Ask Annie

4 ways to help your college kid find a job

January 10, 2014: 5:00 AM ET

Nobody -- well, hardly anybody -- wants to be a "helicopter parent," but, even so, college seniors may need a hand. Here's what to do now.

Illustration of person in graduation gown looking at ladder

FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: Now that it's 2014, my son will be graduating from college in just a few months, and I have to admit I'm a little worried. He's gotten good grades as a finance major with a minor in business, which I think makes him pretty marketable. He's also done a couple of internships, one with a big-name company and one with a startup, but neither has yet offered him a regular full-time job.

I know the job market is still pretty weak, and although I hate to think of myself as the dreaded "helicopter parent" always hovering nearby, I still think he could use some help. My husband and I are both well-connected in our respective fields, so should we be introducing our son to people who might know of job openings, or is that a bad idea? What do you and your readers recommend? ------ Minnesota Mom

Dear M.M.: It's not a bad idea at all (more about that in a minute), and wanting to help doesn't make you a helicopter parent unless your "help" starts getting in the way. "Getting a job is really your child's job. It's not your fight," notes David DeLong. "On the other hand, parents know how tough it is out there, which college students don't always realize."

MORE: 2014, the year of the 'passive' job hunter

DeLong should know. He has a daughter who's a junior in college, but, more to the point, he's a fellow at MIT's Age Lab and the author of a new book called Graduate to a Great Job: Make Your College Degree Pay Off in Today's Market. You might find it useful, since it has a couple of chapters just for parents of new grads.

It's certainly true that the class of 2014 will step into a rocky job market. Unemployment among U.S. young people ages 18 to 29 is stuck at about 16%, and underemployment in the same age group -- that is, working at a job that doesn't call for a four-year degree -- stands at roughly half.

Moreover, although layoffs in December fell by about 3% year to year, to their lowest level since 2000, according to Chicago outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas, finance jobs are not thick on the ground: The financial industry lost hundreds of thousands of jobs -- more than 80,000 in New York City alone -- in 2013, ironically due to an economic recovery that has drastically reduced the need for people who specialize in foreclosures and rewriting troubled loans. All of those people have had to go somewhere, and your son is competing against them, as well as against many other seasoned finance mavens.

Still, jobs do exist, of course: In researching his book, DeLong interviewed 35 recent college grads from 20 different schools (all "good" but none Ivy League), who have succeeded at finding interesting full-time work, sometimes with a boost from their mom and dads' connections. "Every parent-child relationship is different, naturally," DeLong says. "Some kids want nothing to do with any kind of help from their folks. Others are counting on it."

The first thing many parents have to do, he adds, is come to terms with whatever ambivalence they may harbor about their offspring's leaving home for good. "In all the interviews I did, the parents had mixed feelings. Some of them really wanted the kid to come home for the summer, or even for much longer," he observes. Assuming you've conquered that, here are four steps you can take to help:

1. If possible, set up informational interviews. DeLong likes your idea of introducing your son to some of the people you (and your husband) know professionally. "Informational interviews, where someone meets with a seasoned person in a given field to find out what the various career paths are and how to get from A to B, are a great tool for any job hunter, but especially for new grads," he says. "Parents can be a gold mine of introductions to colleagues, clients, or other people with real-world insights that kids can really use."

2. Encourage your child to develop a focus. Those informational interviews should help with this, as should reading some company websites and studying up on current trends in a given industry. "Employers tell me that most entry-level applicants have only a vague idea, if that, of what they want to do or what skills they bring," DeLong says. New grads often overlook, for instance, the link between team leadership honed in college sports or other activities and employers who are looking for those skills. You can help by pointing out the abilities and experience your son has to offer that companies want -- and that he may be overlooking.

3. Lend a hand with preparing for interviews. "New grads almost always need help with how to act and what to say in a job interview, either from you or from the campus career center or some other experienced source," DeLong says, adding that "interviews are more complicated now than they used to be, with many employers now depending on phone screens and Skype meetings, both of which call for different approaches."

MORE: Denny's tries to move beyond breakfast

At the same time, he says, "make sure your child is ready mentally for the sheer number of interviews he or she will probably have to do before getting hired."

4. Steer him or her clear of the "passion hoax." DeLong considers this so important that he devoted a whole chapter of his book to it. "The larger society, or sometimes even parents themselves, too often encourage kids to 'do what you love' or 'find your bliss,'" he says. "But what if your bliss is the current equivalent of the buggy-whip business?"

By his lights, a valuable (and difficult) part of parents' role is being supportive while still acting as a reality check. "Encourage new grads to learn about what industries are growing now and which ones aren't, and where the opportunities are likely to be in the future," he says.You might also mention that "the point right now is to start somewhere, without worrying too much about whether it's the ideal job," DeLong adds. "Especially at the outset of a career, even a job you don't like will teach you a lot."

What if your child is going into, say, drama, film, or some other field where lots of other talented people are parking cars or waiting tables? "Of course, a few of those people do get their big break," he notes. "But parents need to make sure kids understand the likely consequences of any choice they make now."

Good luck.

Talkback: If you've helped a son or daughter find a job in this tough economy, what helped the most (or least)? Leave a comment below.

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About This Author
Anne Fisher
Anne Fisher
Contributor, Fortune

Anne Fisher has been writing "Ask Annie," a column on careers, for Fortune since 1996, helping readers navigate booms, recessions, changing industries, and changing ideas about what's appropriate in the workplace (and beyond). Anne is the author of two books, Wall Street Women (Knopf, 1990) and If My Career's on the Fast Track, Where Do I Get a Road Map? (William Morrow, 2001).

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