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It’s September; what will you be doing in May?

An open letter to college juniors and seniors (and the parents of):

For the 13th consecutive year, I pose my annual question to you: It’s September; what will you be doing in May?

In 2005, the year this ritual began, unemployment hadn’t yet reached the highest point since the Great Depression (that was in ’09) and few college students (and parents) paid attention to this issue. Then, in 2008 and ’09, when it all hit the fan, things started looking very different.

For instance, in 2009, fewer college grads had job offers in hand by graduation day than in any year in history: 20 percent. The next year was hardly better: 24.5 percent. All of a sudden, people started paying attention.

Now, though, we’re at the point where graduates consistently report that more than half are working in their fields upon graduation.

So that’s good, right? Not so fast. Although the American economy — and, with it, the job market — made great strides since the recession, taking anything for granted is a huge mistake.

No data I look at when analyzing the job market can convince me we’re on the yellow brick road right now, especially with so many things becoming so volatile so fast this year. We’re in uncertain times.

So in May, strolling off your campus into the real world is not going to be such a walk in the park, whether you graduate and look for a job or are a junior looking for an internship. Either way, you’ve got a challenge.

That challenge, though, is not so much dictated by those numbers, because whether the numbers are up or down, there’s still hiring for jobs and internships going on. So the challenge, simply, calls for you to get a jump on it (juniors for internships and seniors for jobs).

And that means starting right now as you return to campus.What you do today — not later in the semester, but today — can have critical leverage in May.

Unless you’re planning full-time graduate study next year, come the end of this school year, you’ll need to have either a good internship (juniors) or a career-starting job (seniors) commensurate with your degrees — not low-level, temp or unpaid jobs, and not working for your parents’ family business because there’s nothing else you can find, but jobs you went to school to qualify for, jobs your parents dreamed about when they sacrificed and saved for 20 years.

May is a lot closer than you think and, while the employment picture is good (not great), the job market for entry-level participants such as you is still, as we saw above, a challenge. You’ll meet that challenge by starting now, not by waking up one morning — or afternoon (c’mon, that’s likely true) — in April and all of a sudden realizing you need to get a job. The early bird really does catch the worm in this case.

As an independent career coach for 20 years, during which I’ve interacted with thousands of college students and grads, I know this: Jobs and internships do not necessarily go to the most qualified candidates. They go to those who are good at getting hired and the ones who begin the search process early and doggedly persevere.

As I love saying: One step taken in advance is longer than 10 steps taken to catch up. So don’t wait until you wake up one morning next April and suddenly realize you need to find a job.

Get into fourth gear right now. I can tell you unequivocally that the ones who start the process early in the year are the ones who not only land those jobs or internships, but also get the best ones — better companies, better pay, and so forth.

Therefore, the day after you get to school, go to the career center and cement a working relationship with one of its counselors. Tell them you intend to work closely with them.

Also, take a trip over to the alumni office, introduce yourself as a future alum, and ask about alumni networking now. Many schools do that with seniors.

This is all about reaping what you sow, and there’s nothing to reap unless you have sown. I know this because, quite simply, after each year’s graduation, it’s not the early sowers I see in my office looking for career coaching. They’re not the jobless ones.

Understand?

So I again ask my annual question again: It’s September; what will you be doing in May?

Career coach and corporate adviser Eli Amdur has been authoring his weekly “Career Coach” column since 2003 and is the author of his acclaimed career advice book, It’s Not So Far From Here to There: The thinking person’s guide to well-managed career.” Adjunct professor of two graduate-level leadership courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey, he also is active on the speaker circuit, delivering presentations on today’s critical employment and leadership issues. Visit his website at www.amdurcoaching.com.

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