Go Higher: How to help your child find their first job

As thousands of graduates seek work in the most depressed job market for a decade, Tanya de Grunwald explains how their parents can support them
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Every morning, Jamie Bale, 21, wakes up and remembers that he is one of the 40,000 graduates who have emerged, triumphant, from three or four years in the university "bubble", only to be faced with the toughest job market in 10 years. It has been a nasty shock.

Six months ago, Jamie was half-way through his final year at Portsmouth University, studying English and Drama. Sharing a flat with his girlfriend Louise Mizon, he had a part-time bar job and went out three times a week. Now, Jamie is back in his home town of Rugby, living with his family and claiming jobseekers' allowance. Louise is a two-hour train journey away and his friends are scattered around the UK.

"I assumed I'd be earning £20k in a graduate job by now, living in a swanky flat," he admits. "Instead, I haven't earned a penny since I graduated in July. I've been dedicating myself to a full-time search for permanent work, which has so far proved fruitless. I'm £15,000 in debt and £30 from my £1,500 overdraft limit. I'm in no position to even think about moving out."

Jamie's peers are in the same boat and many are struggling even to find temporary work stuffing envelopes or waiting tables, he says. "The tough part is that none of us knows when – or if – things are going to improve."

Jamie's dad, Alan, 49, a sales manager, admits, "It's difficult for parents to know what we should be doing – every child is different and needs a different kind of help. I check his CV and help him prepare for interviews, but I try not to interfere as I think he should feel his job hunt is his responsibility."

So what, if anything, should parents do to help? "Nagging is rarely productive," warns David Winter, careers adviser at The Careers Group, University of London. "Instead, remind your child of their past successes, praise any progress – however small – and help them make the most of whatever they're doing." Showing faith in them gets better results, agrees Clare Whitmell, founder of JobMarketSuccess.com. "And – whatever you do – don't bring up the subject of jobs at the dinner table."

Dedicating months to at-home job-hunting seldom works in practice. "Some graduates are disciplined, but most will struggle to stay motivated," says Whitmell. "If your child isn't working at all, they'll quickly start to feel isolated and lose confidence. Encourage part-time work at least, even if it's unpaid. It's crucial they feel part of the real world."

Communication is key, says Whitmell. "Sit down together and discuss the situation. Ask your child what they want from their career. Show understanding that the situation is difficult and come to an agreement about how to handle it as a family. Weekly update meetings can be a good idea. Have a rule that you won't ask how it's going outside of that time."

But, while understanding is important, don't be too soft. "Some parents feel too frightened to interfere in case they upset their child," say Whitmell. "Striking a deal creates a healthier sense of balance. Set out your baseline expectations and stick to them." For example, be clear that if you aren't going to bug them about their job hunt, you expect help around the house. Or, if you support them financially, say you expect regular progress updates.

It often helps to suggest fresh approaches. "Remind them of tactics such as speculative applications and networking. If you have friends or colleagues who can help, hand over their details and let your child contact them when they're ready," says Winter.

But, most of all, don't take over. It's vital graduates feel their job hunt is their own responsibility, says Winter. "The world is a different place compared to when you entered the job market – so don't assume what worked for you will work for your child."

How can graduates help themselves?

*Post-graduation gloom isn't new – but it's on a bigger scale this year. While I can't create jobs, stop the recession or tell graduates when the job market will pick up, I do remind them that, despite the headlines, thousands will find work this year – and there are ways they can boost their chances of being among them.

*Believe your job is out there. You can't succeed at something you don't believe is possible, so stop saying 'there just aren't any jobs', because there are. Employers might be trimming their graduate schemes, but you have other options. Life doesn't stop in a recession. People still take maternity leave, holidays, and promotions. Who is going to fill the roles they leave behind?

*Focus – don't diversify. A 'scattergun' approach is temping when you're desperate for work – but focusing on one job or industry is better than spreading yourself too thinly, as you'll build knowledge as you go. So long as you're constantly learning, you become a more valuable, impressive candidate every day.

*Look for secret or hidden jobs. It's a common myth that all jobs are advertised. In fact, some sources estimate as little as 20 per cent of jobs are advertised. Instead of groaning about how stupid or unfair this is, start doing some detective work, using contacts, industry publications, work experience and speculative approaches. It's time well spent – there will be less competition for any jobs you discover like this and you've already proved to the bosses you're smart enough to track them down.

*Review your tactics. If you aren't seeing results, try new techniques. Different methods work for different industries. Ask yourself: "What's working and what isn't?" Do more of what's working – and ditch anything that isn't. Also ask for feedback from failed applications. It isn't fun – but if you're doing something wrong, you need to know about it so you can fix it.

*Don't wait to be inspired. If you haven't identified your dream by now, don't expect to any time soon. Get out there and find a solid little starter job, doing something you might enjoy for a year or so. You'll bag you some experience, learn more about what work you like, and get some cash coming in. You can always switch to something else later on. Nothing is set in stone.


Tanya de Grunwald is author of 'Dude, Where's My Career? The Guide for Baffled Graduates' (Summersdale, £8.99)