Thursday, May 24, 2012

On Navigating the Entry Level Gap

There's been a lot of publicity lately about the plight of college grads. At the same time, albeit less publicized, have been the gripes of employers complaining about the difficulty finding decent hires for entry level positions. In addition to reading about these gripes online, I've had the privilege of discussing the problem with people who are in a position to hire recent college graduates. This, combined with my own experience in the workforce (I didn't do undergrad until after thirty) and my experience teaching undergraduates, has given me a unique perspective. I wanted, therefore, to give some advice for students who are in college now about how to best navigate the workforce upon graduation.

1. Think of a degree in terms of minimum qualifications

Some people have described, rather cynically, undergraduates as seeing a degree as their "passport to the middle class." I think that, more often, it is seen as a backstage pass. This is not really the students' fault. More often, it's the fault of university administrators that seek to profit off of those dreams and increase student retention by giving a rose colored view of their prospects. However, a degree is just the starting point, it's what you need to make the first cut, so to speak. In that sense, it is very much like a passport. Think about it like this: imagine that you want to take a trip to Italy. You know that you need to get your passport to get in. There's so much more you need to do to have the type of trip that you want to have: picking the right hotel, finding the best places to eat, tours to go on, art museums to visit, bars to hang out in and so forth. In many respects, the quality of your vacation is up to you. If you only got the passport and did none of those other things, then you would have denied yourself the necessary components to get what you want: an enjoyable vacation. College is much the same way. The degree is only a minimum qualification. However, taking courses that improve your writing and critical thinking skills, learning how to solve problems independently, learning how to navigate bureaucracies--these are all part of the picture and can be invaluable assets.

2. Get Experience

Don't wait until you graduate to get experience in your chosen field. Find a professor's lab to work in, get a part time job in tech support, volunteer in a mental health facility, work on the school newspaper, you name it...get experience. Get lots of it. Get it often. If your school doesn't have these resources, look at a site like Volunteer Match. In the summers, get an internship. Employers expect that you've been doing that while in college, and if all you have to show is a degree and a listing of your GPA, then they very well may pass over your resume.

3. Know What Entry Level Positions in Your Field Really Pay

I've heard horror stories of some very respectable schools telling its students that the going rate for entry level in their field is $20-30,000 higher than it actually is. I'd like to think that this is naivete--an indication of academics not keeping up with the times--but I fear that it may be more self-serving than that. The truth is, if there are a bunch of undergraduates taking out $25,000 or more in loans, they may not be happy to learn that the starting salary for supposedly pragmatic professions is only likely to be $40,000 a year. The problem, of course, is if you come in with only minimal experience asking for $70,000 a year, your resume will quickly be put in the trash file. It would be better if universities gave a realistic perspective to students and explain, "Yes, this profession may be lucrative but only after several years experience." That way, grads wouldn't be thwarted by the unrealistic expectations they were given in college. The solution? Find people working in your profession. Look them up on message boards, Twitter, Facebook--but find them and ask what's realistic. Don't count on your college to give you an accurate picture.

4. Write a Compelling Resume, But Keep it Professional

Definitely try to make your resume sound as impressive as you can while still remaining truthful. Think about how your experience might be relevant to the position. Use online resources. At the same time, remember that this is still a resume and not a blog or Facebook profile. I once saw the resume of an out-of-work Library School grad. She showed off her technical know-how by doing her resume online. Unfortunately, she failed in understanding her target audience: her resume was full of flower graphics and, at the top, a heading which read "My FAB Online Resume." Sure, she knew to put her resume online. What she did not know was how that resume would come across to a potential employer. Avoid "cutesy" titles, kitschy icons and the like. Have a nice, classic look with all of the relevant information and, above all, be professional.

5. Interview Well

I've asked hiring managers and one of the things that I hear a lot is, "I don't want to do all the work." In other words, don't be so afraid of making a mistake that you make the interviewer uncomfortable. Don't interrupt them, be engaging and be knowledgable. Have some questions in mind to ask the interviewer, since they'll want that. It sounds paradoxical, but don't try too hard. Think of it as being like a first date: you want to be well-dressed and charming, but you don't want to worry so much about how you're coming across that you blow it. The best way for a date to go well is if you actually have fun. On the other hand, if the date is too forced, then the other party will just want it to be over and you won't get a second call. An interview is much the same way. If it's too forced or awkward, all the interviewer will be thinking is how much they want you out of their office. On the other hand, if you put the end result out of your mind and see it as a pleasant, albeit somewhat formal conversation with a colleague, it will go that much more smoothly.

Of course, I can't guarantee that even mastering all of these will get you the job. Just like in more selective undergraduate universities and most graduate programs, there is a big element of luck. Luck in terms of when you apply, what your competition is, how many others are applying and so forth. Still, the more of an edge you give yourself, the better a shot you have at steering luck in your favor. My hope is that this information will provide that edge to some college students who may not have heard it elsewhere.

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