Use career-minded networking to become an insider.

Networking For The Career-Minded Student

Interview with Author Linda Hewitt

What's your pre-business background? I was born in a small town but grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, at that time a major industrial center. I attended Birmingham-Southern College, the University of Alabama, and Georgia State University. I have a Master's in history from GSU with a specialty in financial history.

What's your business background? 'Checkered' would be a polite way to describe it. I got my first real job when I was seventeen, the year after I graduated from high school, and I job hopped a lot, especially while I was in college. I was the receptionist for a large medical practice for a year, copy girl for a newspaper, customer-service representative for a dental-supply house, cash-items clerk for a bank, mortgage-loan correspondent for a large real estate-insurance-mortgage loan agency, actuarial clerk for a life-insurance company, and business-development strategist for a financial-planning outfit. While all that was going on, I got married, left Birmingham, moved to Atlanta, and went back to school for my Master's. After that, I began to write full time, sometimes for publication, sometimes for business. Ultimately, I became involved with my husband's graphic-design and communication business. After we incorporated as a provider of PR services, my specialty was consulting with officers of large corporations. I spent a lot of time in meetings on the top floors of tall buildings up and down the Eastern Seaboard with some of the smartest people in American business. I also spent a lot of time devising the marketing and PR strategies that were discussed in those meetings and directing their implementation. The rise of the 'Net made it possible to dissolve the Atlanta corporation and move to the North Carolina mountains where I've focused more on writing again.

Has networking been a major part of your business experience? Yes. As a Birmingham teenager, I got my first job because the mother of a boy I was dating told me about the job and recommended me. I would never have known about the job if she hadn't told me, for it wasn't advertised or listed with employment agencies. Also, if it hadn't been for her vouching for my reliability and work ethic, I doubt those doctors would even have considered hiring a seventeen-year-old as a receptionist for their prestigious and staid practice. Later, in Atlanta, our PR firm was small, a boutique that handled only a few clients at the time, and all of our business came to us through referrals. We did no marketing or advertising. Without networking, we couldn't have survived.

Did student networking play a role in your high-school years? Most definitely, but it wasn't networking by me but rather for me. I went through school pretty quickly, and I was relatively clueless in high school, certainly too naive to understand or use networking. Certain teachers, however, networked on my behalf and in doing so affected the course of my life in the most-positive way possible. If I'd known more about the process, I'd have better understood how to capitalize on what they did for me. I'd also have been more grateful at the time. Those two women changed my life. This book is my way of saying a very belated 'thank you' to them by sharing with today's students what I have come to understand about the power of networking.

Did you network with students while you were in the PR business in Atlanta? Personally, probably a dozen or so times over the years, mostly with young people referred by clients. My husband may have talked to more kids than I did, and I know some of our employees were also approached and asked to provide counseling of one sort or another. The request usually had to do with information about some aspect of coursework or other preparation relating to the different components of our business or related job fields - PR, advertising, marketing, writing, graphic design, illustration, photography, video production, etc.

Did that experience shape your thinking about student networking? Yes, in several ways. First, it was interesting that it was almost always the most-successful of our clients who used their network to help young people in whom they were interested. These were some of the most-powerful people in American business. They obviously knew how to get ahead, and they clearly valued networking as a critical tool for gathering information in order to get a handle on the future. Second, over time all of us in the office noticed that, to paraphrase the old saying, 'you can lead a kid to networking, but you can't make him care.' Occasionally, I or someone else in the firm would find ourselves facing a young person on the other side of the desk who obviously had no interest in being there, no interest in what we were supposed to be talking about, no interest in the future, and - as far as we could tell - no attention span. It would be grim, and all you could do was to release them from their obvious misery as quickly as possible. Third, when the young person did care and was properly prepared to talk with us, we were eager to assist in any way possible — it is only human nature for most professionals to want to see young people properly launched on their careers, making choices that will help them find the path that will be most productive for them. This is true whether the young person is a preexisting acquaintance of the professional or previously unknown.

The activities discussed in Networking for the Career-Minded Student can take young people outside of their normal routines and expose them to situations and people that may be unfamiliar to them - is that dangerous? The unfamiliar can pose a risk to anyone, whatever the age. Young people can be more vulnerable due to their relative inexperience. That's why the book recommends that the student always involve a responsible adult in the networking process and let this involvement be obvious to the target. This not only helps to protect the student, but also reassures the networking target by giving the process greater credibility.

Will you provide a short, no-frills summary of Networking for the Career-Minded Student? The book sets forth a process that, if followed, enables students to capitalize on resources available only during school years to get a head start on the job market. It informs students how to determine the kind of career for which their natural traits best suit them and identify the working environment they're most likely to find satisfying and productive. It provides a blueprint for acquiring and using high-quality information about careers. It demonstrates how to make connection with and benefit from what successful people can and are willing to do for young people. It shows how to use purposeful networking to jump start and maintain the kind of working situation the student wants.

How does 'purposeful networking' differ from regular networking? All networking has a purpose, of course, even the most general kind of grip-and-grin meeting. What I mean by 'purposeful networking' in the context of student networking is that the student should know in advance what he or she wants from the specific networking activity or contact - what piece of information do I need, what activity do I want this person to perform on my behalf, or what else do I need or want from what I am doing at this moment? That is, the student has done advance preparation and initiates the research, contact, or exploration with a solid idea of the desired outcome from the student's perspective. That outcome may be either limited or general - the point is that the student has a particular purpose in mind and strategizes his or her approach to fulfill it.

Do you think very many young people will undertake the purposeful-networking process, or will they be discouraged by the amount of work and preparation involved? That's hard to say. I think young people who are already figuring out what they want from their working lives in terms of income, education requirements, job conditions and the like are more likely to try some of the techniques described in the book. Of course, parents reading the book, even if their children are younger than those to whom the book is targeted, may begin to get and act upon ideas that will position them to help their children make appropriate choices about coursework, activities, etc., as they make their way through school. My guess is that it will be the most ambitious and determined of students who will prioritize to the extent required to undertake the total process laid out in the book. At the same time, even an acquaintanceship with the points made in the book will provide a general framework for thinking about how the student should approach the job market. Also, undertaking just one or two of the activities described will give the student a better perspective on jobs and the environment in which they exist.

What do you think the future job market will be like? Let's face it — whenever predictions are made, the future has a way of tearing them to shreds to the sound of loud laughter in the background. At the same time, my guess is that most people will find themselves in a job market shaped like a barbell with unequal ends. At one extreme, there'll be those who own, control, manage, develop, or otherwise use technology to enhance processes or deliver information - that'll be the smaller end of the barbell, and that's where the best-paying jobs with the best benefits will be. At the other extreme, the much larger end of the barbell, there'll be the people who perform work that is both much lower paid and with generally fewer benefits. This will be work that requires greater physical effort, the willingness to perform what many would consider unpleasant duties, or a high tolerance for boring, repetitive tasks. In the middle are those who will make and/or sell products or support services to the other two groups. Their income (and benefits) will be all over the place, depending on the demand for what they can do. And none of the people in this barbell-shaped job market, no matter what position they occupy, will be exempt from change. I think there'll be unpleasant shocks during their working lives for most people. There will be probably one group of people who will benefit disproportionately from new technologies - entrepreneurs capable of taking advantage of faster, easier communications. Also, it will be increasingly simpler for creative types - artists, performers, writers, photographers, etc. - to find an audience than at any time in the past. The monetization issue is still being worked out, but the long-term prospects are good for creatives because the 'Net is a content hog.

So you think what's traditionally called the 'middle-class job market' won't be an important factor? If by that you mean the well-paid job for which you prepare yourself at the outset of your career and are able to keep simply by virtue of showing up and conscientiously performing the same tasks in the same circumstances until retirement, I think that job market is in its death throes. In fact, in some industries, if you view job security as a component of it, it has essentially already disappeared. There are compensations for entrepreneurial and creative types, but they require staying on top of what's going on. That's why networking is so important. Getting into the habit of purposeful networking while still a student can build the basis for a way of viewing the job market that provides a cushion throughout a working life.

So you're convinced that student networking does help to level the playing field? Absolutely. It's the best way I know for a career-minded young person to get a head start on whatever lies ahead. It can help to compensate for lack of financial resources, family connections, high IQ, personal attractiveness, physical strength, or any of the other attributes so useful when you're starting out in life. And, if you're fortunate enough to possess any of those assets, career-minded networking can accelerate the speed with which you use them to reach your goals. Later, it can keep you abreast of what's going on in both your career field and the job market as a whole and make it more likely that your evolving goals will be met.

And that's true whether the young person wants to be a 'master of the universe' or just wants a good job? Totally. Given that its aim is to help you acquire and interpret information related to your goals, purposeful networking - properly pursued - can help you get and stay on either the fast track or the relatively safe track. It may not work exactly as you want in the short term, but in the long term it's invariably useful.

The image of the crossing lines on the book's cover is interesting. Does it have any particular significance? Yes, the solid lines represent known paths, set forth by circumstances as they exist at a given point in time and space. The dotted line represents the flexibility engendered by the networking process, a process that allows its practitioners to make whatever adjustments are necessary to pursue evolving personal goals in a changing environment. And the environment will continue to change. that's the one thing all of us who work can count on.