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This year’s college and university graduates will enter the work force at a near ideal time. Despite talk of a potential recession, demand for workers has been strong enough in recent months to keep the unemployment rate and wages increasing at rates above inflation. For some thoughts on how to navigate the entry-level job market, I reached out to recruitment agency Robert Half. Here’s an edited version of the exchange I had by e-mail with David King, the company’s senior managing director for Canada and South America:

Q: We’ve heard a lot about how hot the job market is, even though economists say a recession could be ahead. Is this a good time to be a university or college grad looking to start a career?

A: While there has been lots of discussion about possible economic downturn recently, we continue to be in a tight labour market with plenty of jobs available, including for entry-level positions. However, because of some of the uncertainty around the economy, some employers are becoming more measured in their hiring, and are looking for more candidates, more interviews and other vetting processes to ensure they make the right hire. Ultimately, it is a good time to be entering the work force, but also a slightly more competitive job market too. New grads should come prepared to put in the work to stand out to potential employers, while also familiarizing themselves with the opportunities out there and the salary ranges available.

Q: Can you describe the interview process grads are likely to see – how many interviews are typical before someone is hired?

A: Robert Half’s latest research shows that hiring managers are currently averaging three to four interviews before making an offer for an entry-level position. Some will require fewer interviews, but companies are making the effort to properly gauge prospective employees and get to know them before making a hire. Fourteen per cent of managers say that putting too much emphasis on technical skills has led to hiring mistakes in the past, so many employers are taking the time to ask more situational questions about a candidate’s communication, self-motivation, teamwork and other skills to ensure the right fit for the role and the company. This gives candidates a robust amount of time to showcase their well-rounded abilities and build rapport with the hiring team, which can be especially useful for entry-level job seekers who may have less technical work experience.

Q: How do you suggest a new grad handle the matter of salary when interviewing for a job? Is it OK to ask what the pay is, and whether the amount is negotiable?

A: It’s crucial for any job-seeker – especially an early-career professional who may not have other experience to drawn on – to do their homework when it comes to salaries. Using reports like the Robert Half Salary Guide and other resources is key to understanding market-appropriate salary ranges for prospective roles. Being prepared with this information will help you manage expectations and assess opportunities for negotiation. While you don’t want to ask about salary in your application materials or send the message that you’re only interested in the pay and not the position, asking about a salary range at the end of an interview is appropriate. If you come prepared with typical salary ranges for similar roles, it will help you determine if there is room for negotiation as well.

Q: What tips do you have for someone who is preparing for a job interview, and then for following up after the interview?

A: You can help set yourself up for success by researching the company, looking into the requirements of the role, speaking to others in the business or in similar positions if possible, and thinking about how your skills and experiences align with what the job requires. Doing mock interviews to make sure you can answer tricky questions is also a very valuable way to go in prepared and confident. Other things that work in a candidate’s favour are being punctual and showing passion for the business and work. Beyond that, if the role requires any in-office time, it’s also worth taking the initiative to request an in-person interview to help you get a sense of the commute, the office environment and other factors that can affect your job satisfaction.

Once the interview is done, it’s always a nice idea to send a follow-up thank you note, to show you appreciate the time they took and the opportunity they gave you to share more about yourself, to reiterate your enthusiasm for the role and the company and to express your seriousness about the job. Our research shows that 51 per cent of hiring managers feel a thank-you letter can help tip the scales in a candidate’s favour.

Q: How much room is there for a new grad to negotiate a job offer from an employer?

A: New grads must balance their need to gain experience and to get their foot in the door, and knowing their worth when it comes to pay and benefits. Ideally, these will align, and a great role will be offered with competitive pay and perks. However, if a promising opportunity arrives without an adequate compensation offer, asking if there is room for negotiation is reasonable, especially if you are aware of market-rate salaries for similar roles and this differs greatly. If the salary is not negotiable, consider asking about opportunities for flexible work arrangements, more holiday and other perks and benefits that may be more negotiable and can help make the offer more competitive.

Q: How long are recent grads typically staying in their first job?

A: Our latest Job Optimism survey showed that 51 per cent of professionals with zero to one years of experience are planning to look, or have already started looking, for a new role in the first half of 2023. While this number seems high, it is actually lower than those with two to four years of experience (61 per cent), and five to nine years of experience (55 per cent). What we can glean from this is that roughly half of entry-level professionals are using their first jobs as a launching pad for other opportunities, while the other half are continuing to learn and grow within their current roles.

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Do you have a question for me? Send it my way. Sorry I can't answer every one personally. Questions and answers are edited for length and clarity.

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