02/27/2012 05:07 pm ET Updated Apr 28, 2012

How to Find a Job, If You Are Young

Both my parents were lawyers. When I was growing up, the only career advice they ever gave me was to be anything I wanted to be, except a lawyer. They were not entirely prepared for the career path I would follow.

At the end of 2002, mid-way through my junior year at Yale and increasingly freaked out about the deepening climate crisis, I dropped out to try to build a youth movement. This was not, initially, remunerative work. My roommates let me continue to share the dorm room with them and would help me sneak into the dining halls for the occasional free meal. It took two years before I drew a real paycheck for my work, and at that point, I had co-founded and was coordinating the Energy Action Coalition, the largest youth climate advocacy organization in the world. I've been lucky enough to keep pulling off the trick ever since, finding or creating work for myself that both addresses the climate crisis and pays the bills. As the young people I was working with graduated from school, I started hearing the same question over and over again: "Can I get a job doing work that I care about?"

For a long time, I didn't have any good answers. But a few years ago, I linked up with Dev Aujla, a social entrepreneur who'd written a short e-book called Occupation: Change the World, and we spent the last three years hitting the books, interviewing hundreds of young people and compiling the best strategies and resources we could find to help people build meaningful careers. Today, Making Good: Finding Meaning, Money & Community in a Changing World hits the shelves.

This is the toughest economy for young people since the Great Depression. While wages have remained stagnant for decades, the cost of everything else has gone up. Buying a home is a joke for most young people today, and the average college student graduates with more than 25 grand in student loans. Many of those young people are relying on age-old job hunting techniques: mailing out resumes, answering ads in newspapers or searching online job boards. As Dev and I discovered in our research for Making Good, 90% of the time these techniques don't work. Here's what does work:

1. Build strong relationships and work with your network to find (or create) the right job for you. Our personal networks, although often small at the beginning, can still be the best place to start when we want to get a job that makes a difference or take our ideas to the next level. Eighty percent of job opportunities come through personal networks. Social networking sites allow us to build broader networks and keep in touch more easily than ever before. The trick is then taking those networks offline, using methods you probably already employ in your healthiest, closest relationships -- focused attention, a desire to see other people succeed, and reciprocal support.

If your job search is urgent, one of the most effective strategies is to form a career-building group with 2-3 other friends who are also looking for work. Set goals together, share job opportunities and hold each other accountable to do the work that's required to find work.

2. Learn skills that make you indispensable to employers, and be prepared to keep learning. The reality is that the days of full-time, long- term, office-bound employment for many of us are probably numbered. The biggest opportunities to make money and change the world will come with unusual job titles and hours. Many of the best jobs 10 years from now probably don't even exist today.

To truly master a skill, we need to be more than just good at something -- we have to be actually excited by it so that we make enough time actually doing it. Mastery is, to a large extent, about the time you dedicate, so a good way to discover what you want to become masterful at is asking yourself: "What really interests me? What would I never get sick of?"

Once you're clear on that, you need to figure out the best way to learn that skill. Almost all the people we interviewed for the book who'd successfully built meaningful careers followed one of four paths. Decide which is right for you and get going:
  • Worked for a company or organization
  • Apprenticed for someone they admired
  • Researched, learned, and taught themselves
  • Went to school to get some specific training and an essential credential

3. Embrace a non-linear career path. We don't have the luxury of relying on the straight path that our parents lived and that we were taught. Today our generation is jumping from internship, to travel abroad, to a for-profit and back to freelance. Independent workers already make up 30 percent of the nation's workforce. This sector includes freelancers, consultants, independent contractors, temps, part-timers, contingent employees, and the self-employed.

We are a nomadic generation but we're one that's on a mission. According to recent surveys, more than half of us feel as though we're "personally responsible for making a difference in the world." So figure out what difference you want to make, and take a step in that direction. And then another step. And then another step. You make the road by walking.

More and more of us are discovering that we can make good and make money -- some of the best opportunities to make money also do good. A recent study by the Brookings Institution showed there are already 2.4 million green jobs across the U.S.

In Making Good, we look at Information Technology, Energy, Education, The Arts, Health Care, Food, Manufacturing and Waste Management -- taken together, rebuilding each of these critical sectors across the country is a multi-generational project that will employ tens of millions of people. This is a Great Rebuilding we should all embrace, a Great Rebuilding we can all be a part of.