Over the last 25 years, networking has emerged as a tangible tool for finding employment. This trend began in the US during the recession of the late 1980s, following the collapse of Corporate America. Rather than counting on job security, people had to learn to rely on their personal connections to help them find their next job.

Even before the ’80s, Dr. Mark Granovetter of Harvard University conducted a study, concluding that 63% of all jobs were found through networking. After the year 2000, numerous source-of-hire surveys, the US Department of Labor, and other agencies have come to similar conclusions.

In February 2010 and in March 2011, CareerXroads (a staffing-strategy consulting firm in Kendall Park, NJ) revealed in their 9th and 10th Annual Sources of Hire Surveys ** that “Referrals are the #1 source of external hires.”

Their findings are backed by statistics from 30+ firms surveyed, reflecting that 76.7% of people who landed employment in 2009 and 77.8% who landed in 2010 knew someone who connected them with the hiring managers. In 2010, 50.3 % of these positions were filled through internal transfers; the remaining 27.5% were attributable via referrals; these percentages were similar in 2009.

So, whether you want to get hired from the outside or promote from within, it pays to expand your professional network. Why? Because when you are on the radar of hiring managers who are familiar with your skills and abilities, you will be top of mind for them for job openings, versus complete strangers who answer online ads.

Of course, networking is not a quick fix. It does take time to make new connections and build relationships. Even so, you have to start somewhere. Here are three ways to expand your professional network and increase your chances of meeting people who can connect you with hiring managers:

1) Professional associations: This is one of the best channels for strategic networking inside your profession. You can meet and network with members through conferences, workshops, online e-list discussions, or taking on leadership roles. Look to these three resources to find an association which will fit your needs:

2) Job search support groups: These are structured, facilitator-led groups designed to help unemployed (or underemployed) people get back to work quickly. You can network with other members who may know key contact people in your target employers. To find a job search support group in your area, check out Job-hunt.org: http://www.job-hunt.org/job-search-networking/job-search-networking.shtml. Select your state from the list and see the groups listed for that state. When you find one that appeals to you, click on the group name to visit their website.

3) Volunteering: Many companies are involved in volunteering, and encourage employees to volunteer individually or on team projects. Through volunteering, you might meet hiring managers or board of director members from local companies who can see your skills in action. If they have positive experiences with you, your efforts might even lead to full-time employment, within that company or elsewhere. To search for volunteer causes which resonate for you, go to www.idealist.org, www.volunteermatch.org or http://www.catchafire.org/

With job security being more fleeting than ever, it really is about “who you know,” not “what you know.” Networking could be the key to your next dream job.

© 2011 Joellyn Wittenstein Schwerdlin, The Career Success Coach. All Rights Reserved. www.career-success-coach.com

* Download a copy of CareerXroads’ 10th Annual Sources of Hire Survey here: http://www.careerxroads.com/news/SourcesOfHire11.pdf