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Kelechi Udoagwu: How To Get Experience When You’ve Never Had a Job

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dreamstime_l_33085033The most common question I’ve heard graduates ask is “How can I get experience when I’ve never had a job?” or “How can I use my skills when no one will hire me?”. It’s easy and quite normal to get frustrated when job searching seems endless and it feels like life is against you — the periods of job searching can be the worst in a young man (or woman’s) life. You’ve graduated with a good degree, you should be able to get a good job; but the world doesn’t care about your degree.

Which brings us back to the question — how can you get experience when no one will hire you? If you stare at this question long enough, it should become obvious that you have to create your own opportunities to gain experience. You might be fresh out of school, but you don’t have to be fresh into the job market.

If you’re not blessed with uncles and aunties in high places, you should start preparing for the inevitable job hunt period while still in school. Here’s some motivation to gain experience and ideas to get started:

It sets you apart
You might be a natural salesperson, but if you don’t have the experience of actually working in some sales capacity, it doesn’t count. Everyone thinks they’re good at something till they try. I used to think I was good at acting until I started attending auditions, and that didn’t turn out so well. You should test yourself with open opportunities in your field whether you’re paid or not. Doing what you say you can do is the best way to convince any job recruiter. When they ask for experience, what they’re really asking for is proof that you’re used to the role, and not a waste of time.

It gives you credibility
Let’s say you want to become a writer or a speaker. These fields are difficult to break into, even for long-timers. What gives you credibility is a portfolio of work, which acts as proof that you’re passionate about what you do, you do it often, are be willing to grow in the field. A portfolio shows job recruiters that you’re committed.

You meet people who change your life
In my opinion, this is the best thing about creating useful experiences. You meet people you wouldn’t have met on a normal day. Let’s imagine, you voluntarily intern at Heirs Holdings. You not only have a chance of being hired when you graduate, but you also have the chance to meet important people like the CEO, and make an impression. The people you meet everyday will become your social capital in future. Like a proverb says, it’s not who you know but who knows you that counts.

It keeps you constantly evolving
There’s nothing sadder than running into friends from your past, and you’re still in the same place you were when you were friends. Chasing productive experiences keeps you evolving, and leads to progress which leads to more progress. My first job was a voluntary internship at a firm in Allen; no pay, no chair, no real role in the office. But it set me up for my next job, which in turn set me up for my present job.

It teaches you more than school ever will
You get a more rounded view about life, especially in the professional world. You learn how to act like an oga by being around them. Even the littlest and most useless errands they send you on can add up in your CV if you phrase it right. You get to practice the things you were taught in school, and learn things you weren’t.

Sh*t’s gonna get real before you know it
Remind yourself that things are going to change in your life someday, and you have to prepare for it. It could be graduation, a crash in the economy, or death of a parent; but someday what you’re doing to get by presently will not be enough to sustain you.

The summary so far is this: Don’t wait till you need a job before you start thinking of what experience you have or how your skills add up. Start doing something in your free time, it doesn’t have to be big. So when next you have to fill an application, you’ll have experience, someone to recommend you, and a number of options to choose from.

Here are some ideas of things you can do to build your experience before you get a job:

  • Always say yes to new experiences: If you have nothing else to do, just say yes.
  • Apply, apply, apply: The internet is filled with many opportunities. Most of them are free. Apply whether you think you’ll get it or not. You never know where fate will take you.
  • Ask people how they did it: Drop your pride and embrace curiosity instead.
  • Intern for free: A voluntary internship can open many doors for you. Accept the fact that in the beginning of your career you won’t make a lot of money. That’s why you should start early so you can progress early.
  • Volunteer often: This is a great way to meet passionate people who can impact you positively.
  • Network, make connections: Everybody is somebody, and can teach you something, or connect you to someone.
  • Forget your failures: The past is past. What matters is moving forward, and making sure you do better.
  • Contact your mentors: Reach out to successful people if you have something definite that you want from them.
  • Attend conferences: It gives you a chance to practice social skills and stack up social capital.
  • Take a class: Whether online or offline, it doesn’t matter, as long as you learn something.
  • Create a blog: If you like to write, this is good practice and you never know where it might lead.
  • Practise an art or a skill: Playing an instrument, drawing, cooking, dancing, sewing. These could all turn into a career, or make you more interesting to people you meet.
  • Pay attention: Study your environment, study people. In life, the trick isn’t to be strong, rich or brave — it’s to be attentive.
  • Forget about what you studied at the University: Chances are you’ll end up doing something else.
  • Spend money on experiences, not things: You’ll remember most of the things you did in your life; places you went, conversations that changed you, etc; but you’re not likely to remember the cute shoes you bought last year.

Photo Credit: Dreamstime

Kelechi Udoagwu is an Accra-based Nigerian writer, consultant, and Founder of Week of Saturdays. She works with organizations and thought leaders to communicate goals and reach new markets. She also guides young freelancers to get a foot in the gig and talent economy.

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