Ellen Nordahl was frustrated when she began scoping out the job market in the fall of 2008, at the start of her senior year at the UW-Madison. Like other UW business students, she relied on career services for guidance and job fairs to find potential employers.
Yet finding a job proved difficult, and Nordahl, now 24, was disheartened by the prospect of not having a job when she graduated, despite being one of the top students in her marketing class. She felt her résumés were landing in the "typical Internet black hole," where for all she knew no human eyes ever ventured.
"I don't really feel like I made mistakes," she says. "I just think that it was a very traditional approach to marketing myself. You're still just a needle in a haystack. I didn't really seek out any ways to differentiate myself from all the other people who were graduating from business school. People who were applying for the same positions that I was."
As the economy has gone south and the job market tightened, this is a familiar predicament for young people.
"Three years ago, the average business school student had three to four job offers," says Steve Schroeder, director of Undergraduate Career Services at the UW-Madison. "Now if they get one, they are happy."
Gina Evans, a career development specialist at Wisconsin Alumni Association, says many students "are continuing their education instead of finding employment or traveling. But, most important, students aren't able to be as picky as they used to be when looking for their first job."
With the unemployment rate for the 16-to-24 age group reaching a record 19.6% in April, there is now a noticeable backlog of young talent waiting to be employed, making the competition for positions fierce.
According to the UW's Schroeder, 80% of job openings are never posted, filled instead through employee referrals. So how is a recent graduate supposed to find a job?
"People who are 20 don't really have contacts yet," says Ryan Paugh, a cofounder of a Madison-based social networking site called Brazen Careerist. "What Brazen tries to do is to bridge that gap by giving people who are early on in their career a place to build their network."
Sites like Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com have created a space online for employers to post job openings and job seekers to submit résumés. Brazen Careerist takes a different approach, by allowing employers to see a potential employee's ideas and interests. This is done through what the site terms a "social résumé."
"If you're listening to people's ideas and what they are interested in," Paugh explains, "you know pretty quickly whether this person is going to be a good match or not. Because you have access to their blogs, to the comments they are saying on Brazen, to what they are saying to people on Twitter, you can see everything they are doing online from a professional standpoint."
The key to a social networking site like Brazen, says Nordahl, is that it allows job seekers to have professional conversations with peers interested in the same areas.
"I feel like I know a lot of people who got jobs through friends of friends, and it's not necessarily someone who is older than them or a parent's friend or an alumni," says Nordahl, who has found a job as a recruiter for Epic Systems. "It's more just someone you know. So being able to network with your peers for job opportunities...just made sense as a different approach."
Evans, of the Wisconsin Alumni Association, has tracked for years where UW students have gone after graduation and watched as their job-hunting tactics have changed.
"Students now are finding more ways to bring attention to themselves in order to get a job," she says.
Yet Evans still feels that hiring trends are driven more by employers than job seekers, since it's the employer who makes the ultimate call. "If company A says, 'Go online and apply through our online portal to attach a résumé,' then that's how job seekers should respond to that position," she advises.
While Schroeder says there's no denying that social networking has changed the way young people look for jobs, he cautions that it presents some risks.
"There is a certain etiquette that people need when approaching social media. We at UW are trying to teach students to look from the employers' perspective, especially when talking about social networking."
Nordahl agrees young people need to be careful of the image they create online. "It is about making smart choices," she says. "Don't put stuff out there for the general public to see that you are not comfortable having your grandma see."
Paugh is optimistic that college graduates will be able to land jobs, if they are committed and clever.
"I don't see doom and gloom," he says. "I see college students willing to take more risks and put themselves out there in different ways, and to do things that they weren't willing to do five years ago. They are being more proactive than passive because they really can't afford to be passive anymore."