10 tips to help college tech grads enter the workforce

You’re about to graduate with a tech degree – now the real work begins. Here’s how to make sure your job search ‘toolbox’ is filled and that you’re ready to enter a competitive marketplace.

Tips for college tech graduates entering the workforce
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Tips for college tech graduates entering the workforce

Summer is nearly upon us and with it for many comes graduation ceremonies. Then it's off to the realities of the workforce. If your degree is in the technology field, you're picked a great career path, but there's still lots of competition to beat out and evolving technology to master. Finding your place in a crowded tech job market means some serious planning, polishing your skill set and developing the right set of tools.

Finding a new job can be a job in itself. And like any job, you want to approach it with the right tools to help ensure a successful outcome. To help you fill your proverbial toolbox, we spoke with experts in the technology job market to see what employers are looking for and how you can incorporate their advice into your career strategy.

Start early
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Start early

Experts agree that many new to the job market lack the necessary experience and soft skills. A Robert Half Technology survey of 2,300 CIOs from across the country, reveals that 26 percent of IT leaders said entry-level professionals weren't prepared to contribute right away. Among these respondents, 55 percent cited that new graduates lack the necessary communication and leadership skills. "New graduates can sometimes have the challenge of not having the experience -- a developed portfolio or history of project work -- that employers are looking for when making new hires," says John Reed, senior executive director, Robert Half Technology.

According to Ford R. Myers, a career coach and author of "Get The Job You Want, Even When No One's Hiring," today's tech graduates have grown up with technology all around them. These graduates are digital natives so lack of technical skills or aptitude aren't as common a problem as other areas tend to be.

"Students may be really good with technology but they are rarely any good with having the skills necessary to market themselves effectively and to do an effective job search when they come out of school," says Myers. However, he says, in the field of technology things are a little better. "Because in the technology field you'll find more internship or work study opportunities than say a philosophy or English student."

New graduates are typically well-steeped in technology, but where they are lacking are areas like soft skills and real world experience. The best way to get these is to do summer internships, volunteer for nonprofits, collaborate with projects online and get some tech experience while you're still learning. Take advantage of these opportunities too while you're learning to add real world experience to your toolbox. After all, in the technology job market experience is preferred. "It is more of a trust-based hire when bringing a recent graduate on board if they don't bring a good amount of hands-on project work with them. There is a strong demand for tech-talent, but employers tend to prefer a more experienced worker," says Reed.

Document your accomplishments or experience
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Document your accomplishments or experience

Myers recommends that you write five or six compelling stories about your school or work-related tasks -- perhaps a project that highlighted your programming or problem-solving skills. It might be a summer interning in IT for an insurance company or programming your own mobile app, or maybe an opportunity where you got to showcase your leadership skills leading a project.

Craft a professional résumé
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Craft a professional résumé

There are a host of places that offer résumé help. Find out what your school offers in the way of professional services and don't discount using a professional résumé writer. The best ones are often able to find hidden strengths, passions or accomplishments through personal interviewing.

Target companies
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Target companies

Myers recommends creating a list of companies that you want to work for. Do this by creating a "wish list" that best describes where you want to work. Things like location, company size, corporate culture, company mission or salary requirements should be on here.

Now using that list, do some online work and match those requirements to organizations. With a list of desirable companies in hand, use social media to connect with individuals who work there or participate in discussions in places like LinkedIn Groups or Quora.

Customize your résumé
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Customize your résumé

John Reed recommends refining your résumé for your targeted companies. "Customization is critical to making your résumé stand out. Instead of creating a standard one-size-fits-all document, tailor your résumé to each opportunity. At the top of your résumé, be sure to focus on skills and certifications or critical programming languages," says Reed.

Create a positioning statement or elevator pitch
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Create a positioning statement or elevator pitch

"A good positioning statement highlights your key strengths, what you enjoy doing and excel in, and what value you'd bring to the hiring company. It should also be something that is easy for you to remember and repeat at any given time. The key is picking out the most important information and delivering it with ease," says Reed.

Craft your elevator pitch and then practice it until it comes out naturally. Run it by trusted colleagues and friends to refine it. Myers offer this formula to create a positioning statement that will get you noticed. The key components include the following:

Who are you? Are you a software developer, a programmer, a technical support person, a hardware expert, etc. "There are many different shades or subsets in technology," says Ford. This should be a concise phrase that covers your specificity.

What is your experience? This, according to Myers, can include summer experience, interning experience or any related experience to your field.

In what industries have you worked and what roles have you held? This would be something along the lines of an internship as a software developer, debugging and doing testing on pieces of code or working for a retailer building networks for them. "Whatever it is, tell me what your role and industry is," says Myers.

What are your greatest strengths? Are you good at problem-solving, leadership, analysis, project management, etc.? These, says Myers, are deliberately nontechnical terms and are more about the person. "Prepare and practice a '15-second commercial' about who you are, what you've done in the past. I like it when they [candidates] choose three strength words and use them to describe their nature," says Myers.

What are you looking for? This is all about your objective. You could phrase it along the lines of, "I am seeking an entry-level job opportunity in the game development market" or "I'm looking for a position to leverage my Java experience," for example.

According to Myers, weaving these items into a four- or five-word paragraph should help you put together a positioning statement that helps a potential employer understand what you are about.

Get prepared for interviews
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Get prepared for interviews

Researching your targeted companies before an interview is a must. "Students must do their research, ensuring they're familiar with the prospective employer's job requirements, company history and industry," says Reed. It's also helpful to find out any available information on the person you're interviewing with. "You'll make a much better impression during your meeting if you have done your homework, "says Reed.

Don't forget about the technical aspect of the interview. This is the time to look through the aforementioned compelling stories. Be prepared to verbalize these. Practice in front of a mirror until you feel comfortable. Then rope a friend, colleague or professor into performing a mock interview with you. "They [new college graduates] should also be prepared to talk about the projects that they've taken on and how they are relevant to the desired role," says Reed.

Network yourself
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Network yourself

You need to create an online presence in places like LinkedIn and other relevant industry groups and social networks. "Using a platform such as LinkedIn to "put it out there" that you are seeking opportunities, while highlighting relevant project work and internships is a great way to boost visibility amongst a network who could potentially help in the job search," says Reed.

Myers further advises new graduates to police their existing social media accounts to remove anything that might be considered inappropriate to a potential employer.

He also warns future IT pros that they need to spend more time away from their computers to network and converse with more people. "At the end of the day a person is going to hire you, not a computer. If you can't communicate with that person and have a good dialogue then you aren't going to get very far," says Myers. Of course, some individuals have better people skills than others. Those that need to work on these interpersonal skills know who you are.

Secure recommendations
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Secure recommendations

As a new graduate you'll need both professional recommendations as well as letters from colleagues or associates.

For your personal references, Ford says, "List colleagues or professors who would 'sing your praises' if asked about you. Contact each of them, and get approval to use their names on your list of references." As for the letters of recommendation, try to get four to five from professional colleagues or academic contacts. These, according to Ford, should be printed on their business or professional letterhead, and signed by the writers, leaving out the dates and salutations.

Track your job search activities
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Track your job search activities

Keeping a detailed record of your job seeking progress, including things like phone calls, meeting notes and companies applied to, is an essential part to keeping yourself organized and productive.