Hacking a tough labor market: Tips for recent grads


The Class of 2024 graduated into a relatively challenging labor market. Jackie Brown, assistant professor in the Business Foundations area at the Costello College of Business at George Mason University, said recent grads should be leaning a little harder into core professional skills, such as networking.

Jackie Brown
Jackie Brown. Photo provided

She says that even in a competitive market, networking in the right way will make you a leading candidate for that dream first job. More importantly, it can start you on a path toward long-term career fulfillment.

What would be your main piece of advice to a recent George Mason graduate who’s looking for their dream job?

The most effective way to pursue the career you want is through networking. That is especially the case for early-career individuals, who have little or no professional track record to point to. And the intense competition created by challenging labor markets makes networking even more important.

Notice I said “the career you want,” not “the job you want.” That’s a key distinction, because networking is an indispensable professional skill to learn and use over the length of a career, not just on the job hunt. Networking for the purposes of information gathering and relationship building, rather than solely to identify job leads, can help identify trends and other salient factors affecting your targeted industry. You want to become familiar with the goals, challenges, and culture of the industry you’re attempting to join. As you engage with potential employers, you can use that knowledge to frame informed questions that will reveal more about what that company is looking for and how you could contribute.

Can you say more about how early-career professionals can use the knowledge learned through networking?

Having a deep understanding, both at the industry and company level, will help you craft an effective “pitch” for use in cover letters and interviews. The idea is not just to prove you have done your homework, but to make a strong case for your “culture fit” and the benefits you would bring to that employer. As much as possible, you should customize your pitch to suit the industry, company, and individual(s) concerned.

Beyond being informed, how can early-careers get the greatest bang for their networking buck?

Building strong relationships through networking is, of course, first and foremost about communication. When interacting digitally, it’s easy to communicate without first thinking about the context, especially for young people who fire off texts as easily and naturally as breathing. But in any written communication, such as an introductory email or LinkedIn connect request, it is vital to exercise rhetorical awareness, i.e., adapting language based on the context, scope, and expectations or understanding of the recipient. Think about the probable state of mind of the intended recipient, the information they would need in order to decide to grant or deny your request, any help you could potentially offer, etc.

What about the question of online vs. in-person networking? Which is more likely to move the career needle?

I would encourage recent grads to work against the inherent impersonality of post-COVID online interactions. For example, when attending Zoom webinars for industry professionals, being one of the few to turn your camera on will make you more memorable. After all, a digital encounter is OK in and of itself, but is perhaps most valuable as a stepping stone to an in-person connection, which can yield higher-quality connections.

How wide a networking net should people be casting? Should they be solely focused on folks who can get them a job?

Networking communications are opportunities to show kindness and inclusivity—two increasingly sought-after leadership “essential skills,” as I refer to them, or more commonly known as “soft skills.” You’ve probably already heard that after an interview, you should send timely, thoughtful, and thankful follow-up emails to the hiring manager (and any other participants). But have you reached out to thank that LinkedIn connection who steered you to the job posting in the first place? What about your ex-professor who helped you with your resume and cover letter? Or the administrative associate who did the work to align everyone’s schedules for the interview? Kind and inclusive networking communications certainly take time, but should be viewed as a necessary investment that will pay handsome career and relational dividends that go far beyond any one job opportunity.

Jackie Brown has worked in nonprofit organizations, legal establishments (law firm and court house), digital consultancies, and universities. She has been with the Costello College of Business at George Mason University since 2012.