationships she’d made through her internship helped her get a job at JustLeadershipUSA, where she says the best part of her day is working with a broad group of colleagues who are similarly passionate about mitigating the effects of the pandemic on people in prison.
Read more from Ms. Firkser:How a Campus Activist Channeled Her Passions Into a Career
Gabriella Lanouette, full-stack machine learning engineer, Orbis International
At Orbis International, an international nonprofit focused on preventing and treating blindness and eye diseases in economically developing countries, Ms. Lanouette is on a team that develops algorithms for the company’s telemedicine platform. Clinicians on the ground use the tool to diagnose eye diseases like diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma.
Inspired by her mother, a pediatric nurse, Ms. Lanouette always knew she wanted to work in healthcare. But it was an internship in tech support that actually launched her career.
“Everyone needs help on their computer, no matter what their job is,” she says. “I was hired full-time in the engineering department because I was able to meet with people in that department.”
Read more from Ms. Lanouette: In Pursuit of a Career in Healthcare, She Became an Engineer
SHARE YOUR THOUGHTS
What advice do you wish you’d heard before you started seeking your first job? Join the conversation below.
Write to Kathryn Dill at Kathryn.Dill@wsj.com
Copyright ©2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8