Deirdre McMurdy

Spring is many things to many people. But for students, it means just one thing: searching for a job.

Whether it's full-time employment after graduation or a summer gig, this year will be one of the most challenging for those under 25. More than ever before, it's going to take strategy, focus and determination to make it happen.

Those in the 15-24 age group took the hardest hit during the recession. They accounted for more than half of all jobs lost and that trend has been slow to reverse. Now, youth employment remains stalled at 250,000 jobs below the pre-recession peak, while for those over 25 the number stands at 400,000 above pre-downturn levels.

The biggest part of the problem is that longer life expectancy, the end of mandatory retirement, a shift to a service-based economy — and financial necessity — have converged to lead workers who are over 60 to stay in or return to the workforce.

According to TD Economics, that demographic group alone accounts for one-third of all new jobs since mid-2009. It's all the more impressive given that they're only eight per cent of the total labour force.

It doesn't stop there.

In fact, Statistics Canada research indicates that a 50-year old worker in 2008 is likely to work 3.5 years longer on average than a 50-year-old worker was in the mid-1990s.

Even competition from the over-70 crowd is fierce. Employment for that age group has increased by 55,000 since mid-2099 — a 37 per cent gain.

Employers are keen on older workers because they've usually got extensive experience and existing networks. But they're also highly flexible, keen to work part-time, flex-time or in other so-called "non-standard" ways.

They're also highly motivated: the retrenchment of financial markets, lack of savings and accumulation of debt in later life, means that debt loads are keeping workers' shoulders to the wheel.

All of this means that for those just joining the market, it's going to take a serious game plan to find work. Here are a few things to bear in mind when going up against your parents — or even your grandparents — for a job:

  1. Don't use a boiler plate resumé. Instead of just listing your education and experience, carefully tailor your resumé to the job you're going for and be very precise about your experience. Write a killer, one-page cover letter that specifically relates your skills to the position for which you're applying. The less generic the better.
  2. Be strategic in building up experience. Look for volunteer or other opportunities that round out your education with practical, real-world experience.
  3. Cultivate interests or accomplishments that set you apart from the pack — then be sure to spell out the direct connection between that initiative and the requirements for the job for which you are applying. Don't expect others to make those links — do it for them.
  4. Talk to everyone you know — even if they're in an area that doesn't particularly interest you. It's all about who they know and they might just make you rethink your assumptions about yourself — and your interests. Even people who know you may very well not know things about you that could make you a strong job candidate. So don't assume anything.
  5. LinkedIn is the best way to keep tabs on who you know. Keep an eye specifically on connections to the top 20 companies you'd like to work for.
  6. Manage your expectations. Of course you're worth $100,000 a year right out of school. But failing that, find a job that has good upside potential. And keep a strategic eye on how to build your skills once you're in the door.
  7. Use social media tools but with caution. Think twice about what you tweet or what you post on Facebook — it could be really embarrassing. And make sure you regularly scan job posting aggregators like Workopolis and Eluta.
  8. During interviews, be sure to listen rather than just talking.
  9. Be confident and keen. Dress neatly. Look people in the eye. Be punctual. Answer questions precisely — if someone asks you the time, don't tell them how to make a watch.
  10. Follow up. And when you've got new information to offer up, pass it along.