College Seniors: It's Time to Get a Job

For the typical 22-year old college senior, these are the waning days of the best of times. In a comprehensive residential learning experience, college seniors found an ability to explore, think big thoughts, and demonstrate the passion and commitment that a sheltered and protected life on campus makes possible.

In the best undergraduate programs, faculty and staff appropriately celebrate and encourage the development of the life of the mind. Indeed, it is precisely this training that produces the committed and engaged citizens and workforce that America will desperately need in the 21st century.

There are those who worked hard -probably too hard - at part-time jobs while in college. Further, many college-bound do not fit the pattern of the 18-22 year old's experience of life in a residential academic program. And colleges and universities differ in so many ways, including scale, diversity, type and quality.

Still, there are some common denominators that shape the collective experience of most college-bound students. One dominant feature is that most seniors with enough credits will graduate this spring.

For seniors moving past "senioritis" and other coping mechanisms, the question that dominates their thinking by their final semester is "What do I do now?"

The answer depends on the student. Many colleges and universities have put substantial new resources recently into their career and counseling centers, directing additional support toward students not immediately seeking graduate and professional degrees. Further, students in programs like accounting and engineering have often benefited from internships and other programs that lead to job offers earlier in their senior year. For them, the deal is sealed.

But the majority of students don't fall into this category. For these seniors, the life of the mind runs into a formidable challenge to meet the demands of the workforce beyond the college gates. At this juncture, college counseling programs can only do so much.

Here are a number of suggestions for graduating seniors to consider:

  • As the Great Recession sputters to a close, it also brings into sharper focus glaring problems with income inequality in American society. The good news is that a college degree gives you an advantage in lifetime income earnings and has become the entry-level expectation for many jobs. The "macro" view is, therefore, that college is worth it.

  • Approach your job search optimistically, thinking about how best to make a case for the contributions that you can make.
  • Think hard about your student debt load, especially if you have a lot of debt or expect that you will go on to earn a graduate or professional degree that will incur more debt. Do you understand your undergraduate debt, the payback rates, terms and conditions, and its relationship to other debt you will assume after graduation?
  • Get a start somewhere. The days of lifetime employment with one employer ended effectively with your parents' generation. The job that you take will not likely be the job that you hold five years from now.
  • Don't assume that you are part of the entitled class. One former student visited me recently to say that it was hard for him not to offer management suggestions to his boss. My response was to suggest that the former student arrive early, bring the coffee occasionally, and be the last out the door. Education does not translate into experience.
  • Use the full range of your contacts. Do not assume that your professors - who your respect and admire - are the best path into the workforce, unless you follow them into teaching and academic research. Cast your "friends" network wide to include parents, alumni, and social contacts that might have insight, experience, practical advice or capability in your job search.
  • Prepare to change your work rhythms. In the 19th century, a new workforce had to move from farm to factory - from an agrarian to an industrial work cycle. Despite substantial changes recently to work cycles in America, they still differ dramatically from the structure of a typical college learning experience.
  • Accept where you are. Be resourceful and resilient. Expect roommates. Understand that your dorm may be newer, cleaner, and better situated that what you can now afford. Match income to expenses and savings to debt. Be prepared to say "no" - especially to yourself.
  • And finally, recognize that you do not need to have your life "set" by graduation. It's the beginning of a new adventure and the timing is whatever it turns out to be. What you cannot do is delay any further your preparation for what's ahead.
  • In the end, you have two responsibilities. The first is to do something with yourself on terms that only you can set. The second is to improve the quality of life for those who live with you in a society that did not offer them the same breaks that you enjoyed.

    Ignore the cracks about humanities majors flipping hamburgers after graduation. Do what it takes to get your start, pay your bills, and repay your debt. You are one of the lucky ones who ended up with a college degree. Make something of it.

    The rest of us are depending on you to keep the promise of America alive.