Q&A: How 2023 college grads can boost chances of finding their IT dream job

There's a major shortage of talent to fill more than 300,000 open tech jobs in the US, but applicants sometimes find employers ghost them. The reason? A skills mismatch that graduates need to overcome before finding that perfect job.

graduates entering workforce

The unemployment rate for the IT remains at historic lows — just 2.2%. Meanwhile, more than 300,000 tech job postings remain open — a 17-year high — leaving nearly four in five employers struggling to fill job roles.

That means this year's college graduates should be looking at a target-rich environment for their resumes. Yet, entry-level tech job applicants often get no responses, even after shotgunning the job market with resumes. And many new graduates are unaware of free or inexpensive job-hunting resources available to them through staffing firms, online training, and professional networking sites.

dave tarner Dave Tarner

ManpowerGroup's Dave Tarner

Dave Tarner, is the recruitment marketing director for ManpowerGroup North America. ManpowerGroup, the world's third-largest staffing firm, performs regular surveys of tens of thousands of employers in more than 40 countries to discover the issues they face filling open positions.

In 2023, there is a skills mismatch, according to Tarner. That is, the tech job marketplace has changed and employers want candidates with less conventional soft skills, along with technical skills not typically attained in a brick-and-mortar classroom. 

Tarner offered insights into what companies that hire his firm want in their entry-level applicants. The following are excerpts from an interview with Computerworld.

We’re being told there’s a dearth of IT talent, but people are still struggling to find jobs. Why? Is the job market really as healthy as statistics indicate? And how do you make sense of all these tech company layoffs? "I think the layoffs represent a relatively small subsection of the larger economy. I think the volume of applications isn’t necessarily lower than it’s been in the past. So, I think as a job seeker, you need to get good at the story telling and articulating your skills during the job application and interview process.

"I hear from job recruiters all the time who are bombarded. They get 500 applicants for one job posted. Now, somewhere in there, there’s the right person. But that’s one out of 500, or maybe 10 out of 500. Sometimes it’s just hard to stand out. As a recruiter, you’re saying 'I’ve got 500 applicants but I can’t find anyone who’s a match for the job.'

"As a job seeker, you have to make it so clear that you’re a perfect match for the job you’re applying for. That starts with research, and I recommend people create a resume table with two columns. On the left are the skills mentioned in the job description, and in the right column is where you address the skills you have one-by-one very specifically. That way, it’s absolutely crystal clear to anyone reading it that you’re a perfect match for the job."

What are employers telling you about today's entry-level applicants? "It’s probably the tightest labor market we’ve seen..., but it’s not that simple. There are nuances we’re seeing with respect to the talent shortage. Employers are telling us they’re having a hard find workers with the skills they need for positions they are trying to fill. That’s really a challenge for employers, and they’re telling us that loud and clear. It’s just not that easy to find skilled talent that they need.

"On the other hand, I wouldn’t say there’s a talent shortage in terms of volume of applicants because when we post jobs, sometimes we’ll see as many as 500 applicants. But, what we’re finding is they often don’t have the skills needed. That could be frustrating for both sides.

"So, employers are saying it’s hard to find the talent [they] need, and then we’ll hear from job seekers who say 'I’m applying for 500 jobs and I’m not hearing anything back.'

"The story there is there’s a mismatch. There’s a talent shortage, or what we call a skills gap. It’s not that there aren’t enough workers, but they don’t have the right skills to do the job."

So, how does a new college graduate fit a role for which he or she thought they'd already been thoroughly trained? "I think that it’s something that can be overcome if a job seeker has the right strategy. In this market, with the access to information new graduates have, there's ability to constantly add new skills and upskill and demonstrate those new skills to prospective employers. 

"So, that’s the story for new job seekers. If you see a job you’re really interested in, you may find there are some skills listed that you don’t have, but that can be OK. Employers are being lenient in terms of how you acquire skills. They’re being much more open about someone maybe not having the formal education; they just want you to have the skills. So, you have a variety of ways to approach that.

"You can go back to college and take additional courses if that’s how you learn best, but you can also take online learning, such as YouTube, Coursera, or other opportunities. But, you just have to take that initiative. That’s generally what employers are hoping to see.

"First do some research. What kinds of jobs are you interested in and what kinds of skills are required for that? Then create a learning plan for yourself so you can upskill and meet those requirements."

What are some first steps for landing interviews and getting hired for the jobs that really appeal to you? "Let’s say you want to be a front-end developer. Pull three or four of those job openings out and make a list of all the skills they’re asking for. Then go through and checkmark the skills you have already versus the ones you’re missing. Then make a learning plan for yourself to fill in the gap. You don’t have to be perfect. You don’t have to be a master of the skills, but you can speak to them somewhat.

"For example, do a project. Build your own little website. Get a WordPress license — a $5 per month hosting plan — and build your own project. Then you can demonstrate all kinds of different skills and try different technologies. Again, you don’t have to be a master of it, but it shows you took the initiative to build something and you can say, 'Yeah, I’m playing around with this new technology and I’m adding these features to my personal website.'

"As new technologies come our way, you can learn them and then build your website with them. You have a little playground and a project you can demonstrate your skills on."

What questions are employers asking candidates? "I’ve heard this interview question mentioned to candidates in top tech companies. They’ll ask, 'Tell me about something you’ve learned in the last week or two?'

"What they’re trying to find out is if you have that mindset. Are you always learning? Are you always interested in learning? Can you articulate how you like to learn? Do you have that self-awareness?

"Some people like textbooks and just read, others like hands-on with a project. You want to know that about yourself and be able to explain that in an interview."

As a recent graduate, how do you demonstrate soft skills when you haven't had a job in your preferred field yet? "When they ask, 'Tell me something you’ve learned in the last week or so,' that shows how often they’re expecting you to be listening to podcasts or to watching tutorial videos on YouTube or whatever tutorial channels you like. They expect you to always be learning.

"There’s also the element of passion; they want to know your interest level because it’s one thing to recruit the top talent, but employers also often need to retain them. If we hire you and train you, what do we need to do to get you to stay with our company?

"Can you demonstrate to the employer instances where you’ve shown commitment to something, even when there were moments when it wasn’t fun and it was tough? Did you stick with it? That’s a huge selling point. As a job seeker, you want to take advantage of that: 'Yeah, I went to college for four years in a row. It wasn’t always fun. I took some classes I hated, but I stuck with it and got through it.' You’ve got to be able to tell that story.

"Sometimes what we do as a candidate is to describe you have experience as a developer, and they think the employer should know what that means as they’re reading your resume. I know Java and JavaScript and design. And they think that’s enough. My advice ... to leave absolutely no doubt in the reader’s mind that you’re the perfect match for the job; don’t make them do any extra work reading into your experience or skills. Make is so easy that it’s a no brainer they need to call you about that job."

So, is shotgunning the market with resumes a bad thing? "Don’t send out 500 resumes. Be more strategic. Research a couple jobs you really want and then really dial it in and make sure your application, cover letter, and resume make it clear you’ve got everything they’re looking for.

"As a new graduate, if I’m seeing two or three skillsets that I don’t have for that job, go back and address those right away. Let's say the job calls for Photoshop skills that you don’t have. Take a couple of online courses or watch a YouTube tutorial and take the initiative to upskill yourself.

"When I was in high school or college there was hardly any Internet; I’d have to take out a book from a card catalogue to teach myself. But now those resources are so readily available, there’s no excuse anymore. You want to demonstrate you can find the resources and acquire those skills."

One soft skill employers are looking for is candidate resourcefulness. That is, how well they problem solve and find the tools they need to complete a task. What advice can you give there? "There are a ton of people willing to help. Your college may be willing to help you. There are staffing companies like ours willing to help. You can go to [IT professional resourcing site] Experis.com and sign up and create a profile.

"It’s in our best interest to help you perfect your resume and get hired; that’s what we’re here for. Staffing companies like ours are an example of a place you can go to create a profile, you can get connected with recruiters. A lot of people don’t know it’s free. I’ve heard new college graduates say,' I’d like to work with a recruiter, but I don’t have any money to pay anyone.' They don’t realize it’s free.

"That’s part of those resourcefulness skills – knowing what resources are available and how they work. A company like ours doesn’t cost you anything. You just go in and create a profile and now you’re networking with people who can help you, and our recruiters are very much in touch with what employers are looking for.

"And if you interview and you don’t get that job, they’ll get you feedback. They may say, 'Someone beat you out for that job because they had this particular skill and you didn’t.' Now you can go back and make some adjustments.

"...Resourcefulness and that learning mindset is probably one of the biggest attributes that an employer is looking for – that you like to learn and have examples to demonstrate that."

You mentioned story-telling skills. What does that really mean and why is that an important skill to develop? "It's being able to articulate your experience. They call it the STAR [technique] for explaining small case studies of your past work. Here’s the task I had and how I approached it at work or in school. Practice telling those stories."

[STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result. Hiring managers ask behavioral interview questions to determine whether you are the right fit for a job. This method will help you prepare clear and concise responses using real-life examples.]

"Your story could be a project you’re working to upskill yourself, or it could be something you did at a class in college. Imagine you’re one of two final candidates and you both get the question: 'Tell me about your skill with JavaScript.' One says, 'Yeah, I have 10 years' experience with it,' and the other candidate is able to tell an interesting story: 'I was working at this job and a client came with this need and here’s how I approached it, here are the steps I took, and here are the results.'

"That’s how you can get ahead of your competition with those kinds of work-related stories."

If you had to call out specific things different in today’s job market for graduating college students versus pre-pandemic, what would they be? "First, there’s more leniency around formal training. Employers [are] less concerned about how you developed your skills. They just want to make sure you have them.

"Second, technologies are changing very fast. The focus by employers is now on your ability to learn and to demonstrate that ability to do it quickly. You’ll hear stats like 'some percent of the job we’ll be working in five years don’t even exist yet. We don’t even know what they are yet.' So, how can you be prepared for that?

"That’s the ability to demonstrate you understand the way you learn and your ability to learn new technologies quickly. When I came out of college in the early 2000s, if I had a degree in engineering, I just put that on my resume and say, 'Done. I know what I need to know.' Now, it’s much more open ended.

"...I think that’s a reason for new grads to be optimistic. Employers don’t expect you to know everything right this second, but we do expect you to demonstrate you’re willing to learn and can do that quickly."

What else should job seekers do? "Another thing you can do is build your personal brand on LinkedIn. When you submit a resume, it’s not unlikely that the person reading it will pull up your LinkedIn profile. You can use that to great advantage. You can have a great, content-rich profile. Sometimes people will say, 'I don’t know what to put on there. I’m not a soft-leadership person; I’m not a content creator.' I’d say, create content for the person you were two or three years ago. Just share that on linked in. That demonstrates your skills, and it makes you easier to find if a recruiter wants to look you up on LinkedIn. You may find you get an interview or an opportunity just from your LinkedIn profile, alone.

"It comes back to that resourcefulness skill."

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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