The NPR website has a thought-provoking article about the difficulty in finding a job for even the most educated. Here are some highlights:
- Although the unemployment rate for college graduates is "less than half of the 10.5 percent rate for high school grads", some students who "fled to graduate school recently as a temporary safe haven from the economy [are finding] themselves still without jobs."
- College seniors have to compete with experienced workers, who "are settling for more entry positions" because of the current economy.
- Starting one's career in a downturn negatively affects graduates' wages for about a decade, according to an expert. (Also see this old post of mine on the topic.)
- Exhibit A: A woman who got her master's in public administration from NYU two years ago still remains unemployed to date, and takes the degree off her resume when she applies for waitressing jobs.
- Exhibit B: A man who got his law degree two years ago from Michigan State has yet to find a job besides a short stint at AmeriCorps, and is being financially supported in part by his fiancee and her family.
I wonder what happened to the young graduates profiled in the New York Times article I wrote about here - the ones who were "holding out for the perfect job." It seems that even fewer companies were hiring this year than last, and it is all to Lehigh students' credit that many have jobs by now. I truly believe that the old way to look for jobs (send your resume, hope that someone likes it) is slowly disappearing. Instead, two trends are emerging:
- Companies recruit by hiring interns, i.e., people they have had the opportunity to observe at work before they make them an offer. Students who have done co-ops should be particularly well-positioned to take advantage of that trend. Sadly, few college students use this opportunity because it makes graduating with their class more challenging. (They have to take classes over the summer to compensate for not being on campus one semester of the regular academic year.) On the other hand, some unscrupulous companies might use co-ops or even unpaid internships to avoid hiring; they have little incentive to upgrade interns' work status if graduates cannot use a competing offer for leverage.
- As the author of "What color is your parachute?" likes to repeat, the best way to get a job is to let people know you're looking and have them create the position for you. This is the "pull" approach to hiring, as opposed to the traditional "push". (Click here for more on the push-pull strategy in inventory management.) This assumes you have a network of people who can help "pull" you into their company. While it is easy to focus on cases where this strategy is abused (think of the CEO's daughter who is hired for a position she is not qualified for), this is also the best possible sequel to Point 1: someone values the skills of this or that person enough to help her be recruited by his company. Recent graduates might have a difficult time implementing this strategy, since they have not had enough work experience to build concrete expertise, but they can use the alumni network of their alma mater to help them. People are often willing to share advice and put students in contact with recruiters they know.
Most interesting I thought was the emphasis on holders of advanced degrees: people who made a bet that going back to school and incurring more student loans would pay off. Master's degrees are the cash cows of academia, since universities provide little funding for these students (undergraduates receive financial aid, doctoral students research or teaching assistantships), and universities do have a financial incentive to convince students to return to school for a Master degree, although the people who make the admission decisions are - thankfully - more preoccupied with the quality of the incoming class.
I do think a Master degree in a field related to students' college degree is an excellent investment that will help them fast-track their career. (Everything else being equal, it makes sense for companies to give Master holders more senior positions with more responsibilities more quickly.) But recent graduates unhappy with their work situation often think of a Master degree as the way to put their career path on a better trajectory, and the whole self-help industry is built on convincing people to change their lives. Radical change is often more seductive than incremental one, because people who feel stuck and dissatisfied can immediately see the difference, but that approach will not necessarily yield the best results in the long term.
I am reminded of a graduate who took my senior elective when he was at Lehigh and, mere months after taking a job, contacted me first to see if I could write him a recommendation letter for a MBA program and then, once he realized most MBA programs now require several years of experience he didn't yet have, a recommendation letter for a Master program that had nothing at all to do with his training. We are talking about a Master degree really off the beaten path there, something narrow and specialized, four months or so after he had graduated from college and two months after he had talked about getting a very different advanced degree.
I emailed him that, although I was willing to recommend him to the off-the-beaten-path Master program and would write a strong letter, he might want to re-consider. (I doubt my email thrilled him. What can I say... I say what I think.) That Master was so different from the rest of his education that he would really have to make it work; he would not be able to change directions again before getting his MBA, which meant at least two years in the narrow specialized field, after less than a year in his first job - something that never looks good on a resume - and I did not feel he had taken the time to contact people in that industry to figure out whether he would like the reality of the new job, not just some idealized version he had in his head. It'd have been easy to reply "sure, I'll write you a letter" and go back to the other things I have to do, of which there are many, but him enrolling in that program would have been a monumental mistake. He ended up changing jobs two or three months after I sent him that last email and now works at a better company in a better position that is related to his college degree. When I recently heard from him, he was very happy and doing a great job. Sometimes applying to Master programs is the easy way out but it is not always the best way.
The New York Times also ran an article recently about overqualified people who are just glad to have a job - the former financial analyst with a MBA from a top school who is now doing claims for a moving company ("The posting for his job had specified “bachelor’s degree preferred but not required.”"), "the former chief financial officer working as comptroller, the onetime marketing director who is back to being an analyst." The article steers clear of sensationalism and high-flyers turned greeters at Wal-Mart, and emphasizes instead the positive aspects for small companies that are "benefiting from an influx of talent it probably never would have been able to attract in a better economic climate." The article also gives tips to help keep overqualified workers, such as providing them with a lot of flexibility, and briefly touches upon the future for these employees and "how long simply having a job will be enough".
I'll end with a dark-humor joke I found in a recent Economist (Laid-off lawyers, cast-off consultants, January 21, 2010)
Q: What do you say to a recent law-school graduate?
(I'll let you think for a second...)
A: A skinny double-shot latte to go, please.