When a good job opens up, it may never be publicly advertised before it's taken. That's often because an employee recommends a friend or former colleague to the hiring manager, who ends up acting on that recommendation.

That person may not be more qualified than you -- in fact, they may not be qualified at all. However, they know someone who knows someone, and that can go a long way. That may not seem fair, but companies can generally hire whomever they want as long as they're not being discriminatory. In the job market, your connections are often more important than your skills and experience.

Networking may not get you the job, but it could at least get you an interview, and it gives you a major advantage over someone who's blindly sending in a resume.

An illustration using cutouts who are shown to be connected.

Sometimes who you know matters more than what you know. Image source: Getty Images.

What is networking?

Networking is about keeping in touch with people on a personal and professional level. It's essentially the added step of making an effort to make and keep a personal connection. That sounds easy, but many people don't take the time to keep up professional relationships or to turn casual work acquaintances into friendships.

For example, about a year ago I was approached by a public relations person to interview one of her clients for a potential Motley Fool story. I used a quote or two from her client in my story and thanked her when it published, and I invited her to pitch me future interview ideas related to the topics I cover. That opened up regular communications between us, and although I passed on most of her story ideas, we came to know and like one another. We learned about each other's families and realized that our kids face some common struggles.

Eventually she left that job, and I served as a reference for her when she was up for a new job. We've since made an effort to keep up a contact neither one of us has a specific use for right now. However, someday she may be in a position to help me out. Even if she isn't, I still have another friend I like keeping in touch with. Networking is sort of like a rainy-day fund for rain that may never come -- but it's wonderful to have when the storm clouds gather.

Networking saved me

I've had a long career spanning many wonderful (and some less-than-wonderful) jobs, but my current position as a contract writer for The Motley Fool counts as a dream job.

My journey to this position began when I was working for a large technology company curating financial news. My boss at the time asked me to evaluate a potential content partner. I did, and I wrote a not-entirely kind piece detailing what I liked and what I didn't like.

That critique was shared with the potential partner, and eventually I met many of the people there. One of their editors and I connected, and both of us made an effort to stay in touch even after he left that website. His destination was The Motley Fool, a company that I knew little about and that was recruiting writers. He shared his experience with me, and he may have put in a word for me. Keeping in touch with him started my path to my current delightful, professionally satisfying job.

Every little bit helps

Networking can include attending industry events and making an effort to get to know more people. That's important, but it's equally valuable to simply keep up your relationships with people you've met along the way.

This was not my first networking success. In fact, I'd say that I've gotten about half of my many jobs in part because I knew someone who put in a word or opened a door.

Technology, of course, makes networking easier. The person who exposed me to the Fool (now in business school himself) keeps in touch partly by commenting on my social media posts. When I was visiting the area where he lives, we also made time to grab a cup of coffee.

Networking is an investment that nearly always pays off in one way or another. Even if it doesn't benefit you professionally, having more friends is not a bad thing. And if someone in your network can help to further your career, then the investment may become doubly worth it.

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