Life After College: Getting What You Want

When I saw this picture of a young plant managing somehow to find a way to grow up and through a tiny hole in a dead leaf, my immediate thought was of new college graduates. Like the determined plant, new grads will need to make their in the world against all odds.

The past week brought an unusual number of articles and studies illustrating just how tough it will be for the Class of 2011 to find jobs and start careers.  For a comprehensive, and depressing round up of the key facts, I suggest reading Arianna Huffington’s summary, titled “Dear Class of 2011, Good Luck… You’re Really Going to Need It“. (Huffington Post)

Just How Bad Is It?

A report by Rutgers University based on a nationally representative survey of 571 recent college graduates, age 22-29 years provides a good picture of just where things stand. All respondents in the study graduated from a four year college between 2006 and 2010.  The survey asked about their experience since graduating, number and type of jobs, income, etc.

The study found just 53% of recent college are currently employed full-time (see chart).  Twenty-one percent are in graduate school full or part time.  The rest are underemployed or looking or both. (Unfulfilled Expectations: Recent College Graduates Struggle in a Troubled Economy).

The trend is toward things getting worse rather than better. The same study shows:

  • While four-fifths of the sample of recent graduates claims to have had at least one job since graduation, this figure drops to 53% for those who graduated in 2010.
  • On average, there was a 10% “penalty” for college graduates obtaining their first job during the recession, compared with those who entered the workforce just three years earlier.
  • For those who are working, the median pay is $30,000, regardless of whether the graduate attended a public or a private college or university.
  • Only about one-quarter of graduates said that their first job was the beginning of what they hoped would be their career. But another half (46%) described their first job as the first step on the way to that career path. Slightly more than one-quarter of recent graduates said they took their first job because they needed to work just to get by.”

From Macro to Micro: What’s An Individual to Do?

It’s one thing to know intellectually how bad the landscape looks, and entirely another to know what to do about it.

This week I spoke with two recent grads facing career dilemmas. One young woman is a former student who graduates this weekend with an MBA from Notre Dame. She has a good offer, but in a city and industry that wouldn’t have been her first choice when she first entered grad school 2 years ago. The other, is an young man who is underemployed. A 4-year college graduate, he is wondering whether to stay where he is, look for a different job or return to school.

These two talented young professionals are just two of many. They face tough personal choices that will be shaped by the larger picture in ways that would be different if the economy were where it was a few years ago. What’s more, the impact on their careers will be lasting. Huffington points to research suggesting the dampening effect of the economy at this point in graduates lives is likely to endure for years:

“Abigail Wozniak, an economist at Notre Dame, found that the effects of graduating into an economic downturn far outlast the downturn itself — sometimes as long as a decade. “A bad hand at the beginning of a game where everything is connected has lasting negative effects,” says Wozniak. And according to Carl Van Horn, of the Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, the effects of graduating into a recession go beyond dollars and cents. “They tend to be less risk-oriented,” Van Horn said of recession-era grads. “They’re risk-averse. If you can get that job in communications, then you’re less likely to look over your shoulder and say maybe there’s a better job down the road. You say, well, I better stick with this one.” ” – Arianna Huffington.

Getting What You Want

I wish I had better advice for recent graduates.  Perhaps the best advice I can offer is to keep your eye on the long term, have a clear view of what will define success, and not just take the first thing that comes along if you can at all help it.  The Rutgers study shows that 40% of grads took positions that did not require a four-year college education. This is deeply concerning to me.

My experience and watching those of my peers tells me that where you start matters more to where you end up than you might think. The reason is related not so much to the actual skills acquired in a first job, but to the contacts and knowledge of an industry gained. The first job is literally the foundation that both expands and narrows future choices.

One of the best books I have seen for helping focus goals and connect them to your resources was written by a Millennial, Jenny Blake, “Life After College: The Complete Guide to Getting What You Want.

Blake’s personal story helps inform what is mostly a ‘how-to’, complete with self-assessments, and words of wisdom, organized around key topic. A young overachiever who dropped out of college to pursue an entrepreneurial dream, Blake later returned to finish her degree and ultimately to focus on career counseling at Google.  The book reflects her careful curation of  the best resources filtered by her personal experience. Because it’s written by a Millennial, for Millennials, it’s never preachy and strives to be genuinely useful. I plan to give this book as graduation gifts to all the Millennials I know.