Fresh out of college last June, Mimi Conger -- her eye on a career in public relations -- set out to find a job in Washington.
Her hopes were high -- she had prepared well for the search. She had obtained the names of important contacts here and had listened carefully to all her school counselors' job-hunting advice.
But anticipation of quick success soon faded. It was only after almost eight months of hard work and with a good deal of frustration, strong determination and some innovative thinking that Conger, now 22, finally landed a position in her field where she can say, "I'm happy."
Conger, who graduated in English from Vanderbilt University, says her "frustrations" are shared by many of her Washington friends -- bright, eager recent college graduates competing in a tight employment market, not for just any job, but for a foothold in the field in which they want to build a career.
Along the way, many do take secretarial or clerks jobs to pay the bills while they continue their search. Conger worked the evening shift as a sales clerk at Neiman-Marcus -- "You need that money," she says, "to keep the spirits up."
Paul Bernstein, a 23-year-old University of Rochester graduate in English and film, is looking for a photo-journalism job here, perhaps on a magazine. But meanwhile, he has driven a school bus and done office work for an auto body firm. At the moment, he's sharing a home and living on his "rather rapidly depleting" savings.
A June graduate of a prestigious New England college took a secretarial job in a Washington arts institution here hoping for a chance to move up. When that didn't seem to be working out, she quit and is still looking for an arts-related job. "It's frustrating," she says, "when you have the background and the brains and can't use them."
John Cunningham, 23, another Vanderbilt alumnus, found his business administration degree had not given him the skills sought by the business world. For three months he waited tables at a Tyson's Corner restaurant until he got a job with the Marriott Corporation that he thinks has potential for him. Meanwhile he's in night school accounting classes and may go after a master's degree in computers and finance.
Conger feels strongly, after her whole-hearted plunge into the job hunt, that much of the advice she got before beginning her search "is a myth. So much of it is from professionals, people in their 40s. It's almost as if they're in another world."
Here is the perspective, she says, of the first-time career hunters like her friends -- products of the baby boom -- who have found the job market "glutted -- every position flooded with applicants."
When she started her long round of interviews -- about two a day -- she expected they all would be handled in a businesslike manner. But that turned out to be untrue.
One interviewer asked her, "What country club do your parents belong to?" Though surprised by what she considered an "unprofessional" question, "I stood up for myself. I laughed and then asked, 'Why do you need to know? What bearing does that have?'"
Another interviewer spent 45 minutes telling her about his love affair and the night clubs he went to. At first, she says, she thought he might be a "stereotypical dirty old man, but he turned out to be harmless." Still, "I made no effort to seek that job."
The job interview can be "exhausting," says the woman who is seeking an arts-related career. She doesn't want her name used because she is still looking. "You reach a saturation point. You can enter an office and almost know if your hearts in it." (One office she stepped quickly out of was decorated liberally with plastic flowers. "I wasn't real impressed.")
Conger's college career advisers told her to write a resume detailing her academic achievements, extracurricular activities and summer work. She did, but doesn't think it helped much.
One potential employer -- "the president of a leading advertising agency" -- scanned her resume for a few minutes and said, "This is no good.You have no experience." He suggested he would have preferred a sheet of paper with only her name and address.
Employers seemed unsure of what to do with people in her situation -- "too qualified" with a college education to be contest as "a file clerk," but not experienced enough to be "an executive." She thinks firms "for their own ego" sometimes like to hire the overqualified.
Conger did apply for a "junior receptionist" job at a brokerage office, thinking "there might be a hidden pot there at the end of the rainbow." She found herself competing with many similarly overqualified applicants.
When she asked about chances for moving up, they told her, "Yes, if I did a good job as a receptionist," which to Conger meant "doing a good job of cleaning up the coffee room." When she looked around and saw only one woman in the "executive pool," she decided to continue her search.
Once Conger took a position with a career-counseling firm that an employment agency had described to her "as the perfect thing." It went bankrupt, and after only two months she was unemployed again.
She was perhaps most surprised, she says, by the reaction she got when she scrupulously followed the dress-for-success guidelines -- "suit and briefcase; I bought my little uniform."
For the kind of job she wanted, her clothing appeared to "intimidate" and "embarrass" the interviewers, some of whom wore jeans and sweaters. "You have to dress the way the people do where you're going," she eventually decided.
She and her job-hunting friends, Conger says, concluded the best bet was to "wear the uniform, but put in some flair. Not too great looking a suit. Bring it down to earth. Otherwise you look too spanking new -- like Mommie dressed you up." For public relations, she found, the dress is "casual chic."
Career counselors advised her to set up informational interviews with people in public relations. "You tell them, 'I just want to talk to you about your field,'" with the expectation that "you'll get a foot in the door. They'll remember you."
"A graduate coming out of college believing this gradually learns it's not true," says Conger. "They don't remember you."
The reality is, "You have to be at the right place at the right time" (which is how she got her job).
Along with following-up leads from friends, want-ads and employment agencies, she began reading a weekly advertising column that told which public-relations agencies were getting new business.
Poretz and Jaffe, she noticed, had just gotten a Washington bank's new advertising account. She phoned the firm and asked if they needed help. "It just happens that we do," they told her, and hired her as an account executive. j
Photo-journalist Bernstein, too, thinks getting a job "is a matter of things falling in place."
Recently he has been helping a new magazine, Washington Woman, get under way. When the first issue goes on the newsstand this week, he expects it to contain as many as 40 of his photographs. Though the work was volunteered, he feels that with the magazine in hand he'll be in a stronger position in his job search. "I'm racking up experience I can cite" and "I'm getting better as a photo-journalist."
Business graduate Cunningham figures being in the right place also helped him. While waiting tables, he often talked to customers to get leads on job openings. One day a Marriott employe gave him a name. When he followed through, Marriott told him "somebody had just left" and hired him. He now handles Marriott's leasing arrangements, and sees a future there as the company expands in the entertainment and recreation area.
"A lot of people," says Conger, "just give up and take anything, they're so desperate. It is hard emotionally to keep telling yourself, 'I'm worth hiring.'" Nevertheless, she advises: "Stick it out until you get a promising job in your field."