One of the most frequent questions the students I teach ask is, “how can I market myself to potential employers?” In these tough economic times, it’s essential young college graduates – particularly those with disabilities – use every weapon in their arsenal to promote themselves to prospective employers. One of the oldest, and arguably most successful, strategies involves networking.
Networking is a great way for someone to launch themselves into the next phase of their professional life. Some of the best jobs aren’t listed in the newspaper classifieds, and can’t be found on web career listings. In today’s competitive marketplace, it’s up to the interested party to do the research. This reason alone is why networking is becoming an increasingly important tool for people with disabilities.
According to a 2010 survey conducted by the Kessler Foundation and the National Organization on Disability, only 21 percent of all working-age people with disabilities are employed, compared to 59 percent of people without disabilities. People with disabilities are less likely than those without disabilities to socialize with friends, relatives or neighbors. Unemployment for people with disabilities is alarmingly high.
So how does a person with a disability begin the networking process? The following list contains some helpful steps to get you started:
- Find a mentor. Seek out the encouragement of someone you feel comfortable with and someone who has the same goals and perspective as you. Mentors can be professors, current employers, family friends and community leaders. They can provide you with valuable career advice, while connecting you to other professional networks.
- Know where to go. Many public events and meetings directly relate to the disability community, whether its health care, transportation, employment or education. Search community calendars to find the best fit. Most of these events come at no cost to the attendee. Consider joining service groups, Internet list-servs, and alumni organizations. If you are passionate about certain issues or causes, find ways to volunteer or attend fundraisers. You will undoubtedly meet many people who share your interests.
- Be prepared. Manage expectations as to who you think will be attending the event. Consider everyone you know to be a contact and an outlet to even more networks. Come up with a list of questions that may be asked of you and that you want to ask of the guests, and always have a resume on hand. This is paramount to making a good first impression.
- Stay organized. All networking should be catalogued by keeping track of the business cards you collect. Follow up with the people you met with a brief e-mail or thank you note. Suggest a lunch or coffee meeting if you wish to learn more.
- Play the game. You never know who you may run into at the grocery store, a local park or the coffee shop. Take the opportunity to reintroduce yourself and start up conversation where you last left off. It’s always important to stay fresh in the minds of those who can be most helpful.
Continually developing and exercising these networking skills will help you stand out, while increasing your self-confidence when meeting new people and adapting to new situations. These five steps will help you get started on the road to sustainable employment and economic independence.