Do Today’s College Graduates Know How to Get a Job? Experts Weigh In
College—an exciting phase of life when students gather, ponder careers and pursue interests. This is a word that may conjure images of brick buildings, lecture halls or Ping-Pong tables. It’s a rite of passage for many learners of all ages when they think of moving forward in life. Yet compared to the working world beyond graduation, college represents a fairly short time in life. No matter what you picture for a college experience, it’s what happens after graduation that really matters.
So are today’s students prepared? Do they know how to get a job? Are they leaving college with the skills and knowledge they need to navigate the job search and excel in their chosen field? According to an NPR article on the topic, the professionalism employers expect isn’t necessarily a trait inherent in college graduates today.
Even considering all the other qualifications for a position, certain slip-ups or attitudes could leave prospective employers with a bad taste in their mouths—and cost you the job. But don’t worry—if you know what to watch out for, you have a much better chance of success.
“Let's address the fact that a lot of people my age and even some younger people have a bias against millennials,” says Liz Ryan, author of Reinvention Roadmap. “Like any other generalization we could make about any group of people, the bias against millennials is ridiculous.”
Recent graduates include people of many dispositions, experiences and ages, and broad claims will never address each individual perfectly. However, hiring managers and career coaches can definitely comment on the trends they see in new graduates today.
To help you understand the job hunt from the other side of the desk, we asked hiring managers what they see (and what they wished they saw) when hiring recent college graduates.
Areas for improvement
Here are a few common issues employers have with new graduates in the workplace:
1. Lack of conviction
Andy Desai of SW & Associates Public Relations has plenty of experience hiring recent graduates and interns. Desai has observed a general decline in professional behavior that often comes down to applicants or new hires suddenly losing interest in the job.
“Follow through, or the ‘flake factor’, is the number one problem with most graduates,” Desai says. “Sometimes you're actually impressed by something as simple as [them showing] up. Because, believe it or not, that is not a given anymore.”
For him, this often comes down to a lack of conviction. “There is this societal pressure where they think they should have a fulfilling career.”
But when that pressure conflicts with an individual’s actual desires, some job applicants or new hires tend to waiver in their pursuits or commitments.
2. Interpersonal skills
“Sometimes a new graduate is okay working remotely, but you would never want them in front of a client,” Desai says.
The social nuances that accompany every interpersonal interaction communicate more than words, and this can be a huge barrier.
“I've noticed a particular lack of ability in fresh graduates to handle interpersonal conflicts like professionals,” says JD Roger, Operations Director at AndPlus. “This sometimes takes the form of elevating things that are, frankly, trivial or ‘bottling up’ issues for too long, which can lead to a bad work environment.”
3. Lack of confidence
Higher qualifications are necessary for even entry-level, professional jobs, and not having adequate opportunities to broaden these skills may cost you. Trent Silver, CEO of Nerdster.com, sees many applicants who have not gained any exposure to the realities of real-world business and are very hesitant in their behavior—though some of that is out of their control.
“For instance, younger people can't even get an internship unless they have an already-impressive resume or have a great network connection. So confidence is definitely the professional quality most often missing in this generation,” Silver says.
This confidence doesn’t mean walking into a job interview with entitlement, ego or an overinflated sense of your accomplishments. For Silver, it’s the confidence of taking initiative, introducing yourself to strangers, and acting with competence and decisiveness on the job.
Areas of strength
It isn’t all bad for recent college graduates—in fact, there’s plenty to like! Here are a few of the commonly found positive traits in recent graduates:
1. Respect for others and the organization
“I’ve experienced the same level of professionalism I have witnessed in other generations,” Silver says. “I have recruited many [employees] right out of college.”
What does this professionalism look like? Silver says he has seen recent graduates who respect their coworkers, put in the time needed to exceed in their position, and show an attitude of truly caring about the success of the company.
2. Willingness to learn
“This generation witnessed several financial crises,” Silver says. “They saw a lot of troubles that their parents went through, and they are trying harder than ever to avoid repeating the same mistakes. I see a certain type of eagerness to learn and work that I haven't witnessed in the previous generation.”
The global financial disaster of 2008 and the lean years following lead to an incredibly competitive job market. That tough job market has instilled a sense of scrappiness into new graduates that persists even as the job market improves.
3. An entrepreneurial mindset
“Every year it becomes more evident that the old working world—the corporate ladder world where you got a job straight out of college, stayed with the same company for years and rose through the ranks—is dead,” Ryan says. “It's gone and it's not coming back. Millennials are ahead of most people when it comes to that realization. We are all entrepreneurs now, even when we're working for someone else.”
With the traditional understandings of career longevity and job security changing, Ryan sees recent graduates adjust by thinking of their careers with an entrepreneurial mindset. “We all have to run our careers like businesses, because your career is a business.”
For example, when Ryan was younger, she didn’t realize she could job-hunt while working another job. “I thought I had to wait until I quit my job or got laid off to start looking for something else. Nowadays, we know better.”
How to improve your professionalism and improve job prospects
Whether you identify with the above strengths or areas of improvement, these hiring managers and career experts have a few tips for recent college graduates hitting the job market.
Silver advises college graduates to spend time, “meeting business owners and becoming accustomed to that environment.” The timidity often disappears when new hires gain more exposure to the professional world.
And you don’t have to get an internship or a job to do this. “I had an associate who used to introduce himself to everybody in his local gym, leading to him making valuable business connections in the near future,” Silver says. “Introduce yourself to everybody—strangers and all, whether at the mall, on the train or just your local gym.”
2. Tell your story
So much of a job search comes down to the way you communicate. This includes everything from your writing in emails to the way you dress when you show up for an interview. Ryan says the best-prepared new graduates know how to tell stories to help explain who they are and the experiences they’ve had—even without paid work experience.
“Your stories make you come alive in a job interview. You can tell stories about awesome things you did when you were babysitting or taking care of people's lawns, or when you were on a committee at school,” Ryan says.
“I wish new grads understood that to get a good job, you don't have to turn into a zombie or a ‘Pod Person’. You don't have to pretend to be someone you're not.” Ryan advises recent graduates not to take a job if they are getting bad vibes.
“Keep your job search going until you feel good about the people you're going to be working with,” Ryan says.
3. Be prepared
“You can't go to a job interview and ask them, 'What does your company do?’ You have to know what they do before you get there,” Ryan says. She explains that preparation is often an area where new graduates show their inexperience in a job hunt.
Ryan suggests asking yourself the following questions before each interview:
- What does this company do?
- Who owns the company?
- Who will be interviewing me for the job?
- What job/position am I interviewing for?
“You can learn everything you need to know by reading the organization’s website and checking out their presence on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.” Ryan also suggests looking up anyone you are emailing or interviewing with on LinkedIn first to learn a little more about them.
Own your career path
“It can be hard to follow your path because there are a lot of messages hitting us over the head every day that tell us you have to get a job that will use your degree,” Ryan says. She adds that it takes time to find the right path, and it’s okay to take a job that pays the bills while still hunting for your dream position.
“I made my own career path by listening to my heart and trying a lot of different things, and you will do the same,” Ryan says. Never be afraid to try for positions that excite you, even if you don’t have much work experience yet. While it can be hard to show hiring managers that you have the skills, knowledge or drive to excel in a position, by following the advice above, you have a better chance of presenting yourself in the clearest light possible.
And if your degree is competency-based, that task could be even easier. Competency-based programs are built around showcasing competencies (or abilities) in students instead of simply sending them out with a degree. Get a better picture in our article, “6 Reasons Employers Should LOVE Hiring Graduates of Competency-Based Programs.”