RIVER NORTH — Getting a job after college once entailed padding your resume, writing a witty-yet-professional cover letter and nailing the job interview.
My pal M.L. Elrick once tried to win over a Newsday editor by offering a "free set of steak knives" — a catchy line from a popular infomercial back in the day — in exchange for a job interview.*
These days, however, young adults vying for a shrinking number of white-collar jobs can't rely on a good resume, the power of a well-crafted letter and a charismatic personality alone.
In this age of digital commerce, young folks preparing to enter the workforce must display ninja-type skills in producing viral videos, attracting social media scrums and communicating to customers, clients and anyone who will listen on Instagram, among other things.
There's probably no better example of this than Emmis Digital's recent search for interns that pitted applicants against each other in a "Hunger Games"-themed social media contest for the honor of working for no pay.
More than 25 college kids applied for the one internship available at the River North office. The top 10 candidates were invited in for interviews, and the field was whittled down to three finalists.
Emmis Digital's Rory Foster and Katlyn Hayes created a contest, the "Intern Games," to determine the finest free summer laborer in the land.
"At a digital company, innovation is key. We're looking for candidates with a wide variety of skills, and we wound up with three really qualified people on paper," Foster said. "We thought that it would be fun to pit them against each other, test their mettle and see who was the hungriest."
Plus, Foster said, the contest turned an otherwise boring intern selection process into an event with potential to at least incrementally increase the social media reach of the company's collection of websites.
Each of the three "tributes" — potential interns, that is — was assigned to drive social media by pushing their friends, family and fans to follow Emmis Digital pages and create a video explaining why they've proved themselves worthy.
Every day for two weeks they battled for social media supremacy under the hashtag banners — #TeamJake, #TeamKelsey and #TeamKatie.
Jake Bouvy, a marketing major at Indiana University, was ready to rumble.
"Once I knew it was a competition I knew I had to give everything," he said. "I'm a competitive guy. I don't like to lose."
At first, Kelsey Halverson, a journalism major at Iowa State, wasn't really sure what to make of the Intern Games.
"I hadn't competed in anything since sports in high school, so it was unexpected," Halverson said. "I've never had to do anything like this before."
For two weeks, the three finalists battled by constantly pestering everyone in their social media networks — and sending out quirky posts, photos and short videos aimed at driving traffic to Emmis websites — in hopes of avoiding elimination.
After a week, #TeamKatie had been felled.
In the end, Halverson and Bouvy went head to head.
Bouvy appeared to gain an edge with a slick video to a hip-hop beat that showed off his technical skill and social media success promoting indie music videos online.
But Halverson's #TeamKelsey still had the edge in driving traffic and attracting Facebook "likes" for Emmis.
"When I saw that she was beating me, and I had been on Twitter and Facebook begging my friends and family to please like this page, I started to think I was doing too much work to end up losing," Bouvy said.
All the while, Hayes was back at the office keeping tabs on the successes and setbacks of their potential intern tributes in preparation for a final decision.
"I think it was definitely more fun for me than it was for them," she said. "I got to watch them battle it out every day."
When time ran out on the Intern Games, #TeamKelsey was the clear winner.
"Kelsey was the true winner. She had the higher impact on social media," Foster said. "But in the end we decided, much like the 'Hunger Games,' to keep both finalists."
Hayes said the decision was easy — and not because having two unpaid interns instead of one cost exactly the same. (The interns receive college credit for their summer labor.)
"I loved how creative Jake was, and loved how professional Kelsey was," she said. "I knew a mix of them would make a super intern, so I wanted both of them to be here."
On a recent workday, Bouvy reflected on how fortunate he was to be spared elimination and what he learned during the Intern Games.
"I was worried, but it all worked out. But it speaks to the state of the job market. You have to stand out in the pack," he said. "It's a message to kids coming out of college that you can't just send out a resume, and hope for the best like your parents did."
* Elrick didn't get that interview at Newsday, but went on to a stellar investigative reporting career that resulted in a Pulitzer Prize, getting Detroit's corrupt former mayor thrown in jail, among other things.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: