The unemployment rate for 19-24 year olds hasn’t moved much since 2008, and the reality of the tight job market has fully dawned on the young people I’ve spoken with about this. They know that odds are against them and that it takes extra effort to make a go of it following college graduation. They are also aware that this represents a dramatic change from every decade since the end of World War II.
I recall that no one in my college graduating class worried about jobs. They wondered if they were choosing the right profession, whether more degrees were necessary, whether it would be good to move near or far, and that sort of thing. But the notion that we would suddenly find ourselves unemployed for a long time, or even longer than a week, never occurred to us.
Back in the day, young people would graduate college and go on long trips to Europe, follow the Grateful Dead, hang out in the college town for a year with their buddies, or casually do odd jobs until the time seemed right to get serious. We had marketable skills and we knew it. We were the sellers of services and the market was buying. The “land of opportunity” still thrived.
I’ve observed two general reactions to this among young people. Some let the problem sneak up on them and melt into despair when things don’t go their way. These people have a sense that they did everything right: good schools, decent grades, graduating on time. They sent out hundreds of resumes but got back nothing in return. Now they are living with Mom and Dad, saddled with a terrible debt they can’t pay, and increasingly bitter at the world and contemplating the indignity of a minimum-wage job.
These people followed the rules but the rules betrayed them. Now they blame everyone else. They blame the system, and they are right that they system is rotten. They blame their counselors, and it’s true that older people have been blindsided by this too. They blame the 1%, and there is no question that the system is rigged in favor of the well connected. I completely understand this attitude but there is a problem: it doesn’t actually accomplish anything. Anger, excuses, and protest gets no one any closer toward actually fixing the problem.
What intrigues me more are the students who are refusing to let the problem defeat them. They have seen three classes of graduates leave the college cocoon and face the cruel world, and they have seen who succeeds and fails. Among this group, you will find not panic or worry but a strange calm and confidence that they will be among the minority who will find a good-paying position in their field of choice. Having talked to many of these people over the last year, I’ve discerned the common character traits and skills sets they focus on.
Hard Work. All the students who have confidence about overcoming the odds are extremely busy for school, work, or professional preparations. I’ve met engineering majors (talk about time consuming) who are also cross-country runners who train 3 hours per day, every day. I’ve also met students who are pre-law who work for very low pay at law firms, just as a way of getting experience. Even students who are music majors accept every gig they can.
They take internships when available. They work odd jobs. They rise early and get to bed on time. They don’t take off summers, and the weekends are full of tasks.
These students are preparing themselves for a life of very hard work. They don’t party. They watch what they drink. They avoid personal relationships that threaten to distract and bog them down. They are not members of social fraternities and sororities. Social life is way down the list of priorities. Their top priorities are school, grades, work, and making and saving as much money as they can.
All of this matters for the future. The biggest annoyance that employers have is being saddled with a new employee who knows not the meaning of work. Some kids have been through four years of partying and sloth. They long for this to continue…with pay. This is more obvious from a resume than one might think. On the other hand, a student who has references from a wide number of established people who can speak with confidence about a prospective employee’s work ethic overcomes this fear, and has a much better chance going forward.
Technical Skills. At the dawn of the digital age, I looked forward to a time when all young people knew programming skills, could fix their own computers, and had vast literacy in navigating the new world of technology. Wow, what a disappointment! It’s astonishing how widespread computer ignorance is today. And it seems to be getting worse.
What I had not anticipated is that the easier that devices would become, the fewer skills people feel that they need to acquire. It is not uncommon that young students today are only good at updating their Facebook accounts. And the following fact still astonishes me: many students today can’t even type.
This is absolutely absurd. Learning to type has never been easier. You can go to typingpal.com or any number of services and learn in the course of ten days to two weeks. It should be rather obvious that a job candidate who is one-finger pecking is going to fall to the bottom of the list.
But it takes more than typing skill. Database management, photo editing, video making, website management, basic code — all of these are important. A candidate who can speak Geek is in a much better position than one who cannot, even if the job in question doesn’t seemingly involve computer skills. Young people who can’t navigate essential software with some competence are essentially advertising their lack of drive and their unwillingness to add value to the great enterprise of the digital age.
Low Debt. True, it is not long possible to work your way through school, and this is tragic. Unless the parents have a substantial income or savings, there is a good chance that a student today will have to take out a loan. But minimizing that is essential. Smart students understand this. The more debt you have when you leave college, the fewer choices you have when you leave. You want to be in a position to accept relatively low pay and work your way up, without having your finances crushed by debt obligations.
The horror stories here are legion, and the alert students know them all. This is why they look for every scholarship opportunity, every work/study program, every chance to make a few bucks. Also important: spending as little money as possible. Social spending is the great bane of a student’s existence. Decline to go partying if it means being stuck with a big and pointless bill at the end of the evening. There are ways to date that do not involve breaking the bank. Doing without a car is a luxury that pays returns later. It all comes down to frugality. This is an essential financial skill that can and should be cultivated in college. It will be needed all throughout life.
Network Building. As regards Facebook and Twitter, let’s just say that many students in the past have made mistakes. Smart kids know this. They learned to use social tools wisely. They watch their privacy settings. If there is any image that shows drinking or partying in a crazy place, it is untagged. All status updates must be intelligent. And they should be relatively few on Facebook. It can even be advantageous to make your name unsearchable, though that alone can raise suspicions among future employers.
A tool that smart students have started using that most students do not is LinkedIn. This is the professional network, and here you can start forming contacts in your field and generally cultivating a professional online personality. This requires careful thought and some elbow grease but any applicant with an impressive profile and a large network immediately becomes more attractive to the job market.
These tools are there to help people navigate the tight labor market. It is never too early to start doing what is necessary to build up a well-thought-out digital profile and presence. These tools can be your best friend or your worst enemy, depending on how you use them. But they should be used. An applicant who is invisible to in the digital realm might be suitable for a position in the national security apparatus but it is increasingly strange in a commercial world.
Practicality. I love liberal arts and the cultivation of broad and highly educated minds as much as anyone. But the smart set of students understands that this alone will not cut it in the marketplace today. Practical skills cannot be neglected, whether they are in accounting or engineering, and math and science generally. The last generation that could get by in life without having actual technical skill in practical areas of life graduated two decades ago.
To be sure, some people are called to a serious vocation as a professor in literature, philosophy, and the arts, and that’s fantastic. But these are pretty much the only people who can completely neglect hard sciences and practical skills in life. The smart set understands that the liberal arts are essential to have a broad view of the world, but that these alone are not enough to make a go of it in today’s world.
As much as we talk about the trials of young people today, we all know that some will make it through and thrive in the future. This is true even in the hardest of times. And for graduating students today, these are indeed the hardest of times. To be sure, the lack of opportunities today is not the fault of its victims; it is the fault of terrible public policy that has raised the cost of hire, distorted economic structures, and punished entrepreneurship. Because there is little chance of this changing anytime soon, it pays to get on the right side of history and start preparing for the tough road ahead, so that you can face it with confidence.