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The Question:

I recently graduated with a master's degree in mechanical engineering. I have worked in robotics, developing a reconfigurable mobile robot to inspect vehicles for a security company. I am having difficulty networking – I don't know how to meet people at companies and I don't know how to set up an information interview. I recently called a prospective employer's human resources department to ask for a meeting and the answer was 'No. Look at the website.' How can I get access to a company? Your advice would be invaluable.

The Answer:

First of all, congratulations on earning your master's degree in mechanical engineering – that is a feat in itself. You are not alone in your problems with networking.

Start with who you know. Make a list of all your contacts – friends, family members, colleagues, associates, classmates, professors, alumni, employers, etc. You will likely be surprised at how long your list is. Start by prioritizing the list. Then develop a schedule for when you will contact people.

Let people on your list know that you are in the process of looking for a position in mechanical engineering and robotics and ask whether they know of anyone in those fields that you can contact. Remember the priority of contacting people is in person, through videoconference, by telephone, through social media, by text messaging, e-mail, and broadcast letter.

When your contacts give you the name of a person and that person's contact information then make sure that you follow-up with the new contact. Also ask whether the person you know can introduce you or if you can use their name as a reference in your conversation with the new contact.

Make a list of your prospective employers and contacts. Find out where they go for their professional networking, such as conferences, workshops, symposiums, and technology and business meetings. Attend these events. Be prepared to ask people about themselves and their companies and to tell them who you are, what you love to do both personally and professionally, and what you are looking for – an information meeting and with luck, a new position. Make sure that you take their business cards and give them one of yours.

Follow up with the contacts you make. This is often where people drop the ball. They meet someone new and follow up once, via e-mail, and then give up. Realize that it usually takes more than five or six contacts with someone to actually line up or land an opportunity.

Social media networking can be helpful in making contacts with prospective employers and specialty interest groups. Update and revise your résumé and post it on LinkedIn, Facebook, and other social media sites. (Before you do, make sure you clean up your social media pages of any inappropriate or embarrassing photographs and/or posts). Connect with existing and new contacts and specialty interest groups on these sites. Thank people for connecting with you and suggest a face-to-face meeting at their convenience.

With respect to information interviews, going through human resources rarely helps in lining up interviews unless the HR official knows you and will connect you with an appropriate official within the company.

Make a list of all the companies you are interested in approaching. Do your research on the companies. Find out about the people in these companies that you would like to work for.

Find out whether they have written any articles or research papers or whether they have made recent presentations at conferences or whether anyone in your network knows them. Contact these individuals directly and indicate that you would love to speak to them about your common interests, connections and the company.

Be prepared for the information interview. Practise your interviewing skills with friends, colleagues, or a career coach or counsellor. Videotape yourself and get feedback on how you can improve your presentation and relationship skills. Develop a list of questions for company officials.

During the interview, focus on finding out about the official and the company. Inquire about what they are proudest of, the company's major accomplishments, and new projects or initiatives. Find out about the challenges or issues that the official and the company are facing.

If the company official is interested, then they will ask about you. Be prepared to give them a brief and succinct overview of yourself, your background, experience and interests. Indicate to them how you might be able to help them with their challenges and issues. State your interest in working for the company. Point out that you are interested in taking on consulting, part-time or full-time assignments, or a position.

If there are no immediate opportunities, thank them for their time and ask whether they will contact you if an appropriate position comes open in the future.

Follow up by sending a thank-you e-mail or letter summarizing your conversation, reiterating how you might help the company and how you would like to stay in touch.

Bruce Sandy is principal of and Pathfinder Coaching & Consulting. He is based in Vancouver and works internationally.

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