Friday, May 20, 2011

To the New Graduates

So you got your college degree … CONGRATULATIONS!

Unless you already have a job lined up, I’m sure the question you’re asking is: Now what? I wish I had a good answer for you. I do, however, have what I hope will be a few words of wisdom.

Like you, I graduated within a few years of a stock market crash, a major financial bailout, rising inflation, tax cuts primarily benefitting the wealthiest among us, an ongoing debate over balancing the federal budget (and during which some Republicans cried as they had to vote multiple times to raise the national debt ceiling), and geographic unemployment challenges.

The unemployment rate was just below 7 percent then, a number that would look good by today’s standards. But, the area in which I lived and still do, was not flush with opportunities for a still wet behind the ears communications major. When I got the chance to apply at a local newspaper a few weeks after I “officially” graduated, I leapt. Two weeks later, I began my first “career” job.

It would be both a blessing and a curse.

It was a blessing to have a job, especially one related to my degree. It was an incredible training ground supplying insight and experience I could never have gotten in school. It was a curse to have a starting salary that paid only marginally more than the part-time civil service job I gave up at the university. And, it became even more of a curse because I stayed there way too many years. I was reminded of this by an article in the New York Times about today’s college graduates and the bleak outlook for their immediate futures.

“If you don’t move within five years of graduating, for some reason you get stuck where you are,” one expert in the story says. Oh, how right that is! Here's some other advice:

Don’t be complacent. At least until you get that first job or two under your belt, always keep looking.
Take every job seriously – even the minimum wage ones with no direct ties to your “career.” The people you work for in these jobs may appear again later in your life and be in a position to help you along and be willing to do so if they have a good memory of your work. Don’t burn bridges!
Be realistic. You probably aren’t going to waltz into your dream job with a huge salary. (A Rutgers study showed the median starting salary for students graduating from four-year colleges in 2009 and 2010 was $27,000, down from $30,000 for those entering the work force from 2006 to 2008.) If you get an offer in this ballpark for a job you can do, ideally in your field of choice, think of it as an investment in on-the-job training – and something besides your part-time work record that you can put on your resume.
Network. Think of everyone and anyone you’ve ever known who works in a field or at a company that you might like. Talk to them. Seek their advice. And, if you can, enlist their help. Many times it really is just as much about who you know as what you know, particularly as you start out.
Always save Face(book). This wasn’t an issue in my day but in the age of everything is on the Internet, be very mindful of what you put out there on blogs, Facebook, MySpace, etc. It ceases to be all in good fun when a prospective employer stumbles upon less than savory photos or other college exploits.
Consider internships. Many companies offer paid internships, positions that are often filled by candidates a semester or two past graduation. I know firsthand several former interns who work as staff today because they took a chance and showed what they could do during 90 days or so. Even those who weren’t hired, now found they had some great new references – or they were introduced to people outside the company who could offer them other opportunities.

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