The Advice College Grads Should Be Getting in Commencement Speeches

Shot of graduation caps during commencement.
Shot of graduation caps during commencement.

It's commencement season on college campuses nationwide--that time of year when words of wisdom are shared with graduates by speakers from all walks of life. While the speeches are often inspiring, sometimes funny, and occasionally boring, rarely do they provide the advice new graduates most need at that precise moment: how to get started in a career, or even get their first job.

Over the past two years, as I interviewed hundreds of recruiters and recent college graduates for my new book, There Is Life After College, I was surprised how little time students spend on the search for the right job after graduation considering how much time and attention they paid to getting into the right college four years earlier.

Here's the tactical advice about getting started in a job or a career right after college that you probably won't hear in the lofty commencement speeches at this time of year.

Don't take any job just to say you have one at graduation.
Jobs that recent graduates take only to "pay the bills" often puts them in the category of the underemployed--meaning they hold positions that don't require a bachelor's degree.

While reporting my book, I met many young adults in their mid-twenties who were wandering and still had those first jobs a few years after commencement. They, too, thought that the job as a nanny or a barista at Starbucks would only be for a few months, but then six months turned into a year, then two and now they were competing with a new crop of graduates as their own skills degraded.

In a survey I conducted for the book, students who had internships in college, graduated with minimal debt, and didn't change their major often while in school (a group I called Sprinters), were twice as likely as everyone else to be employed within six months after graduation, and nearly all of them in jobs related to their major.

The bottom line is to make every attempt you can to find a job in the field you want to work in, even if you have to move or take a smaller salary to do so.

If you realize you're on the wrong track, get off as quickly as possible. Take the time to reassess your plans and perhaps gain new skills by going back to school, finding free online courses, or heading off to a growing number of short-term skill-building boot camps, such as General Assembly or Koru.

There's no reason to stay on a particular road if you feel like it's taking you in the wrong direction. This is your time to take risks and learn to navigate the workplace you're going to live in for the next thirty-plus years.

When you have a choice, go to an employer that is growing or where you'll learn on the job, not someplace where you'll just be a number with few opportunities for advancement or professional development.

To succeed in this economy, you'll need to constantly sharpen your skills throughout your career. You might as well do that on the job or you will need to pay for it yourself somewhere else.

It's okay to job hop. Yes, it's okay to switch employers often in your 20s. Adults who have a multitude of obligations probably will tell you otherwise, but the research shows that the decade of the 20s sets young adults up for success later in life and determines how much they eventually earn and the positions they hold.

Henry Siu calls this "job shopping" for a better match. Siu, a professor at the Vancouver School of Economics at the University of British Columbia, was part of a team of economists that examined more than 30 years of unemployment data in the United States. In a 2014 study, the economists found that increased mobility in one's 20s leads to higher earnings later in life.

College should prepare graduates to be "occupationally footloose," Siu says, meaning they can perform a variety of entry-level jobs in different occupations. Men and women in their 20s have always changed jobs. The difference now is that one in three changes occupations annually, compared with one in 10 in previous generations.

"We are living in an increasingly complex society with many more choices for occupations," Siu says, more than anyone can reasonably explore while in college. Trying out different occupations is another reason 20-somethings need a longer runway to life's milestones.

If you're graduating into a tough job market and have a lot of debt from college, you might not have many choices about taking a job. But if you do, take the job hunt as seriously as you did the search for a college because where you work after graduation might matter more in the long run than where you went to college or what you majored in.

Jeffrey Selingo is author of the new book, There Is Life After College. He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post's Grade Point blog, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech's Center for 21st Century Universities.