05/15/2013 02:46 EDT | Updated 07/15/2013 05:12 EDT

Kick-starting careers: Job-seeking tips for new and recent graduates

TORONTO - For post-secondary graduates receiving degrees and diplomas in the weeks ahead, excitement over completing their programs may be tempered by the grim job landscape for Canada's young people.

The latest labour force survey from Statistics Canada revealed a decline of 19,000 jobs for youth aged 15-24 in April. The youth unemployment rate was at 14.5 per cent last month, little changed compared to a year earlier and about double the national average.

"When you see numbers like that, it can often give you the impression there really aren't many jobs available in your area," said Shirin Khamisa, a Toronto-based career counsellor and founder of Careers by Design.

"Be very realistic and realize there is a general climate where there are less jobs, but that doesn't mean you won't be able to secure a job that's right for you."

Khamisa and other experts share five ways for job-seeking grads to distinguish themselves in a competitive job market and work toward kick-starting their careers.

1. Build a network. Do you have any professional contacts in your area of study or field of expertise? If not, there's no time like the present to start making connections.

Attending industry events, joining a professional umbrella organization or engaging with individuals working in the field to ask about key needs in their area — and how you can fill them —could help build your network, said Khamisa.

"That's the really powerful thing in a job search when it's a tighter market — to get that face time with people who are in the field you'd like to work in."

Another good way to obtain information and build a network is through informal interviews, said Bruno Castilloux, manager of career services at the University of Ottawa.

He suggested researching the company of interest to craft precise questions before calling to speak briefly with a representative to learn more.

2. Keep connected. While many people will be keen to "jump right into job-search mode," Khamisa said that's not the best way to start a relationship with a potential contact.

Khamisa said the job search should be a time of exploration. It's often easier when individuals are initially seeking out information and learning about a particular industry and the needs of an organization before hunting for a specific position, she noted.

"Reaching out and connecting takes courage ... and I guarantee you there will be times where people don't get back to you or are just too busy or aren't receptive," she said.

"But the magic happens when you persevere and you keep going. And eventually, you will connect with a group of people who will help you and support you as you move forward."

Khamisa said she once had a client who developed 10 contacts through cold calling. She continued to keep in touch over several months and ended up getting three different job offers.

Placing a phone call isn't just limited to maintaining professional contacts.

When individuals reach the stage where they're submitting applications, a followup call is another way to show initiative, said Danielle Bragge, a partner with The Headhunters, a Canadian recruitment firm.

It doesn't have to be aggressive. The process can be as simple as an introduction, mentioning your interest in the opportunity you've applied for and highlighting three quick reasons you'd make a great addition to the team, Bragge said.

"When we do get those calls, I tell you, it takes the resume from the bottom of the pile to the top of the pile."

Bragge said while most resumes are directed to human resources, it's worthwhile to make the effort of placing the call.

"It may not go anywhere, but it's the difference between great and ordinary. The thing that amazes me is how few people do that ... even your solid business professionals."

3. Retooling resumes. Planning to blanket multiple companies with carbon-copy versions of your resume and cover letter? Don't hit the send button just yet.

Bragge said the most common mistake made by candidates applying for jobs is failing to tailor the document to each individual position and employer.

"What that means is that they really need to look closely at what are some of the key factors that employers are asking for," she said from Edmonton.

Bragge said while applicants may not have all of the job requirements on a company's wish list, they may indeed have the "soft skills" a client is seeking which they should highlight.

When prospective employers are looking for a candidate to work in a fast-paced environment, job seekers should use that as a chance to emphasize their own experiences in that capacity, be it within a volunteer program or a past project, Bragge noted.

Resumes also really need to have a hook which distinguishes the job seeker from other applicants, she added. If a posting indicates the company is looking for a marketing professional, stress that aspect of your background in your application.

Even experiences not directly related to the job in question are worthy to consider including, such as activities beyond school, like being in a Toastmasters Club or playing sports, said Bragge.

"Anything that shows they have the motivation and the initiative needs to be included in their resume."

4. Go digital. Many organizations use social networking sites like LinkedIn for recruitment purposes, but Khamisa said establishing an online profile can offer added benefits. Beyond fostering connections, job seekers can be exposed to professional groups who convene online, she noted.

In many fields, social media and other tech-related skills are becoming increasingly necessarily for doing an effective job and working efficiently, Khamisa said. She recommended observing how others in the field are making use of digital tools as a key first step.

Bragge said those with an existing online presence — such as a Facebook page — should ensure that they "clean up" their social media profiles because prospective bosses could be watching.

5. Cultivate skills. Simply having the right diploma isn't sufficient anymore — students have to develop their employability, said Castilloux.

"Transferable skills are the new currency in the labour market," he said.

In the case of an engineer, for example, beyond their expertise in the field, they could highlight writing among their transferable skills with their work on recommendations and reports, Castilloux noted.

While grads understandably want work in their chosen field, Castilloux said a job in an unrelated area is another way to obtain experience and develop skills.

If they still feel they don't have the tools they need, obtaining additional training or developing skills in another capacity — such as volunteering — could be an alternative, he added.