Dear Matt: I'm graduating this spring and about to hit the job market. Everything I read mentions the importance of networking. Do you have tips for recent college grads attending industry networking events for the first time?

Matt says: Networking, particularly face-to-face, is one of the most important job search skills, says Bob LaBombard, CEO of Twin Cities-based GradStaff, Inc. (, a national expert in the entry-level professional job market. "Many employers, especially small and medium, often rely on referrals from employees, clients, vendors, consultants, recruiters and others sources to identify candidates," says LaBombard.

Attend job fairs, industry mixers, alumni or networking events to make those contacts. Not every person you meet will be the one to lead you to that first job, but treat each introduction as an opportunity to grow professionally. A simple connection today could lead to a great opportunity tomorrow.

Since almost all entry-level candidates lack work experience, identify transferrable skills that have value in the workplace — problem solving, critical thinking, time management, communication and leadership, says LaBombard. Think of real-life examples. Consider past experiences in college coursework and group projects, athletics, extracurricular activities, volunteer work, internships, summer and part-time jobs that demonstrate your skills and abilities. For example, people with serving experience in a restaurant may be good candidates for customer-facing positions in sales, account management or project management.

When meeting someone, use a firm handshake, maintain good eye contact, smile and be confident. To ease into conversation develop an icebreaker like this, says LaBombard: "Hi, my name is Melissa and I graduated in May with a major in psychology. I'm here today to learn as much as I can about potential career opportunities and get as much advice as I can."

Next, work to get a good two-way conversation going, says LaBombard. Ask questions like these:

• How did you get your first job after graduation? What was it and what did you learn from it?

• Please tell me about your career path.

• Your current position sounds interesting; tell me more about it.

• What recommendations do you have for job seekers?

• What entry-level positions does your company recruit for, and what do you look for in your entry-level hires?

Remember, networking is a two-way street. You want to find contacts that can lead to a job, but you have to give to get. Be a good listener and offer to help others. You will reap the rewards from building a professional network.

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