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Sunday, July 12, 2009

At least the experience may be valuable

By Dick Hirsch

There were approximately 1,400,000 students who graduated from colleges in the US in recent weeks and we can salute them all for their academic accomplishments while at the same time expressing our regrets as many of them enter the job market.

Why the condolences?

Because only two of every ten grads seeking to start a career in the workplace have been able to find a job, according to figures just released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) following its annual student survey. The results showed 20 percent of graduates with new Bachelor’s degrees had promises of jobs, compared to just over 50 percent in 2007.

That is bad news.

There is an abundance of bad employment news these days, much more than the usual portion. Men and women with excellent work records have lost their jobs. Layoffs are common. Positions previously considered essential have been reclassified as redundant. Some staff reductions are large enough to warrant coverage on the newscasts, but there are others that are done quietly, with either the legendary “pink slip,” or, more likely, following a meeting with a representative from human resources. Even in the worst of times, such meetings are unexpected, and the result is termination, with or without a pat on the back and a parting handshake.

If you examined each of those incidents, there is likely to be a sad story developing, a story highlighted by bills to be paid, mortgage payments overdue, future plans scuttled and countless other stressful issues impacting individuals and families. These are difficult times and the stories of individual travails are apparent everywhere.

But, for the grads, it must be an especially painful introduction to the realities of the real world. They have not exactly been sequestered on campus for four years, so they have been aware of the sad state of the world economy, the growing number of unemployed workers, and the less than rosy predictions for recovery. Now, as they come of age, they must contend with the bleak realization that life can be very unfair.

Years ago I met with a college class, a group of students hoping for careers in communications. They were seniors, it was springtime, and commencement wasn’t far away. For most of them, things were already settled. They had been distributing resumes, consulting the university’s placement office and reviewing possibilities. The result for the majority: they not only had a job, they even had a starting date. Excitement abounded. The room was filled with eager recruits, ready for the real world.

Of course, the process was more personal then. Resumes were mailed. The jobseeker might follow with a phone call. Interviews were arranged. Today, in addition to the dramatic reduction in job openings, the process has been depersonalized: e-mail and voice mail dominate the process, with only occasional interviews. The result for most is disappointing, summarized this way in a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“What they’ve found offers only some combination of...a minimum wage job with no benefits, part time only in a field seemingly unrelated to their degrees...possibly the job is also physically or emotionally exhausting, involves dealing with angry customers, and requires repeated robotic sales pitches and survey questions.”

There is no shortage of advice for the jobless graduates. Some recommend seeking an internship; even if it is unpaid, it provides an introduction to the workplace and often leads to a job offer. Others suggest volunteer work for charitable agencies. Many advise graduate school. There is also a plethora of self-help suggestions, too: be optimistic, don’t become discouraged, and recognize that tough times can help cultivate character; don’t discount any opportunity, no matter how remote, and be flexible and willing to relocate, either in the US or a foreign country.

That advice is well-intentioned but it has a somewhat hollow sound. Yet, it reminds me of a job I accepted without much enthusiasm, but which proved to have a remarkable impact. I sold Fuller brushes at a time when people were still at home to answer the doorbell. It was a job I didn’t wish for, a last resort, viewed solely as a way to earn some money. It proved to be much more, providing experience that was enduring, related mostly to methods of approaching unfamiliar people who weren’t eager to talk to me. That’s the funny thing about experience: you never know until later when you’re adding something valuable.


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