"All I hear from professors, neighbors, and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment. … What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?"
By asking this question at the second presidential debate at Hofstra University, 20-year-old Jeremy Epstein was able to telegraph the worry of today's college students, plus the reality of approximately half of recent graduates and all their families to President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney. Whatever you might think of the candidates' responses to Epstein, it is important that students not wait until their senior year to connect with the career services department.
"You can't view college as some kind of conveyer belt that automatically leads to a job," says Ken Mattsson of Resonare Consulting (www.resonare.com) in Boston. He argues that the college degree remains extremely valuable, but it isn't just what you do in the classroom that will get you a job.
1. Use college as a time to create your portfolio. Mattsson has a special penchant for what he calls "creative entrepreneurs:" students aiming for careers in film, theater, or a similar field. Employers want you to show that you have used your time and the resources that colleges provide to put together a portfolio of experience relevant to the professional life you want to pursue post-graduation.
Mattsson suggests that one of the values of a college education is that it gives students the time, space, and resources to take the initiative to do projects, get gigs, and build up a body of creative content. By the time you graduate, you can be taken seriously in a world where you need to show not just what you might do if you get hired, but what you have already done.
The same lesson applies as well in other more "traditional" pursuits. Colleges provide opportunity for work-study programs, summer internships, and entrée into volunteer work to those entering almost any field.
2. Use college as a time to create your network. It's no longer "what you know" or "who you know," but rather "what you know AND who you know" that counts in today's job market. Recognizing this, Jane Trnka, the executive director of the Career Development Center at Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business in Winter Park, Fla., offers classes on career management and resume writing. She takes proactive measures to assure that MBA students learn important networking skills. As is the case in many college career services departments, Trnka facilitates student interaction with business leaders and alumni at conferences, networking events, and in other contexts. She offers a variety of networking pointers:
- "Preparation is key," Trnka teaches. Research who will be at the events you're attending before you get there, and have something to say to them.
- Even students should have business cards to give to people they meet.
- Build self-confidence and learn how you can offer value to the company or organization where you hope to work.
Like Mattsson, Trnka encourages students to take on internships and volunteer for community organizations, and even to gain international experience while in school.
To be sure, students like Jeremy Epstein are influenced by national economic trends and conditions. College can't guarantee a job. But if you're a student that goes about the tasks of building your portfolio of experience, demonstrable successes, and your personal network while also getting your education, college can be a place where you get a leg up on your competition so that you're ready to move out of your parents' home and on with your life.
Arnie Fertig is the head coach of JOBHUNTERCOACH.COM, where he utilizes his extensive background in HR Staffing and as owner of a recruiting company to help mid-career job-hunters land their next job. Arnie provides one-to-one coaching services to individuals throughout the U.S. in all aspects of the job hunt, including: resume writing, personal branding, utilizing social media, enhancing networking skills, preparing for interviews, and negotiating compensation.