A case against sending new grads straight to college

A career is a series of opportunities for gaining skills…

The first lowly jobs, though often loaded with menial tasks, mean customers, and difficult bosses, are critical formative experiences that can prepare individuals to be successful as they advance through their career.

Working life should be viewed as a series of opportunities to pick up important skills—soft skills—which accumulate and can be put to use to actively drive one’s career toward an occupation that provides security, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

Early jobs and realizing that I wanted more…

My first job after high school was at a small chain eatery in Texas, where I stayed for a few years and learned most aspects of the restaurant, including waiting tables, cashiering, hostessing, and bartending. It was hard work, but I took away a wealth of important lessons and learned a lot of critical soft skills.

During that time, I also figured out that I didn’t want to work in food service for the rest of my life. I decided that completing a college degree was the best way to get away and into a field that interested me. I continued working at the restaurant while earning a bachelor’s degree.

Like I did, most people realize during their first or second job that in order to attain professional satisfaction they need to get additional training. There are a brilliant few who will tout their education at the “School of Hard Knocks,” who have been able to carve a successful career—even an empire—out of nothing but charisma and an innovative idea. But this is not the case for the average worker.

Additional training: college? Maybe not…right away

Now, a cautionary note. In my opinion, higher education is oversold. College is not for everyone, and having a college degree does not equate to getting a great job after graduation. College degrees—even advanced degrees—are now a dime-a-dozen. Something else has to set you apart from the herd of job seekers with the same degree, and if you don’t have “IT,” a college degree can actually hurt you.

For example, if you scraped by with Bs and Cs and took 6 years to graduate—because, after all, you had to get your party ON!—it looks pretty bad on paper. Maybe an apprenticeship in a skilled trade would have served you better. Or, maybe you should have served a few years’ sentence working at Pizza Hole, getting the “party” out of your system, and figuring out that this type of work is really pretty lousy, and wouldn’t it be nice to be able to earn more money?

Students need to recognize the intrinsic value of higher education or vocational training. They need time to think about what their interests are, and what is important to them.

Just a thought here: maybe parents shouldn’t plan on paying for all the college tuition. It’s so easy to take it for granted and not take college seriously.

Instead, I propose a compromise approach.

Say the student, who has now been working for X years, has saved up Y amount of money for college, to be matched (or exceeded) by parental dollars to some agreed-upon extent. The intent with this approach is to foster an appreciation for the monetary value of a higher education, and to empower the student to take some ownership in the process.

The inertia approach to higher education…

In a way, going to college after high school is the path of least resistance. I’m not saying that it’s easy to get in, but it has been built up to the point that it’s what is almost expected to come next. You don’t know what you want to do, but you’ll figure it out before you finish, right? And then when you earn your big, flashy degree you’ll get a job, right? Because you’ve got a degree and stuff?

It doesn’t stop there. Although many college grads continue on to grad school with a specific goal in mind, for many others (I’d even venture to say MORE), grad school is just the next fork in the path of least resistance. Again: you’ll figure out what you want to do after grad school. Right? RIGHT?!

Unfortunately, that approach doesn’t usually work out as anticipated.

During my tenure as a recruiter, I noticed a certain attitude of entitlement in many college graduates (inflated according to the level of the degree earned)—but a complete lack of focus about the direction they wanted to go with their career. I always wondered if stepping back and taking a job for a few years would have helped them figure it out.

I remember one case in particular: a candidate who I thought might be a long shot for a particular opening based on a certain combination of skills in her resume. I did the classic recruiter phone interview, asking for the whos, whats, and whys that would qualify her for X chemist position.

“Well, as you can see from my resume, I have a PEE h DEE in CHEMISTRY.”  Then silence. 

Yes, I wanted to say, so do a lot of people. But YOU have a gaping two-year hole in your resume, and haven’t held any jobs outside of academia.

I was so put off by her arrogance, though, that I didn’t feel obligated at all to give any commentary or advice. I got off the phone as quickly as possible and never called back.

Rather than entitlement, I was looking for humility. A realization that the degree is not the end-all and be-all of preparation for a career. And beyond that, I wanted to see a willingness to work—HARD—to develop whatever additional skills might be needed.

Job candidates, students, and professionals need to find their mojo—their motivation to follow a career path, and to do it well. By “doing it well,” I am referring not only to the technical skills required to complete a given job or task, but also having a strong work ethic. This characteristic alone can differentiate a candidate from a herd of average college graduates, because it’s not taught in school.

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After college…the job hunt

A lot of you who are reading this have already done the college thing. Now you need a job. Take stock of who and what you are—beyond the degree—that sets you apart. Of course you have mad technical skills. But what else? Did you have leadership roles? Did you mentor anyone? Did you hold down a job while going to school full time? Make an inventory of everything that you have done well. If possible, quantify it—for example, “I made X process 50% more efficient, resulting in a cost savings of Y;” or “I mentored X number of graduate students, who are all willing to provide recommendations.”

Another important thing to think about: areas where you could improve, and how you would go about improving them.

Be ready to discuss all that and more. Then get out there and find a job.

Realize that networking with people will get you a lot further than posting your resume on a job board. LEARN HOW TO NETWORK EFFECTIVELY. “I’m looking for a job.” PFFFFFFT! Wrong. “I am about to graduate, and I wanted to interact with professionals in the ______industry. I am interested in _______, and I would like to find out more about it.” YES.

The amazing thing you will find is that people actually want to help. If you’re out there giving it your best shot, going to networking events and seminars in your field, you’ll likely find someone who is willing to give you advice. Better yet, that someone will be able to connect you to MORE potential mentors.

It’s STILL very likely that you will not start out with your dream job. Even so, make each job count. Reflect on what you can learn from that not-so-dreamy job, and build up your skills so that you will be better prepared for whatever is next.

Whatever it is that you do, strive to be the best at doing it. If you apply this mindset to every job, chances are that you will be successful.

Posted by Michelle Frank

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