If I have learnt one thing since graduating from university a year ago (and that's a pretty big 'if'), it is that networks, contacts and connections matter – a lot. Indeed, given how obvious this fact now seems to me, it is quite amazing that I could have ever believed otherwise.
I used to find great comfort in the belief that it was enough to be able, ambitious and hard-working; I thought that so long as you had those things you wouldn't need to make use of any 'connections' or have to call on any 'contacts'. In fact, I would have probably argued that getting a job and getting on without contacts and connections was purer and more honest, unsullied by the cynical and tawdry concept that is 'networking'.
How wrong I was.
Soon after graduating, many of my comforting, but naive, beliefs were unsettled. I watched while some of my friends and contemporaries were getting worthwhile jobs and internships – almost all of these opportunities came from contacts and useful networks. I, on the other hand, sat at home in front of my laptop sending out what I still think is a pretty good CV to job adverts that I still think that I was qualified for (on paper at least). Even taking into account the incredibly difficult job market, this situation really made me lose faith in myself. I started to question my ambitions and ability. What am I doing wrong? Why is this so hard? What do they – my friends – have that I don't? The answer to the last question was simple: my friends had better access to useful networks, and were fairly pragmatic about using them.
This experience forced me to think long and hard about networks and networking.
My first response was to grumble. How unfair, I thought, that people who are generally no more talented or ambitious or hard-working than me (and others like me) are able to make their crucial first steps in the world of work so easily. What was the point in working so hard if this is all that mattered? This, rather unproductive, state of mind lasted a fair few weeks.
Then I started to think again. I started to think about what the nature of the difference – the inequality – actually was between those who have access to opportunities through networks and those who don't. It is not necessarily material, in the way that, say, access to private school is for the most part. Nor is access to useful networks a congenital or ascribed condition, that is to say it is not something that you are simply born with or without. It is, instead, a somewhat fluid condition that can change a lot over one's lifetime. Recognising these two features was crucial to my re-thinking of networking. If having access to useful networks isn't necessarily a material matter, then providing access to useful networks may not be very expensive. And if useful networks are not only ascribed at birth, then providing young people with access to them is not an impossible task.
This thinking led me to start building an alumni network at my old state school. It is a brute fact that useful connections are a key component of getting good opportunities, and so state school students simply must have access to them. And it is both plausible and economical to provide access to networks, so we should start to get on with it. My old school seemed like the perfect place to start to build such a network around; school is the community that defines young people as much as any other. It has heritage in its past pupils, and a future in its currents pupils. And it offers young people an opportunity to give back, as well as providing a pool of contacts from which young people can draw. Private schools have recognised this truth for a while, and it is time that state schools caught up.
But then I started to think again (I probably think too much). Is the importance of networks simply a ugly fact of life that we have to accommodate? Would a world in which networks and networking didn't exist be necessarily better than our own? I'm not all that sure. Networks are essentially about relationships: the various ties that each of us have to different people. These ties are often unchosen, sometimes inconvenient, and can even be unwanted. They are also, however, inescapable; they make life what it is.
Now, of course the presence of a well-connected elite distributing all of the most desirable opportunities amongst themselves is objectionable, and of course there should be a level playing field when it comes to getting useful opportunities. I do not mean to endorse brazen nepotism, and I think there should certainly be checks on how much of a 'leg up' someone can get simply because they are well-connected. But the point is not that networks themselves are bad things (even if they were, they would still be inescapable), but that access to useful networks is so skewed and unequal. Recent research shows that 39% of state school pupils do not know anyone in a career that they would like to do, and this figure rises to 45% for children on free school meals. These young people are effectively barred from access to useful networks. If more careers and professions more accurately represented the diversity of the actual population, then a broader range of young people would have inspiring, successful and relatable adults to look-up to, to learn from and to lead the way.
But while access to useful networks is still so incredibly skewed, we should be concentrating on educating young people about the importance of networks and building their confidence when it comes to using them. Then maybe they wouldn't be so shocked when they found out the truth.
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