by Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP
70-80% of job seekers find their jobs through contacts. As few as 20% land their jobs through the traditional “reactive” job search method, namely, applying for posted positions on job boards or want ads.
Simmons College Career Education Center
I never appreciated the importance of a professional network more than when I moved from Minnesota to North Carolina in 2010. Through graduate school, internships, and jobs, I built a beautiful network of social workers and nonprofit professionals in Minnesota who knew my professional history and competencies. I tried to do some research and networking before I moved to North Carolina, but I didn’t know which organizations to target and didn’t have connections to ask. I was starting from scratch. Even though I had plenty of professional experience, I had to work hard to connect with social work and nonprofit professionals in North Carolina to help me land a job I love.
Networking isn’t about being in a secret club, and it’s not just for business professionals. It is for all professionals. Social workers are great at building relationships and trust with their clients. Networking really isn’t that different. It is about nurturing relationships over time, gathering information, and expanding your knowledge about career opportunities. Networking is not about using people to help you find your next job. It is a two-way street and should be an ongoing, mutually beneficial relationship.
Whether you are just starting to build your network or have been at it for years, here are some indispensable networking tools you should always keep in your toolbox, not just when you are looking for a job.
1. Your Elevator Speech
Tell me about yourself. The elevator speech is like a commercial to sell yourself in 90 seconds or less. It's an invaluable part of networking that can be used for job interviews, informational interviews, and anytime you meet someone new. In the same way that you should practice for your job interviews, you need to practice your elevator speech so it seems natural and genuine.
What should you say? You should provide an overview of who you are, what you have done, and what you are seeking. It is an opportunity to articulate your career goals clearly while creating a positive impression on your listener. If you are unemployed, don’t be embarrassed. Swallow your pride and let people know you are actively seeking work. How else are people to know they should contact you with job opportunities if you don’t tell them?
2. Social Media
Research is a big part of job search, but beyond looking at an organization’s website, where can you actually meet people to network? By joining groups on LinkedIn, Facebook pages, and Twitter, you can start following organizations and be apprised of the latest job openings. This is where I learned which organizations to target and when they were holding events and conferences I could attend to network in person.
LinkedIn: If you are currently job searching, you should have a LinkedIn profile. Period. LinkedIn is the best online networking tool. This is a place for your professional network to recommend you and for potential employers to find you. Join groups that are relevant to your geographical location and area of practice. Post engaging questions and relevant information, so folks see you as a source of information. Don’t flood group feeds with your unemployment woes, but do let people know you are searching. Be respectful when asking people to connect with you on LinkedIn. Remind them of how you know them and that you would enjoy being their professional connection. Make sure your information is up to date and don’t be shy about asking appropriate connections to recommend your work.
Twitter: Believe it or not, Twitter is an excellent way to connect with organizations and other professionals in the field. There are several Twitter accounts that provide daily job Tweets and many, many accounts that will give you tips for job search success. I have made many professional connections on Twitter, and I believe it has strengthened my professional network nationally. Don’t just retweet. Tweet content that is original and provides valuable information about your area of practice.
Facebook: Some social workers are wary of joining the world of Facebook, but this can be a great tool. It allows you to follow your target organizations and find out when their events are and when they are hiring. Some organizations work hard to reach out to their followers by posting relevant information on their Facebook feeds. Commenting and liking appropriate posts shows the organization you are an engaged member. You never know if this will make a difference. Also, if you are job searching, you should let your personal network know on Facebook! You never know who your great-aunt from Kansas might know in the social work field in Massachusetts.
Google+: GooglePlus is definitely useful for professional networking. Your posts can be picked up in Google searches, and you can show off a public profile full of information about what you do. You can share content and post links to your website or blog.
3. Professional Memberships
When alone in a new state, my professional association was my most valuable networking tool. Reach out to your NASW chapter, alumni association, or other groups in which you can network with others to get your name out there and learn what opportunities might be available. Even when I was unemployed, I found my memberships to be the best investment in my career, and this helped me land my current job. Conferences and association memberships that are relevant to your profession and the job you do may be tax deductible (see http://www.irs.gov/publications/p17/ch28.html). Always remember to consult your tax professional about your personal tax situation.
Nothing shows organizations that you are committed to their mission more than volunteering for them. I have been a volunteer at three organizations that eventually hired me. Find volunteer opportunities that are in line with your professional passions and career goals. Even if the organization isn’t able to hire you, it will be able to provide a reference for you or help connect you to other organizations in the community. However, don’t jump ship as soon as you find another opportunity. Volunteer commitments should be taken seriously, and you should honor your obligation.
5. Networking Cards
It is not really feasible to take your résumé with you every place you go. Whether you are job searching or just want folks to be able to contact you outside of your current job, a networking business card is an excellent tool to get your name out there and for people to remember how to get in touch with you. There are several sites that will print your networking cards for free, and you pay for shipping. Be sure to include the following information:
- Your name and credentials
- A title: Social Work Professional, School Social Worker, Nonprofit Professional, Grief Counselor, Licensed Clinical Social Worker—whatever you think best defines you professionally.
- A professional summary or a few lines on your area of expertise to help the reader know what type of work you may be looking for: e.g., Hospice and Palliative Care, Individual and Group Therapy, Case Management, Addictions Specialist, Conference Presenter, Adjunct Faculty, Volunteer Management.
- Phone number and e-mail address. Let folks know how to get in touch with you.
- Your personal website or LinkedIn profile website. This is important. You want a place where someone can see your résumé virtually. When I was job searching and passing out my card with my LinkedIn profile listed, I was amazed by how many people actually connected with me via LinkedIn instead of by e-mail or phone.
6. Continuing Education
Conferences and workshops are not just a place to sit back and learn. They are the best places to network with other professionals. Talk to the folks sitting around you, engage the speakers, and visit the exhibitor tables. THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER published a great post (see http://bit.ly/1rnUYNw) about the informal in-between moments at conferences that can create the most value and provide constructive networking opportunities. Don’t forget to take your networking cards!
7. Informational Interviews
A skill you should have as a social worker is the ability to interview someone for information. Use this skill in your professional networking. Informational interviewing is one of your most important networking tools. An informational interview is a 30-minute meeting that you set up with an individual, preferably in-person, to gain career advice and information. It is not a time to inquire about specific employment opportunities. Again, networking is about building relationships, not burning bridges. Come prepared by researching the individual and the company where he or she works, and have questions ready to ask, but let him or her do most of the talking.
8. Thank You Notes
If someone has taken the time to do something for you regarding your professional career and aspirations, a handwritten thank you note will go a long way in letting this person know you appreciate the time and effort he or she put in to whatever you requested. Don’t just save your handwritten notes for after job interviews. Use them in all aspects of your professional networking. I guarantee the person will remember you and your professional courtesy and will most likely remember you for future opportunities.
9. The Follow-Up
Yes, this is a tool. I am on the board of a nonprofit professional networking group. We work very hard to provide networking opportunities and professional development to young professionals in our community. Our goal is to help folks build their networks! It is disappointing when we spend our time offering advice and are willing to meet with individuals to provide more information, and yet they never follow up. I have contacts! I can help you out! And still, nothing. Make sure you follow up with every person who has offered to help you, even if their help isn’t the right fit for you. Follow up with an e-mail or call and let them know you appreciate their valuable time.
10. Stay in touch
Your professional network needs tending. Don’t drop off the face of the earth while you are in the process of interviewing or after you find a job. Let your network know you landed a position, and thank them for their support. Occasionally, reach out to maintain that relationship you worked so hard to build. They will no longer be in your network if they only hear from you when you need another job.
You will find success with your professional networking if you are genuine and respectful. Be honest, open, and do your homework.
Valerie Arendt, MSW, MPP, is the Associate Executive Director for the National Association of Social Workers, North Carolina Chapter (NASW-NC). She received her dual degree in social work and public policy from the University of Minnesota and currently provides membership support, including résumé review, to the members of NASW-NC.