It’s an issue that’s in the news nearly every day and some people have even labelled it a “crisis”: New college graduates just can’t find work. But while people wring their hands and condemn the educational system or the job market, they’re entirely missing the three real reasons this “crisis” is going on…
Today’s answer is less to a specific question from readers than to one raised by the media, economists, parents and twenty-somethings: Why can’t recent college graduates find jobs? We’re going to dig deep into the answer but, SPOILER ALERT: It has nothing to do with the economy.
The first reason is that recent grads generally lack real and useful job skills. This issue has been discussed a bit by media coverage, but often dismissed by the contention of “But I did an internship!”
Here’s the real deal with internships: In the case of the vast majority of them, internships don’t teach you job skills, they teach you how to work in an office. Most internships involve doing the most menial of tasks and, sometimes, attending meetings so that you can absorb things. No matter how you frame it, these are not job skills.
Now, don’t get me wrong—internships are still very important. Grads need to know the ins and outs of how to work in an office, how to play nice with coworkers and what ways to act are and are not appropriate. This may sound intuitive to people who have been in the workforce for a while, but it takes everyone a bit of time to acclimate themselves to office life and a head start can only help. But internships alone aren’t enough.
There are at least two relatively simple ways to help fix the “lack of job skills” problem. First, students with internships can get very proactive and persistent about actually learning real skills within the office. Asking a supervisor to give you more responsibility or help you to learn things should only make an intern more helpful in the long run. (And if they’re not interested in either, it’s probably time to look for a different internship.) Interns need to actively take control of their learning opportunities, instead of just showing up each day to fulfill whatever task is requested of them.
The second solution is to seek job skills elsewhere. Right now, there are some amazing resources both in-person and online to learn a variety of skills the can boost a recent grad’s marketability. Many professional associations offer classes and websites like lynda.com, Skillshare.com and this one offer classes and courses that can help make up for the dearth of actual job skills that a degree in English or philosophy will give a student.
The next problem for recent grads is that they lack the insight to prove themselves useful. Now, I don’t mean that they’re not actual useful as workers—I mean that they don’t demonstrate it.
The beginning few lines of the vast majority of resumes and the content of most cover letters reads the along the lines of “I am looking for a job wherein I can build my skills as an ABC and use my experience in XYZ.” Essentially, most job applicants are saying, “This is what I want out of you, potential employer.”
But the best way to interest an employer isn’t to ask that they be useful to you, but to prove that you will be useful to them. Any communication with prospective employer—from resume, cover letter and phone screen right through to interview and follow-up thank you—needs to be focused on the specific ways that you can be useful to the employer.
Job applicants need to ask themselves what they can bring to this job. What specific skills or aptitudes or personality traits make them useful to the company? How can the company benefit by hiring them?
This is a perfect segue into the third problem for recent grads: They lack uniqueness. In a sea of job applicants, the successful ones will be those who stand out.
As job applicants think about how they can be useful, they also need to think about the unique ways that they can be useful: What do they bring to the table that no one else does? “I’m a people person” is not unique. “My strengths lie in a combination of mediation and idea synthesis. I excel at incorporating viewpoints from several different people to create a solution to problems that’s both effective and amenable to all parties” is something that will make an applicant stand out.
At the same time, job applicants need to think about how they can be unique in the way they apply for a job as well. The vast majority of job applicants will see a listing, send a cover letter and resume and wait for a call. A much smaller percentage will follow with an in-house recruiter or HR person to check on the status of their application. In this sea of same-ness, it’s not even all that hard to be unique!
A candidate bent on being unique might try to contact the hiring manager directly, prepared to give their pitch about how they can be useful to the company. He or she might attend industry events to try to meet people within the company and be of use to them, too, in case that might help to facilitate an in-person interview. A design or copywriter candidate might not even wait for an interview request before sending over a print copy of his/her portfolio to introduce their work and skills. (And, by that token, even job candidates who are not in creative fields should have portfolios, too.) If application tactics are going to be unique, useful and effective, they’ll require some thinking and some effort.
Today’s college graduates are having trouble finding work because they’re trying to do it in the same way that everyone else is doing it doing it, and because that way hasn’t changed for the past 50-plus years.
The world is changing at a phenomenally fast clip and these old methods simply don’t work anymore. The successful job candidates will be those who have the persistence and creativity to break out of the old college-to-internship-to-resume mold and who work hard at the process of molding themselves into the skilled, useful and unique professionals employers need.