Job Hunt: Networking is essential and easier than you think

Theresa Mickelwait, assistant director of UK's Stuckert Career Center
Theresa Mickelwait, assistant director of UK's Stuckert Career Center

For some job seekers, networking can be among the most intimidating tasks. But it doesn't have to be complicated or scary.

In fact, you network more often than you realize if you think about it outside the context of a job search. Think about the last time you asked a friend to recommend a good movie, restaurant or plumber.

Most career professionals and recruiters agree that networking is the most effective strategy to find jobs. Referrals accounted for 26.7 percent of external hires in 2009, according to a 2010 study by recruiting Web site And a 2009 survey by outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas suggested human resources professionals ranked networking as the most effective job search method.

So, what is a network? It's simply a group of connected individuals. Your network includes personal and business contacts at different levels of relationships. Good networking begins long before the job search and is really just relationship building. But it's never too late to build on your existing network, and it can really make a difference in your job search. Although social media is on the rise and is a good place to reach out and reconnect with people, face-to-face networking is still best.

Consider the level at which you know each person in your network. Close contacts are people with whom you have had a mutually beneficial relationship and speak on a fairly regular basis. These can be friends, family members, and colleagues or business contacts you've worked with closely. These are the people you can go to for advice or information now, and they would be glad to help you. Make sure you ask those people for other contacts they know who could help you to continually expand your network.

On the other hand, there are acquaintances you know from work or common groups but don't know well. There are also people you might have had close relationships with in the past but have lost contact with. To build your network with these contacts, you should start by reconnecting or building these relationships. Instead of asking them for favors, think first how you can help them in some way. Don't just offer unsolicited advice; spend time talking with them and really listening for ways you can help them solve problems or provide information. This will deepen your connection and make them more likely to offer advice or information.

Here are some basic tips on networking:

■ Engage with others and ask them about their interests.

■ Be friendly and enthusiastic.

■ Smile and shake hands firmly.

■ If you are shy, talk to someone standing alone.

■ Focus on what you have to offer others.

■ Remember, a few meaningful conversations are better than many brief ones.

If your current network isn't working for you or you've moved to a new city, you'll need to find places to meet more people and start building relationships. If you are in an active job search, the best way to network is through professional organizations or trade groups in your industry. That way, you'll be more likely to connect with potential employers or co-workers. For example, I am a member of the Kentucky Career Development Association and regularly attend their meetings. If you are in the marketing field, find a local chapter of the American Marketing Association and attend its events. Some organizations, such as the Lexington Young Professionals Association, host professionals from a variety of industries or career fields.

Another place to build networking contacts is through non-professional clubs or organizations. Let your interest and hobbies lead you to focused groups like a local spinning class, knitting club or a non-profit. The key here is to make sure you talk to people, briefly introduce yourself, and after they become familiar with you, get their contact information in person or perhaps by inviting them to coffee. Finally, don't discount people you come into contact with at the dentist's office and grocery store or on an airplane.

Networking doesn't have to be intimidating. Just remember, you already do it every day.