I had a conversation the other day with a friend, the mother of two young college graduates, both of whom are struggling to find jobs despite having degrees from what are considered “elite” universities.
Struggling might be an understatement — collectively they’ve applied to over 20 positions and have not gotten offers for any of them. Their mom wanted to know what they could before, during, and after the application process to better their chances at getting hired.
Here are some resources I referred her to:
- 5 Tips on How to Get a Job Without a Formal Credential
- Your Resume is Boring — Do These Five Things Instead
- Derek Magill Quora Page
- You Graduated, Now Deschool Yourself
- The End of School by Zak Slayback
In this article, I’m going to share the mistakes they made, and that most people make, during their late teens and early twenties that are hampering their job prospects as some cautionary advice for young people who are about to embark on the next step in their education and career preparation.
1. They Developed a Horizontal Network
Ask almost anyone today and they will tell you that college is one of the best places to build a network. Young people compete aggressively for spots in top universities, clubs, and fraternities because they’ve been told for most of their lives how important networking is.
And it is!
But as my friend Zak Slayback has written in Why Haven’t You Read this Book and as others have written elsewhere, the kind of network college provides you with is not all that valuable. That’s because college networks are predominately horizontal, as college students are surrounded by other college students at the same stage in life, with much of the same experiences, income levels, and skills. While these people might be able to provide you with friendship, they offer limited professional value. Most of them at this stage have little to teach you and little to offer towards your long term career goals.
A truly valuable network is predominately vertical. It consists of people at all different levels on the professional chain. It includes CEOs and startup founders, mid level managers, skilled freelancers, and business owners — people who have the ability to educate, enlighten, and enliven you on both personal and professional levels.
The way to build this is to pursue interests and activities outside of campus. Do internships, freelance work, and free work. Write, attend conferences, and explore the world. Don’t spend the majority (or any) of your time in the classroom with your peers.
2. They Spent More Time Padding A Resume Than Creating Value Propositions
On an Uber ride I took recently, the driver told me how his son was looking to apply to jobs soon. He told me all of the things his son had done during his college years to “improve” his resume — volunteer work, joining a fraternity, participating in a club or two, getting good grades, taking a short term internship, and graduating from a top school (the University of Michigan).
I nodded my head in agreement to be polite, but I couldn’t help but think that this mindset is all wrong, and that his son’s chances might not be as good as he thinks if he makes his resume the core focus of his job seeking process.
This is because we live in a time of resume inflation.
If you graduate from a top university, everybody who graduates with you has done what my driver’s son has done. As I’ve written elsewhere on the Praxis blog, when college graduates apply to a job today, they’re often competing with hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are, on paper, just as qualified as they are. Their resumes’ provide almost no reasons for a company to hire them over the next guy.
The solution for this problem is not to increase the number of accolades you can put on your resume, which is what most people do and what my friend’s sons did, but to make your resume less important by focusing on something else.
This is your value proposition. It’s where you ask yourself “what can I do, Day 1 on the job, to create value for this company? What can I do long term that justifies bringing me on board?” It’s where you tell that company “here’s how I would do things better than you’re doing them now” and where you identify and outline the relevant skills you have and steps you would take to do those things.
Proving to companies that you can solve their problems is much, much more valuable than handing them a paper filled with merit badges.
3. They Gained Few Relevant Professional Skills and Experiences in College.
Set the signaling “value” of a college degree aside for the moment.
Let’s say you’re 18 years old and you want to optimize your chances for career success over the next four years. What are the skills and experiences you think you’d need to have and learn in order to do that? Where could you develop them?
I bet college doesn’t cross your mind.
That’s because for all you can learn in college, the university of experience often does a pitiful job at helping students, especially liberal arts students, prepare for starting their professional careers.
So while my friend’s sons followed the standard advice and did well in political science degrees at school, they did this at the expense of developing more practical real world skills like business writing, sales, marketing, and experiences like apprenticeships, freelance work and even free work, that would have opened many more doors for them.
4. They Amassed A Load of College Debt
Although my friend is relatively well off, her kids still had to take some debt to finance their degrees at the expensive out of state schools they attended. This debt limits their career choices because it forces them to ignore short term, low pay opportunities with a high pay off down the road and instead focus on only those jobs that will allow them to pay off their debt.
As my colleague Isaac Morehouse has written, “the lower your wage requirements, the more flexibility you have early on to explore and test and find work you love.”
My friend’s sons have no such flexibility and often, when they apply to jobs, they’re applying to ones they’re under-qualified for because those are the only ones that they can afford.
If you have any questions or want advice on additional resources, shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or send me a message on my personal website. I love connecting with new people.