Talent Management Column Message to You Poor College Grads

With the country experiencing the worst job market in 75 years, our Talent Management columnist suggests college graduates consider some unorthodox options, including delaying graduation, seeking employment abroad or "doing almost anything other than working."

Monday, May 20, 2013
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Dear Class of 2013,

Let me be among the first to congratulate you on completing your college degree and welcome you to the worst job market in 75 years. Your beaming parents are hoping that you will somehow avoid moving back in with them. At your graduation parties, friends of your parents will tell you to cheer up, that things were just as bad when they graduated, and they learned a lot from it. They're wrong: Things are a lot worse now than they were the worst job market since the Great Depression -- the 1981-82 recession. As someone who entered the job market then, I can tell you that whatever we learned from it wasn't worth it.

On the bright side, you have lots of company! Youth unemployment in Europe is about 25 percent, and close to 50 percent in Spain. In China, anecdotal evidence suggests that only about half its college graduates are getting jobs. Things aren't so much better here. Although the unemployment rate for the age group 20 to 24 is about 13 percent, only about 60 percent actually have jobs. Taking out those in school still leaves about 25 percent who are either officially unemployed or have given up trying to find a job.

And yes, it could be worse. You could be a high-school graduate, in which case the jobs you could be doing are all being taken by college graduates. (This is the reason that the unemployment rate is lower for college grads than high-school grads: It isn't that there are more jobs around that require college degrees, it is that, at the same wage, employers prefer to hire older college grads.)

Here are some things that might cheer you up:

First, this is not your fault. It is simply bad timing. If you had been born in the late 1990s, you would have had your pick of jobs. And it isn't just the economy. You happen to be part of the largest cohort of 22 year-olds in U.S. history -- yes, bigger than the baby boom -- all trying to get jobs at the same time.

Second, we know exactly why it happened. Fraud and crazy risks led to a banking crisis, and we certainly know how to prevent that from happening again. We just haven't gotten around to taking these corrective measures. (OK, maybe that's not going to cheer you up.)

Third, it will get better. Your cohort will continue to experience diminished prospects for a long time, but if you hang out with your college friends -- who are all in the same boat -- you probably won't notice.

I don't think I'm doing very well on the cheering-up part, so in the spirit of commencement addresses, let me offer some advice, knowing that you didn't ask for it:

Leave the country. This is an excellent time to go to other countries. There are places where they are hiring U.S. graduates to teach English, such as Korea and China. And there are entire continents where they really need students with job skills of any kind, such as Africa. Just recently, I met some human resource people from Australia who just returned from a trip to Ohio to hire U.S. college grads for jobs "down under."  

Stay in school. If you haven't graduated yet, don't. Take a year off. Delay graduating until the market improves. (Parents, I'm not suggesting they have to be full-time students and that you have to fork over another year's tuition.) This is especially best if you are pursuing a field in which employers come to college to hire. The market will quite likely be better next year. Campus recruiters, however, are likely to pass over you if you graduated the year before, and you may not be allowed to use the same recruiting services once you graduate.

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Do something unrelated to your career. This is an excellent time to spend a year volunteering, traveling or doing almost anything other than working. The reason is that working isn't so great right now, so you're not missing much by being out of the regular workforce. The career-services offices on campus may not have that kind of alternative information, so head for the offices that manage community relationships and volunteer work.

Here's what I would think long and hard about before doing: taking another unpaid internship. Many of these experiences are so contrived now that I think recruiters are suspicious as to their merit. I also wouldn't taking a low-level position that a high-school grad would normally do just to get into the type of company or industry where you'd like to end up. For example, I wouldn't take a job as a secretary in an investment company if I wanted to get into the finance field. There are many fewer opportunities to work your way up in an organization now, and the risk is that, after this experience, you will be seen as a secretary -- not just by that employer, but by others elsewhere.  

As you can probably tell from this list, many of the best choices assume that you don't have to make a lot of money so you can focus on putting something interesting on your resume instead. This is another one of those things that is unfair and not your fault. It won't be the last, either.


Peter Cappelli is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School. His latest book is Why Good People Can't Get Jobs: The Skills Gap and What Companies Can Do About It.

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