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What to Do With a Wandering College Graduate

Do you know a 25-year-old wandering in their career and life? It's pretty common these days. Nearly half of new graduates are underemployed, working jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
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Do you know a 25-year-old wandering in their career and life? It's pretty common these days. Nearly half of new graduates are underemployed, working jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

According to a survey conducted for my new book, There Is Life After College, one-third of 20-somethings can be classified as Wanderers--they take about half of their twenties to get started in a career.

I met many of these young adults while reporting the book. Most of them wandered through college without a real plan except to eventually graduate. After commencement, they took any job that paid the bills, especially since most of them were carrying some loan debt that financed their undergraduate years. They had a desire to move cities, or jobs, but were limited in what they could do because of their debt or lack of experience. Now in their mid-twenties they were competing for jobs with more recent graduates who had newer skills.

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If you or someone you know is in this position, what should you do to get out of the rut. Here are three strategies that 20-somethings I met followed to reset their post-graduate life:

Upgrade your skills, quickly.

This no longer requires paying tens of thousands of dollars for a master's degree. There is a fundamental transformation underway in how recent college graduates supplement their education in their mid-twenties.

Rather than plug into the formal learning structure of traditional higher education, young adults are increasingly turning to a new set of providers that offer education in short spurts, online or in face-to-face classes, for a faction of the cost of graduate school (or in some cases free). These providers are hardly household names, but they are already attracting millions of students.

There are coding boot camps, like General Assembly and Dev Bootcamp, that teach basic programming skills to students who typically don't have previous experience. There are some 63 of these camps operating in the U.S. and Canada.

There are Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), offered by several dozen elite universities, including Stanford, Princeton, Penn, and Harvard, through two major organizations, Coursera and edX. These courses allow you to try out a variety of subjects at a low risk since they are free.

Finally, the Web is full of digital learning resources, from YouTube to iTunesU, where students can piece together their own curriculum. Some of these sites have more visitors in one month than universities have students over an entire century. The Khan Academy, for instance, serves some 10 million people a month with 5,000 videos. Lynda.com, an online education company, reaches more than 4 million people a year with its how-to tutorials in everything from management skills to programming.

Get an internship.

Internships are not just for undergraduates. One student I met while reporting the book, Laura Fiedelman, left the University of Texas at Austin without a full-time job. Rather than go back home to her parents in Houston, she moved to New Orleans for an unpaid internship at a boutique public-relations firm. To support herself, she worked part-time at a fast-food restaurant.

"You have to want it so much," she said about pursuing a profession rather than just any job after college. "I worked thirty hours at the PR agency, when they asked us to work twenty. And then I went to roll pitas for another thirty hours."

A few months later, she was able to parlay that internship into a paid full-time job offer. Laura succeeded as a post-graduate intern because she did her research about the position and discovered two key things about it. She was sure she wouldn't be performing just menial work, and she confirmed that interns who had worked there before were quickly hired into paying jobs.

Move to a new city.

This is easier said than done if you have debt.

Every generation of college graduates has its hot city where jobs seem more plentiful. When I graduated from college in the mid-1990s, many of my classmates moved to Atlanta. Now Denver is the new place to be (its population of the young and educated is up 47 percent since 2000).

Indeed, recent college graduates are often migrating west. According to a LinkedIn analysis of its members' online profiles, after earning their bachelor's degree from universities on the East Coast, nearly three times as many people moved to take jobs in San Francisco than West Coast graduates moved to New York City.

Some cities are natural talent magnets for new college graduates. The LinkedIn analysis found that new graduates were willing to move the farthest for jobs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, and Phoenix. Meanwhile, other cities in the LinkedIn study--Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Baltimore--were able to better retain students after graduation because of the nearby industries that attracted them there in the first place.

Hope is not lost if someone is in their mid-twenties with a college degree and is still wandering. But it's critical if you don't like the path you're on to switch paths because your twenties is the dress rehearsal for the rest of your life.


Jeffrey Selingo is author of the new book, There Is Life After College. Order the book online by May 31 to receive a $10 e-gift card. Details here.

Jeff 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.