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Re-thinking Career Services in Times of Employment Uncertainty

In the spring, all eyes are on new college graduates and their future plans. Current indications are that the employment situation is easing, but bachelor’s graduates aged 20-24 still face plenty of challenges. Average annual unemployment rates for this cohort have remained stubbornly around 9%, and underemployment is rampant. So who has been helping these students and grads get a leg up, especially if they don’t have well-connected parents or a stellar GPA?

This monumental task has, in the eyes of parents and the public at least, been assigned to College Career Services offices. But few have held higher education accountable for making this service work. And, if parents are expecting any kind of personal attention for their sons and daughters, they will frequently be sorely disappointed.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2012 survey of over 800 colleges and universities, there is an average of one careers professional for every 1645 students served. Staffing ratios are substantially worse at large public institutions and correspondingly better at small liberal arts colleges. Some colleges—even relatively small ones—spend as little as $50 per student per year on career-related services. Over the past three, economically challenging, years, the budget situation for careers offices has actually deteriorated. NACE data shows that nationwide, the median operating budget for careers offices shrank 8% between 2010 and 2012, from $34,000 to $31,000.

At a time when we should be expecting colleges to enhance their career services to students, many have taken a defeatist approach, lacking confidence to believe that anything they do could make their graduates more attractive to employers. To many in higher education, careers offices are cost centers that deserve to receive the same reductions as every other administrative office. And, career leaders have too often been complicit in their own marginalization, unwilling to challenge the status quo on behalf of students.

Connecting College to Career in 2012

In the midst of this bleak picture, a recent conference at Wake Forest University, titled Re-thinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century offers a glimmer of hope. The Conference drew a crowd of over 200 presidents, faculty, high-ranking college administrators, and career directors for an inaugural three-day discussion.

The brainchild of President Nathan Hatch, and Vice President for Personal and Professional Development, Andy Chan, Re-thinking Success brought together leaders from academia, industry, the media, and careers, in a forum designed to start a national conversation about how students can best navigate from college to career.

The Conference provided plenty of compelling reasons why colleges—particularly those where student majors don’t automatically equate to specific careers—need to provide a better ROI for families. And, schools like Wake Forest, the University of Chicago and Washington University, provided eloquent testimony on the potential impact of careers offices, when they have institutional support.

But there’s the rub. Despite the evidence that successful career initiatives can encourage matriculation, enhance alumni engagement, and even contribute to fundraising goals, the majority of colleges and universities are stuck in an old paradigm, oblivious to the opportunity for institutional differentiation through graduate success. Sadly, most career leaders have been unsuccessful at conveying the potential value of their initiatives.

Leading from Below

The Re-thinking Success Conference illustrated the importance of senior leadership in enhancing career outcomes. High visibility, large budgets, internship funding, and presidential support send a strong message that work experience and career preparation are an important part of an institution’s enduring value to students. But when budgets are tight, and there are multiple pressing problems to address, elevating graduate success to the top of the agenda is difficult. The careers message can often get lost, obscured by more immediate issues relating to faculty, admissions, and fundraising.

The answer is to lead from below. Career directors have often shied away from greater visibility and accountability. But if change is going to happen, and the marginalization of careers offices stopped, those closest to the career success of graduates will need to take responsibility for moving the agenda.

Key Strategies for Moving the Careers Agenda: A Plan for Career Directors

  • Know what results you intend to achieve, craft a compelling story, and become visible. Getting other people excited about your vision for graduate career success is critical.
  • Don’t ask for money—at least, not yet. Show what you can do by a critical review of your operations in light of your new vision. Get data to identify what services, functions and programs create the best results. When you’re not getting real value for money, cut the activity.
  • Redistribute your discretionary money, for example, corporate donations or career fair fees. Use the money to get some quick, high-impact, wins. Try a few pilot programs to show what you can do with limited funds.
  • Partner with faculty. Educate them about what their graduates are doing and encourage them to share career stories that were influenced by the student’s choice of academic study. Support their desire to attract more students to their major. And, if the Romance Language faculty plan to offer a seminar on careers using languages, offer to co-sponsor and promote the program.
  • Build systems to capture and nurture contacts who can be helpful in advising students on their careers or promoting their career success. Faculty and administrators will be happy to provide you with names when they trust the information will be wisely used.
  • Identify how career outcomes and your new initiatives can help other departments achieve their goals. Admissions offices need career success stories. Alumni Relations professionals appreciate the opportunity to partner on successful programs involving alumni. And, plenty of schools have discovered that careers professionals can help pave the way for discussions with donors on multiple institutional fundraising priorities.
  • Build a career community of alumni, parents and friends, all of whom have a vested interest in the career success of students and graduates.
  • Engage students, early and often, and make them partners in their own success. One reason why students are often disappointed with Career Services is that they don’t understand their own roles and responsibilities. Students typically don’t listen to adults, but their parents listen to university messages, and students do listen to each other. Make sure students play a leadership role within the careers office as peer advisors and program directors. When students have ownership of initiatives, they are much more likely to encourage the involvement of their peers than when they are simply “consumers” of career services.
  • Find opportunities to talk to senior leaders and trustees. Be the resident expert on careers. These meetings are wasted if you simply talk about what services and programs you offer. Instead, paint the national picture, using data and anecdotes. Then relate what’s going on outside the academy to what is happening to your students. Finally, explain what you have been able to accomplish with your current budget and the impact additional resources would have on your students’ potential for success.

When senior leaders have no experience with careers, getting them to ease up on the purse strings is a challenge. But, your energy, excitement and vision can go a long way to convincing them that a new approach to careers can be as good for the institution as it will undoubtedly be for students, especially when your success is backed up by verifiable metrics.

Alumni Unemployment Demands New College Solutions

Graduation used to mark the end of a college’s responsibility to its students. But many institutions have come to realize that they need to pay attention to their graduates—however long they’ve been out of school. Nowhere is there more pressure than in the area of career services, judged by alumni as one of the key areas where they need help.

There are compelling reasons for colleges to respond to alumni needs: When graduates can’t find jobs, get laid off, or fail to find even the bottom rung of the career ladder, their misfortune now directly affects the colleges they attended.

Matriculation 
Families want assurances that a college’s alumni have successful careers. No longer is the matriculation decision based solely on the strength of a college’s academic program, or the student’s interest in a particular college. Families want to know that if their sons or daughters matriculate, they will find good work after graduation. Vague references in the college View Book may have sufficed in the past; now, real data is needed to prove a college can deliver on its employment promise.

Retention 
Layoffs and parental unemployment affect the ability of students to afford a college education and stay in school once they have matriculated. But, student retention is also influenced by what happens to recent graduates. When underclass students see the difficulties college seniors face in finding work, they are less inclined to want to remain a student and accumulate more debt. Having a vision of a successful future may be critical to persistence.

Alumni involvement and philanthropy Unemployed alumni are less likely to want to be involved with their alma mater: it’s human nature to want to share successes but hide misfortune. This is a problem for colleges because research has shown that the more involved alumni become with their institutions, the more likely they are to eventually become donors. Unemployed alumni have other priorities for their savings.

Graduate unemployment clearly cannot be ignored. Indeed, the future of many colleges may depend on finding additional ways to meet the needs of alumni—regardless of their employment status. Babson College in Boston provides a good example of innovative thinking: the College has made it possible for many alumni who previously held high-level positions to occupy office space on campus, and occasionally teach—building a sense of goodwill towards the College that will last far beyond the period of alumni unemployment.

The college that thinks creatively in this period of high unemployment, and invests in services and activities that better prepare graduates for the future, is the one that will not only survive, but thrive.

 

College Seniors: Don’t Go To Graduate School

The Class of 2010 must be cursing their collective bad luck. For most of their college career, they watched employers wooing their older classmates with promises of high salaries and signing bonuses. Then they sat back, dumbfounded, as the Class of 2009 confronted the worst hiring situation in decades. Now, they have to face the fact that the jobs recovery still remains elusively over the horizon.

I’ve worked with students through several economic downturns, and there are always winners and losers in the employment game. The spoils this year go to the graduates with smarts, strong technical skills, and—most important–relevant work or internship experience.

The cruel irony is that the “losers” in the current senior class are often the ones who, since they were in diapers, have been told they were the best and the brightest. Armed with self-confidence, stellar SAT scores, and ambition, they matriculated at some of the top colleges in the U.S., majoring in subjects like Spanish, Anthropology, and Psychology.

Contrary to the general assumption, most of these students never intended to become translators, or anthropologists or psychologists. A significant proportion saw their education as a great preparation for a career in business—especially if they supplemented their majors with a minor in computer science or economics. Now they’re not so sure.

DUBIOUS PARENTAL AND FACULTY ADVICE

Students fitting this profile in the late 1990s would have catapulted themselves to the top of the career ladder by naming themselves CEO and authoring their new dot-com business plan on the back of an envelope. Since the tech bubble burst, this type of student has been increasingly drawn to the pay, prestige, and intellectual challenge of investment banking and management consulting. These two career fields rarely employed more than 20% of a university’s graduating class, but their firms’ recruiting seal of approval became synonymous with the perceived quality of the academic institution.

So what now for the college senior? Not only are finance and consulting opportunities in short supply, the rest of the employment landscape still looks bleak. The unemployment rate for college graduates under the age of 25 has increased more than 120% in the past two years, and while the rate of unemployment has leveled off, it is still at historic highs. Given the dire news, it’s small wonder that a large number of soon-to-be-graduates are sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding anything that smacks of the real world.

Many 2010 graduates are being aided and abetted in their retreat from reality by an unlikely alliance: parents and faculty. The dubious advice they are being given is to “wait out the recession” and go to graduate school. For faculty, it’s a no-brainer to encourage some of the brightest minds to stay in the academy—especially since they may honestly believe it’s for the good of the student. The reasons that parents give this advice are often a little more complicated.

IS A MASTER’S WORTH IT?

Parents of 2010 graduates have been more involved in their children’s education than at any other time in history. Throughout grade school and high school, they have nurtured their children’s talents, found tutors when necessary, and guided extra-curricular activities so their sons and daughters would find success in the college application sweepstakes. The reward for their efforts? A hefty bill for tuition and expenses that often exceeds $150,000. The expected quid pro quo for such an investment has been post-graduate professional success for their offspring. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, is unacceptable.

Many parents also assume that a graduate degree will automatically confer an economic advantage to their sons and daughters. A quick glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart shows what appears to be a clear correlation between education and salary. Crunch a couple of numbers and you find a 25% economic benefit to a master’s degree over a bachelor’s degree and a 55% pay differential between those with just a bachelor’s degree and those with a professional degree.

The devil, of course, is in the details. In a September 2007 article, “Is your degree worth $1 million—or worthless?” author Liz Pulliam Weston attempts to calculate the actual value of particular types of degrees over a lifetime. Her conclusions are generally consistent with what I have observed. One of her most notable findings: Recipients of masters degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences actually gained no economic value from further education.

On the other hand, Ms. Weston clearly illustrates the benefits of a professional degree. She calculates that over a lifetime, an MBA graduate will make $375,000 more than if she had simply finished her education with a bachelor’s degree. That’s an impressive figure, so why not encourage new grads to get an MBA? Trick question. Most schools will rarely accept candidates for an MBA without at least two to three years of experience. In fact, the average number of years of work experience for students in business school is typically around five.

“TRANSITION” DEGREES

Students could find an international business school that might accept them immediately after graduation, but they’d be missing out on something U.S. schools consider very important: the ability to put business education in context and to bring real world problems and solutions to the table.

The financial advantage of an MBA is also tempered by the actual, and lost opportunity, costs of attending. With more than $100,000 of debt at stake—often on top of undergraduate loans—graduates need to be 100% sure about the value of an MBA for their chosen career field before signing on the dotted line. An MBA degree might be a real plus for someone interested in nonprofit management, but the economic equation may not make sense.

A number of schools, including Case Western Reserve, have started masters programs designed specifically to give liberal arts grads a background in business. Located in the university’s business school and lasting a year or less, these programs can be very popular with students who like the idea of a “transition” degree which orients them more towards the business world. Unfortunately, these degrees are expensive and are often not well understood outside academia. The verdict is still out on whether one year masters programs give graduates a leg up in the work world. Employers typically recruit at the undergraduate or the MBA level but don’t know what to do with the student who does not naturally fit into either category. A better option might be to consider an intense short-term program, like the Tuck Business Bridge program at Dartmouth College.

“GET A JOB, ANY JOB”

Listening to my cautionary tales about graduate school and the job market, it would be easy to descend into despair. But new graduates have always been able to find jobs even in the worst recessions. Employment opportunities do exist, and the proactive job seeker will hunt them down, using connections and resources to expand the scope of his or her search. Increasingly, students and their families are looking to private career advising to obtain the kind of personalized attention and targeted strategies that give students an advantage in a challenging job market.

I recently asked three employers what they recommend students do if they are interested in going into an area of business after they graduate. All three agreed that students need to get experience, not more education. One went as far as to say “get a job, any job, even McDonald’s.” The point is, in this economy your GPA or your SAT score may be less important than your experience and your attitude. Arrogance is out; humility is in.

Companies these days can afford to be picky. They want to know whether you can do the job that they need to have done. If you’re graduating in a major that is unrelated to your career interest, you’ll have to take the extra steps necessary to show the relevance of your education. Sometimes that means focusing the employer’s attention less on the subject matter of your degree and more on your internships or extra-curricular activities. However challenging the job market, the savvy job hunter will always find creative ways to make the hiring case, and in doing so, stand out from the crowd.

Addressing Brown University students in a careers program during a past recession, the late Frank Newman, former president of the University of Rhode Island, announced to his audience that they were graduating at the best of times. What he meant was that the graduate who can successfully find opportunities when times are bad will be well positioned for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. I believe that’s excellent advice for the Class of 2010.

Employment Advice for 2010 College Grads: Finding the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Going to the dentist and giving a public presentation consistently rank as two of the most universally dreaded activities. The Class of 2010 could add a third: going through the senior job search.

When the economy tanked in 2008, college juniors watched with a sense of horror as their carefully laid internship plans were destroyed. But the horror was tempered with relief that the major impact of the collapsing job market would fall not on them, but on the Class of 2009.

One year on, it is clear there is no lucky escape for the college grads of 2010. According to November, 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.5% of college grads under the age of 25 still have no work at all, a figure that has risen 50% from a year ago. College seniors in 2010 will enter a market that is already saturated with unemployed or underemployed graduates.

So how are current college seniors coping? A surprising number of them appear to be putting their collective heads in the sand. Far from flooding to their careers offices and asking for help, they are opting out. By the end of the December, those who were successful in on-campus recruiting will have already accepted job offers. And those who are pursuing further education will have their applications well in hand. But for more than half the class, the future looks so unclear that students would rather postpone reality and concentrate on enjoying their final semester. Small comfort to the parents who have invested two hundred grand in their son or daughter’s education.

It’s tempting for the Class of 2010 to think that there’s little that can be done. After all, the thousands of employers who might seek the talents of graduating seniors have not yet identified their hiring needs. But the light at the end of the employment tunnel will be much brighter for the student who commits to learning the skills, aptitudes and strategy for a successful career search while they are still in college. Those will be the students who can capitalize on employment opportunities as they arise.

Winter break is the time when most parents and their college seniors have the dreaded “career” discussion. Student commitment to a career strategy, which includes a plan to develop essential career skills, attitude and focus, will go a long way towards providing parental piece of mind. Employment at graduation? For students who see finding a post-graduate job as part of their education, it’s a real possibility.

First published on http://www.catapultadvising.com.

Why Higher Education Can’t Ignore Graduate Unemployment

Press Release

——————————————-

CURRAN CAREER CONSULTING

Providing essential career information and consulting to higher education and individuals

http://www.curranoncareers

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, July 2, 2009

CONTACT: Sheila Curran
(919) 599 6207
Sheila.curran@curranoncareers.com

NEWS TIP: AS THE UNEMPLOYMENT RATE FOR COLLEGE GRADS DOUBLES, HIGHER EDUCATION NEEDS TO PAY MORE ATTENTION TO CAREER SERVICES

Now that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has released its June statistics, all eyes will be focused on the overall unemployment rate of 9.5%–a rate only slightly higher than that reported in May. But there is one piece of data that deserves greater attention: The rate of unemployment for college graduates over the age of 25 has risen more rapidly than for any other educational cohort. In June of 2008, the rate was 2.4%; now, it stands at 4.8%.

Over a million college graduates lost their jobs in the past year. They are competing for employment with the roughly 1.2 million new graduates who are estimated to have joined the ranks of job seekers.

While an unemployment rate of 4.8% may seem low compared to the overall rate, these unemployed individuals have collectively spent millions of dollars on their educations. Many of them have advanced degrees and significant debt loads. They expect an economic return on their tuition investment.

When the unemployment rate for college graduates over age 25 was less than 2%–true for almost all of 2002, for example—colleges and universities could logically assume that their graduates would find positions without much help. That is no longer true. A significant number of today’s college graduates will be forced to accept a job that does not require either a college degree or professional experience—if they can find one at all.

The cost of tuition, room and board at a 4-year institution rose 32% for private colleges and 42% for public universities between 2002 and 2008, with average costs in 2008 running at $30,393 and $13,639 respectively. With such increases come expectations, verified in surveys conducted by the educational research company Eduventures, that higher education will prepare students for their futures beyond college. Prospective students evaluate the degree to which an institution will provide access to professional development opportunities, connections, internships and jobs.

Sheila Curran, a career strategy expert, who has directed career centers at Duke University and Brown University, believes the time has come to think creatively about linking college to career. She recommends an institution-wide approach to securing graduate success that takes full advantage of alumni and parents as career resources. Says Curran, “Exceptional career services can be a key asset that helps colleges and universities to differentiate themselves from their peers.”

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Employment and the New College Grad

Sheila Curran talks with Sara Nordhoff of the Forte Foundation in a webinar titled Smart Moves for Your Career: Positioning Yourself for Success in a Down Economy, January 21, 2009. The audience is women undergraduates interested in business, but the messages are applicable to all students and graduates. Sheila maintains that success in the job search is all about attitude, focus and strategy. The text of the webinar is below:

Sara: What does your crystal ball say about the employment outlook for college women?

Sheila: Well, Sara, there’s no doubt that there are dark clouds on the employment horizon. The US lost over a million jobs in the last two months of 2008 and conservatively, the projection is for 2 million more people losing their jobs in 2009.  And by all accounts, on-campus recruiters are making about 20% fewer offers than last year. So, it’s going to be more difficult to find jobs—whether in business or some other field. But there are jobs out there.  What we’re going to be talking about today is how to put yourself in the best position to get hired.

But first we need to talk about the elephant in the room…..

Sara: What is the elephant in the room?

Sheila:  For those unfamiliar with the expression, the elephant in the room refers to something big that’s in front of your eyes but no one talks about.  In this case it represents the fact that probably 50% of those listening are thinking in the back of their minds that if this “job” thing doesn’t work out the way they want, they’ll go to graduate school.  In fact, applications to grad school at places like Duke are up over 30% from last year. Faculty are undoubtedly encouraging this trend.

Sara:  Why shouldn’t recent grads go to graduate school?  It’ll make a lot of parents very happy, and students will be be able to ride out the recession.

Sheila: My strong advice is if you weren’t seriously thinking about graduate school before the economy tanked, don’t jump on that bandwagon now. For a woman interested in business, grad school may just be a fast way to more debt, and may not increase your chances of getting ahead.

Sara: Students are probably not hearing much about why they shouldn’t go to grad school immediately after graduating from college.

Sheila: You’re right, but I posed the question to a number of experts outside academia. Here are their responses:

Expert #1, employed in NYC:  It’s all about having work experience.  A master’s candidate without experience is much less useful that a bachelor’s candidate with experience, and is therefore less likely to get the job

Expert #2, business career advisor for undergraduates and graduate students at a top university: Students with master’s degrees and no relevant experience often don’t fit into employers’ hiring plans. And, they’re perceived as being too expensive.

Expert #3: Highly successful businessman: Don’t go immediately to grad school.  Get experience. I don’t care whether it’s working at McDonalds. More school immediately after college will not be to your advantage

So don’t believe me; believe the people doing the hiring in this economy.

Sara: Just to clarify, are you including MBA courses in what you said about grad school?

Sheila:  No, MBAs are completely different, because you almost always enter business school with several years of experience. The hiring situation is also difficult for B-School grads, but the strategies we’re talking about today are equally applicable.  And, just to clarify, there definitely are jobs where having an master’s degree could be to your advantage.  My advice, though, is to not assume the benefits of a degree program you’re considering without checking out those assumptions with hiring managers.

Sara:  So, if employers aren’t looking for women with graduate degrees, what are they looking for?

Sheila:  They’re looking for KSA:  Knowledge, skills and abilities. The good hiring manager, who’s been trained to interview (which is not always the case), is going to compare the needs of her employer to your qualifications.  If your major doesn’t indicate that you understand the industry where you’re applying for a job, you need to find a way to show you have the required knowledge through courses, work experiences and possibly even extracurricular activities.

Skills and abilities are less likely to come from the classroom, but you can draw from all your college experiences—on and off campus.  Hiring managers may make assumptions about your level of competence from your GPA and your major, but they don’t know about your skills and abilities unless you highlight them.  That means specifically mentioning skills and abilities in your resume and cover letter and giving examples.

Sara:  So what you’re basically saying is that in the absence of a personal connection, it’s your combination of relevant knowledge, skills and abilities that will get you the interview.

Sheila:  Right, but getting the job is going to require that you ALSO possess three other critical attributes:  A great attitude, clear focus, and a well-thought-through job search strategy

It’s interesting.  If you ask most people what it takes to get a job, few will tell you about attitude, focus and strategy. But that’s what we’re going to concentrate on today. Because there are thousands of new grads out there with a great education, and even good experience. It’s the addition of attitude, focus and strategy that will help you beat the competition.

Let’s start by talking about attitude.

Sara: Attitude is one of those nebulous characteristics.  What exactly do you mean?

Sheila: I’m using attitude in the employment context to mean four things: if you want to succeed in this market, you have to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent. The fact is, most candidates don’t have the perfect blend of knowledge, skills and abilities. And if an employer has a choice between one slightly imperfect candidate and another, she’ll pick the one with the good attitude every time. An employer recently gave me an example of this. On paper the candidate for a technology sales position didn’t look as qualified as some of the others.  But in the interview, her knowledge of the product line and genuine enthusiasm shone through.

Sara: The woman in your example showed her positive attitude through her enthusiasm.  Is there anything more you want to say about being positive? For example, what strategies do you have for staying positive when there’s so much bad news around?

Sheila:  Funnily enough, the first strategy I’d employ is not putting yourself in a position where the chances of rejection are almost 100%. Let me give an example: A student came to work in my careers office, with the clear purpose of getting first access to any available business-related job openings. Sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, he shot himself in the foot by applying indiscriminately online for any opening.  He didn’t get a job that way, and when he did hear back from an employer—pretty rare in itself—it was always a rejection. That can make anyone depressed.

Sara: Are you suggesting that college women not apply for jobs where all it takes is to apply on line?

Sheila: I know of instances where students have gotten jobs through sites like Monster or Craig’s List, but they tend to be lower level, commission sales, or technology jobs.  Look at it this way, if you can easily find a job listing through an online site, so can thousands of others. So your chances will only be good if you can find some additional ways to get the employer’s attention.

Sara: So far, I’m even more depressed. What are the reasons to be positive?

Sheila: The number one reason is that it can get you a job.  Let’s assume you have the basic skills and qualifications, and you’re invited for an interview. Genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity, and for the value you can provide, is infectious.  People like to be around upbeat people, and employers are no different. So if you’re down about the job search, don’t let it show.

Sara:  OK, let’s move on to your second point.

Sheila:  OK, point #2, you need to have a pragmatic attitude. Easy example:  Last year, you wanted to work in the investment banking industry. This year, unless you’re one of the few people who got hired from an internship—in which case you’re not on this call—you’ll need to expand your horizons to look for work.

Sara:  What do you mean by “expand your horizons”?

Sheila: It might mean thinking “finance” not “i-banking”, and considering smaller companies, different geographic locations, or different ways of employing your interests and skill sets

Sara: Your third point is being prepared.  But isn’t everyone well prepared for the job search in this economy?

Sheila: It’s certainly true that successful job hunters will spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the job search. So let’s test the notion of being prepared.  I’d like our audience to think about the degree to which they would be prepared to do an on the spot telephone interview for a position in which they’re really interested, but for which they applied three months ago online. Being prepared means either having an extraordinary memory, or having records of your applications and interactions in an easily retrievable database. Of course, if the employer calls at 10am, and your computer is invisible under a pile of clothes and you still haven’t had that essential cup of coffee, it’s worth asking if you can call them back in a few minutes.

Sara: Do you have any success stories of students or recent grads who were particularly well prepared?

Sheila: Yes I do.  Sharon comes to mind. She’s one of the women profiled in my book, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads.  Sharon was a buyer for a major retail chain, but she really wanted a job writing about the fashion industry. Here’s where taking graduate classes really was the right decision.  Because Sharon knew that she couldn’t just move from retail to writing, even if she knew the field about which she wanted to write. So she signed up for an NYU evening journalism class. That was the first smart move.  The second was to have her wits about her when she approached a woman on the subway as she was heading to class.  She noticed the logo on the woman’s jacket was for Newsday, one of New York’s biggest papers.  Sharon started a conversation about the woman’s work, and then told the woman about her interest in getting into the business of writing about fashion. Fast forward, and Sharon got a gig writing online articles about fashion. Of course, she couldn’t immediately give up her day job, but this chance meeting gave her the inside track to a new career.  Sharon knew what she wanted to do, and she was prepared when luck appeared.  That preparation gives you the confidence to take advantage of serendipity.  It’s also a powerful reminder to develop your elevator speech.

Sara: What’s an elevator speech?

Sheila:  It’s a short (up to thirty seconds)  pitch for what you want to do.  The idea is that if you found yourself in an elevator with a business leader who asked what you were doing in the building, you could tell such a compelling story that when you reached your stop that leader would want to continue the conversation with you.

Sara: So Sharon probably had the components of her elevator pitch in mind when she approached the woman from Newsday, and she was able to weave her pitch into the conversation. Sharon certainly has a good story, but how often does that kind of luck happen?

Sheila:  Probably more frequently than you might think.  When I was researching the book I coauthored on careers, I consistently heard people crediting their success to the fact that they were in the right place at the right time.  You have to be prepared if you want to take advantage of serendipity.  But realistically, most people have to be more persistent than Sharon, particularly when it comes to the job search.

Sara: Isn’t there a danger that employers will get annoyed with the persistent applicant?

Sheila: You’re right. So here’s the strategy.  (This is assuming that the job you’re applying for isn’t going through the on-campus recruiting process, and that you have the opportunity to send a cover letter)

1) The last sentence on your cover letter should say how much you look forward to talking with the company about your background and experience and how you can add value to xyz company. Then indicate that you’ll follow up in 2 weeks to make sure that they have all the information they need, and to see if you might arrange a personal appointment.

2) Follow up at the appropriate time.  The company will probably tell you they have your resume and that they’re not ready to make any decisions about whom to interview

3) Say that you’re still very interested in the position, and ask when would be an appropriate time to follow up again

4) If they give you a date, follow up at the specified time, starting with the statement that you’re following up as suggested by xyz person

If you follow these steps you’ll be combining persistence with respect.  Of course, if you also find someone in the company to speak on your behalf, you’re golden.

So, we’ve talked about attitude and the need to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent.  Now let’s talk about why you need to be focused.

Sara:  How important is it to know exactly what you want to do?

Sheila: It may be the difference between getting the job and not getting the job.  There’s a real temptation when you’re desperate to get a job to say you’ll do anything.  But that’s exactly the wrong thing to say. Employers don’t want to have to think about where they can use your skills. In this market, you have to be totally focused on what you want to do and how you can add value to the employer.  Essentially, however much of a square peg you might be, if the employer has a round hole, you have to make yourself fit into that round hole.  It’s all about making it easy for the employer to hire you.

Sara: So it’s good that students and graduates on this call probably already know they want to go into business?

Sheila:  Yes, but let’s remember how many different areas of business there are. Having a general direction is great, but knowing specifically where you’d be a good fit is much better.

Sara: Are there any areas of business that are growing and where it might be easier to find work?

Sheila:  You can find business jobs in just about any career field, so it’s worth following the news and anticipating which areas are growing and where federal  stimulus money may be spent over the next year. Areas where there may be opportunities are sustainability and energy conservation; risk management; areas of the federal government; health care, and education. But don’t wait until everyone else finds those opportunities.  Take the initiative to go down to your local Chamber of Commerce or Economic Development office and find out who’s starting businesses in the area where you want to work. Sometimes working for a start up can give you an education you’d never get in a larger company—even if you do have to do your share of filing.

Sara: Any other suggestions for someone who’s totally clueless about career direction?

Sheila:  Yes.  I’d hightail it over to your careers office and ask to take some assessment instruments to see where your talents and interests might best be employed.  Don’t forget to debrief the results with a counselor to make the most of the assessment. And then investigate potential fields of interest, for example by reading the Vault guides. Many careers offices provide access to Vault guides online.

Sara: We’ve covered attitude and focus.  Your next point, Sheila, is that college women need to have a strategy. Why is the job search strategy you use so important these days?

Sheila:  Strategy is what’s going to help you beat the competition. You should have both a micro strategy, which you employ when you’re applying for a specific job and a macro strategy for how you run your whole job search.  And by the way,  the strategies you use for your first real job can be employed at any time in the future, too. Let’s start with micro strategy, as in how you approach a specific job opening.

Sara:  Can you back up for a minute and talk about how our audience can decide what to apply for?

Sheila:  Yes.  Here are some basic rules. Only apply if

1) You have at least 75% of the qualifications, and 100% of the really important ones, like being a college graduate with experience

2) You know you can psyche yourself up to convey interest in the employment opportunity in both your documents and in an in-person interview

3) You’re willing to spend time researching the job and the company, and figuring out how you can add value to the company

Remember, the job search is not about you. Until you get the offer, it’s all about the employer.

Sara: So where does the strategy come in?

Sheila:  You have to be more prepared than the competition.  That means going way beyond the job description and the website to find out more about the opportunity, and identifying actual examples of what you’ve accomplished that relate specifically to the job at hand.

Once you’ve done your due diligence about the job, and found out more about the position and the company, it’s time to see if you can identify a connection or alumna who works at the company and who can give you the inside scoop.  In your conversation with the contact, tell her which job you’ve applied for, and that you are very interested in their company.  Your reason for talking to her is to find out how you can best position yourself to get hired.  The key here is to build rapport—so much so that you gain a supporter within the company.

Sara:  I think this is probably an area we’ll want to explore later in more detail.

Sheila:  Yes, we don’t have time to go into too much detail on the micro side. So, let’s move on to big picture strategies. My first macro strategy point is that you need to choose your board of directors.

Sara:  Are board member positions paid positions? 

Sheila:  Unfortunately no.  These are knowledgeable people, who have your best career interests at heart and who will tell you the truth. That means, by definition, they are not your parents or your best friends who are way too biased.

Sara:  So who should be your board members, and what do they do?

Sheila:  They could include a faculty member, a career advisor, an alumna or sorority sister in your field of interest.  They’re people who—based on your request– have agreed to give you feedback on your resume and cover letter, hear your elevator pitch, potentially even practice interview with you. Your board should be up to date on your thinking about career direction and be available to help you make good decisions. Keep them in the loop on what’s happening in your career search and listen to their advice carefully, even if you don’t take it.  They may think of additional avenues you could explore, and they’re particularly helpful if you’re dealing with either multiple job offers or multiple rejections.

Sara:  What else is on the list of macro strategies?

Sheila: There’s not a person I know who’d disagree with the idea that, however qualified you are, you have to network like crazy.

Sara: Networking seems like asking for help to many women, and makes them very uncomfortable.

Sheila:  You’re right that it’s a new skill for many women, but before you say “I don’t want to do that”, it’s worth looking at the benefits.  The more people who know you’re looking for work, and are impressed with your knowledge, skills and abilities, the more opportunities will open up for you.  You may be more comfortable if you realize that all you’re supposed to be doing is having a conversation with another person.  Most of the time you won’t be talking about the help you need unless the person you’re talking to offers the help first.

Here’s a tip for those of you who hate the idea of initiating a conversation about your career aspirations. Start with people you know, like relatives, who naturally open the door for you to talk about how school is going. Learn how to weave your future plans into the conversation. And don’t discount school advisors with whom you have a good relationship.  One student I know asked the professor teaching an undergrad law class whether he thought she should go to law school.  At first she was really upset, because he said “absolutely not”, but he followed it up with the comment that he saw her as being very successful in the entertainment business.  And then he did something that really surprised her:  he introduced her by email to his old college roommate, who was a film director in Hollywood.  This student now works in the entertainment field.

Sara:  I can see why you highly recommend networking. What’s next on your list of macro strategies?

Sheila: Here’s a very uncommon, but extremely useful strategy: identify and address your competence gaps.  That means, in simple terms, consider the types of jobs you want to apply for, and identify where you don’t meet the qualifications. If you do this now, you may have time to fix the problem before you apply for the jobs.

Sara: Do all candidates typically meet all qualifications?

Sheila:  No, but if you consistently see jobs of interest requiring a facility with Excel or Powerpoint, and you don’t know those programs, it’s really a good idea to learn them. Harpreet, another recent grad profiled in my book had excellent non-profit management skills but no formal grounding in business.  So she deliberately applied to work at a consulting firm where she could learn good business skills. The key in this economy is “don’t give them any excuse to reject you”.

Sara:  Just as a matter of interest, how long does it usually take for an employer to evaluate your application?

Sheila:  You’re doing well if they even spend 30 seconds on your documents, so make sure one of your competence gaps isn’t the inability to proofread!

Sara:  There’s a theme here, and it seems to be “employers have the upper hand, so give them what they want”.

Sheila:  You’re right. The piece of advice I give most frequently to students and recent grads is to think like an employer. I’ve already alluded to the fact that you need to make it easy for an employer to hire you.

Sara: Can you make that practical?  Take a resume, for example.  How can you demonstrate “thinking like an employer” in a resume?

Sheila: Most of us have a lot of different attributes, and we’re very proud of all of them – or at least our parents are.  There’s a temptation to a) put all of them down on the resume, including winning the jeopardy quiz in high school and b) send the same resume and cover letter to every employer.

Sara: Wait a minute.  Are you saying that you need to customize every cover letter and resume?

Sheila: Cover letters definitely need to be customized for the employer, because you want to highlight how your accomplishments will help you be an excellent fit with the open positions.  But it’s often helpful to rearrange your accomplishments on your resume, too, so that the most important items stand out more effectively.  Here’s a tip.  Give your resume to an acquaintance, and ask them to tell you what parts of your background, experience or characteristics stand out.  It’s a great check on whether you’re actually conveying what you want to convey.

Sara:  Isn’t it enough to just change the name of the company throughout the cover letter?

Sheila:  I can assure you that companies sniff out the quasi form letter virtually every time.  If you don’t write something really specific about why you truly want to work for the employer, they’ll probably ditch your application pretty quickly—that’s unless they’re doing what I call “hiring by the numbers”.

Sara:  What’s “hiring by the numbers”?

Sheila:  That’s when an employer doesn’t even want a cover letter; they just want to see that you have a certain GPA from a certain school, a particular major, and specific experience.  If that’s the case, you truly have to be a round peg for the round hole, or you won’t even get a chance to shine in an interview.

Sara:  Do you have any advice on resumes?

Sheila:  There are plenty of good sources of advice on resumes, including professionals in most careers offices, but two things are very important.  First, unless you worked full time before coming to college, make it a maximum of one page.  And second, make sure you list accomplishments, not just job duties, and quantify what you did where if at all possible.  Give your resume to a couple of detail-oriented friends to look over and make sure it’s word perfect. Spell check doesn’t catch everything! And don’t forget, the employer is going to be reading your documents with their requirements in mind.  The easier you make it for the hiring manager to find your matching skill set, the better.

Sara: I’m sure there will be questions from the audience about how to best present yourself to an employer.  But one of the things we said we’d do today was to highlight how to beat the competition.

Sheila:  Yes.  And that brings me to my last key point of strategic advice:  Find your hook.

Sara: I think you’ll have to explain more. What’s a hook?

Sheila:  A hook is some characteristic you possess, or an action you take, that separates you from your competition. Probably everyone in the audience employed some kind of hook to get into college.  It could have been a particularly high SAT score, or athletic prowess, or starting a non-profit company. It’s the same idea when working with employers.  Do you have something they can remember you by? It could be something personal like the fact that you climbed Mount Killimanjaro, or you could be like Theresa, who always writes personalized handwritten thank you letters to those who’ve helped, or interviewed her.

But even more powerful is the work hook. If you’re applying to work in a corporate area at Honda, being fluent in Japanese might be your hook.  Or, you might have consistently demonstrated a willingness to go above and beyond what was expected in each of your internships—and have the references to prove it.  And don’t underestimate the opportunity for non-profit work to provide you with business experience hook.  After graduation, Sara joined the Peace Corps in Morocco to learn a language, but in working for a small NGO there, Sara learned a huge amount about women’s small business development and developed an interest in micro finance. A skill set or knowledge that most people don’t have can be your hook.

Sara:  So our listeners should think about their own hook, in the context of the work they want to do?

Sheila: You got it!

Sara: These examples are very helpful.  Do you have any suggestions as to how students and recent graduates can find more helpful stories.

Sheila: Well, coming to webinars like this, and Forte Foundation presentations on campus, is a great start.

Sara: Yes, and many listeners may be unaware that Forte also has a section on its website called “Girl Talk”.  That’s a place to continue the kinds of discussions we’re having in this webinar.  What else, Sheila?

Sheila:  I can’t say enough about the value of informational interviewing to get career advice from those more experienced, who’ve already made their mistakes. Many women are shy about reaching out for this kind of advice, but you just have to. Sometimes if you concentrate on asking questions about someone else’s career, you’ll be less self-conscious.

Sara: Who can you go to for informational interviews?

Sheila: A good place to start is with your existing connections:  aunts, uncles, business colleagues of your parents. But you also have to mine your alumni network, and events where alumni come back and share their career histories.  Those are particularly helpful if you can wangle a way to be a host.  You may also find your career center a great source of referrals and information.

Sara: Can you talk about what students and young alums might get from your book.

Sheila.  Absolutely. Thousands of people have found my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads:  Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career to be really inspirational. That’s because it talks about careers in context.  Smart Moves contains the stories of 23 fairly recent grads who found work they loved, and tells of the smart moves they took to become successful. (It also talks about some dumb moves, that you would hopefully avoid!)

Sara:  How does your book relate to business?

Sheila:  Actually the advice in the book is applicable to a career search in any career field, and quite a few of the people we profiled went on to get an MBA. When the book was used in the Engineering department at Duke, they changed the name to Smart Moves for Engineering Grads! It could easily be called Smart Moves for Business.

Sara: We’re getting close to the end of the formal portion of this webinar, so Sheila, do you want to recap the smart career moves our audience should be thinking about?

Sheila:  Yes, there are essentially three things to always keep in mind while you’re going through the job search:

First:  Keep a positive attitude—no matter what happens

Second:  Be focused on what you want to do and where you can add value and

Third: Design a custom strategy for your career search and for any position in which you’re interested.

Sara:  So any final words of wisdom?

Sheila:  If there’s anything I want students and recent graduates to know, it’s this:  The unemployment rate may be creeping up, but the unemployment rate for college grads is typically about half the national average.  There are jobs out there, and there are smart moves you can make to get them.

So don’t hyperventilate; don’t feel you have to go to graduate school to wait out the recession.  Know yourself and your skills so well that you can go out there and wow your future employer.

Good Luck!

Getting References for the Stealth Job Search

Q. I’m a mid-level manager who has had five bosses in eight years, and an ever-changing set of goals.  After seven years of stellar evaluations, I just received a review that convinces me I need to leave.  How should I handle references?

A. Life is too short to stay with an unappreciative boss. You’re wise to consider moving on.

Your potential new employer (let’s call her Susan) will want to talk to your current supervisor.  You can deal with this in a couple of ways.  First, you should alert Susan that your current employer doesn’t know you’re looking and a premature announcement might make life difficult. Alert her to the fact that this supervisor has been there a short time and does not know you well.  Tell Susan you’d appreciate her not calling your current organization unless you’re a finalist, and ask her to get in touch with you first.  (If she won’t respect that request, you don’t want to work there, anyway.)  You might also offer an alternative: your past written reviews.

Often, future employers will leave your current supervisor for last when calling references.  If you choose your references wisely, Susan may not feel the need to delve further.  How do you do that?  First, pick people who know your work broadly and deeply.  Former supervisors are best, or senior-level managers who understand your situation. Second, find references who can counteract possible perceived weaknesses.  If leadership is a critical component of the new position but you believe your current boss would criticize you in this area, find a reference who thinks you’re a great leader. This is a time when you can be damned with faint praise.

What if you keep coming up number two?  At some point, you may feel the need to leave your current situation even if you don’t have another job.  It’s worth getting professional advice about how you can move on – preferably with a decent severance package.  And don’t forget to negotiate exactly what the organization will say about you.  Good luck.

Philosophy Majors: Get a Job!

The Class of 2009 must be cursing their collective bad luck. For their entire college career, they’ve watched employers wooing their older classmates with promises of high salaries and signing bonuses, but now some of the biggest recruiters are not just gone from campus. They’re gone. Period.

I’ve worked with students through several economic downturns, and there are always winners and losers in the employment game. The spoils this year go to the graduates with smarts, strong technical skills, and—most important–relevant work or internship experience.

The cruel irony is that the “losers” in 2009 are often the ones who, since they were in diapers, have been told they were the best and the brightest. Armed with self-confidence, stellar SAT scores, and ambition, they matriculated at some of the top colleges in the U.S., majoring in subjects like English, history, and philosophy.

Contrary to the general assumption, these students never intended to become writers or historians or philosophers. A significant proportion saw their education as a great preparation for a career in business—especially if they supplemented their majors with a minor in computer science or economics. Now they’re not so sure.

DUBIOUS PARENTAL AND FACULTY ADVICE

Students fitting this profile in the late 1990s would have catapulted themselves to the top of the career ladder by naming themselves CEO and authoring their new dot-com business plan on the back of an envelope. Since the tech bubble burst, this type of student has been increasingly drawn to the pay, prestige, and intellectual challenge of investment banking and management consulting. These two career fields rarely employed more than 20% of a university’s graduating class, but their firms’ recruiting seal of approval became synonymous with the perceived quality of the academic institution.

So what now for the liberal arts student? Not only are finance and consulting opportunities in short supply; the rest of the employment landscape is also bleak. In the past 12 months, more than 1 million college grads have lost their jobs and will be competing for many of the same entry-level opportunities as the 2009 graduates. And, to make matters worse, a recent survey by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute indicated that only 6% of employers want to hire humanities or liberal arts majors, and only 5% seek graduates with social science degrees. Given the dire news, it’s small wonder that a large number of soon-to-be-graduates are sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding anything that smacks of the real world.

Many 2009 graduates are being aided and abetted in their retreat from reality by an unlikely alliance: parents and faculty. The dubious advice they are being given is to “wait out the recession” and go to graduate school. For faculty, it’s a no-brainer to encourage some of the brightest minds to stay in the academy—especially since they may honestly believe it’s for the good of the student. The reasons that parents give this advice are often a little more complicated.

IS A MASTER’S WORTH IT?

Parents of 2009 graduates have been more involved in their children’s education than at any other time in history. Throughout grade school and high school, they have nurtured their children’s talents, found tutors when necessary, and guided extra-curricular activities so their sons and daughters would find success in the college application sweepstakes. The reward for their efforts? A hefty bill for tuition and expenses that often exceeds $150,000. The expected quid pro quo for such an investment has been post-graduate professional success for their offspring. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, is unacceptable.

Many parents also assume that a graduate degree [in liberal arts or social sciences] will automatically confer an economic advantage to their sons and daughters. A quick glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart shows what appears to be a clear correlation between education and salary. Crunch a couple of numbers and you find a 25% economic benefit to a master’s degree over a bachelor’s degree and a 55% pay differential between those with just a bachelor’s degree and those with a professional degree.

The devil, of course, is in the details. In a September 2007 article, “Is your degree worth $1 million—or worthless?” author Liz Pulliam Weston attempts to calculate the actual value of particular types of degrees over a lifetime. Her conclusions are generally consistent with what I have observed. One of her most notable findings: Recipients of masters degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences actually gained no economic value from further education.

On the other hand, Ms. Weston clearly illustrates the benefits of a professional degree. She calculates that over a lifetime, an MBA graduate will make $375,000 more than if she had simply finished her education with a bachelor’s degree. That’s an impressive figure, so why not encourage new grads to get an MBA? Trick question. Most schools will rarely accept candidates for an MBA without at least two to three years of experience. In fact, the average number of years of work experience for students in business school is typically around five.

“TRANSITION” DEGREES

Students could find an international business school that might accept them immediately after graduation, but they’d be missing out on something U.S. schools consider very important: the ability to put business education in context and to bring real world problems and solutions to the table.

The financial advantage of an MBA is also tempered by the actual, and lost opportunity, costs of attending. With more than $100,000 of debt at stake—often on top of undergraduate loans—graduates need to be 100% sure about the value of an MBA for their chosen career field before signing on the dotted line. An MBA degree might be a real plus for someone interested in nonprofit management, but the economic equation may not make sense.

A number of schools, including Case Western Reserve (Case Western MBA Profile), have started masters programs designed specifically to give liberal arts grads a background in business. Located in the university’s business school and lasting a year or less, these programs can be very popular with students who like the idea of a “transition” degree which orients them more towards the business world. Unfortunately, these degrees are expensive and are often not well understood outside academia. Employers typically recruit at the undergraduate or the MBA level but don’t know what to do with the student who does not naturally fit into either category. A better option might be to consider an intense short-term program, like the Tuck Business Bridge program atDartmouth College (Tuck MBA Program).

“GET A JOB, ANY JOB”

Listening to my cautionary tales about graduate school and the job market, it would be easy to descend into despair. But new graduates have always been able to find jobs even in the worst recessions. As a 1973 graduate with a degree in Russian and Persian and no money, I discovered first-hand how to survive. This year’s graduates will do likewise. Employment opportunities do exist, and the proactive job seeker will hunt them down, using connections and resources to expand the scope of his or her search. Graduates with large debt loads and an immediate need for employment will likely show everyone else the way to success in this recession.

I recently asked three employers what they recommend students do if they are interested in going into an area of business after they graduate. All three agreed that students need to get experience, not more education. One went as far as to say “get a job, any job, even McDonald’s.” The point is, in this economy your GPA or your SAT score may be less important than your experience and your attitude. Arrogance is out; humility is in.

Companies these days can afford to be picky. They want to know whether you can do the job that they need to have done. If you’re a liberal arts grad, you’ll have to take the extra steps necessary to show the relevance of your education. Sometimes that means focusing the employer’s attention less on the subject matter of your degree and more on your internships or extra-curricular activities. However challenging the job market, the savvy job hunter will always find creative ways to make the hiring case, and in doing so, stand out from the crowd.

Addressing Brown University students in a careers program during a past recession, the late Frank Newman announced to his audience that they were graduating at the best of times. What he meant was that the graduate who can successfully find opportunities when times are bad will be well positioned for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. I believe that’s excellent advice for the Class of 2009.

When Your College Graduate Comes Home

This summer, there are more than 100,000 unexpected guests at the family dinner table. They’re adult children — the ones who’ve just graduated from college but expect to remain, at least temporarily, on the family payroll. Some may have jobs that don’t pay enough to support the lifestyle they expect. Others want to get a head start on paying back loans. But most simply don’t have jobs at all.

I can relate. I have advised students and alumni on their careers for decades, first at Brown University, and currently as director of the career center at Duke University. My own son, a 2006 Colgate University graduate in philosophy, has also recently rejoined the family. It is small comfort that I am not alone.

A May 2005 survey showed that a quarter of the class of 2006 expected to spend more than seven months living at home, up from 23 percent of the class of 2005. I now join the hundreds of thousands of parents forced to become a personal career counselor for an “adild” — an adult child.

For most parents, the role of advisor is familiar. From early childhood, parents have imparted wisdom to their children on everything from first dates to how to get into a good college. And children have heeded their advice — keeping parents on the cell phone speed dial.

It’s not surprising, then, that parents would be co-opted in the search for post-graduate employment. But the role of career counselor to an adild is fraught with problems, not to mention the kind of emotional angst that can divert retirement funds to psychotherapy. Parents and their adilds have the same goal: success in life. Unfortunately, definitions of career success and strategies to achieve it vary substantially from generation to generation. What parents may consider the “perfect position” may leave an adild cold, no matter what its prestige and pay.

In the absence of direction, it’s easy to revert to the old “law school/grad school” option, especially if parents are willing to pay. This is a potentially risky proposition: The financial rewards of such an education, if it’s not required for a particular career, may not justify its expense.

It’s the savvy parent who understands how much he doesn’t know about the career landscape for recent college grads. In the past 30 years, since parents were in school, career options have exploded, attitudes changed, and strategies fine-tuned. Advice that may work brilliantly for a mid-career changer may be totally inappropriate for a new grad. The best way for parents to help their adild find a job may actually be to avoid giving them any specific career advice.

Avoiding advice does not mean withholding support. Support can be as simple as helping an adild set short-term goals and identify strategies to achieve them, or encouraging her to return to her college’s career center for help, even if she avoided it like the plague in school. Career readiness comes at different times, and unemployment has a wonderful way of focusing the mind on the need to learn effective ways to present abilities and qualifications. Given the number of times an adild is likely to change jobs, an excellent résumé, cover letter and interview skills are critical.

Perhaps the most important thing parents can do is to encourage their adild to find her passion. This is often one of the hardest things to do. Sometimes the discovery only happens by trial and error, working in a number of “not-quite-right” positions. Family, friends and acquaintances can all help, by providing insight into different careers and valuable connections.

One final piece of advice: Set a time limit on living at home without a significant contribution to household expenses. Careers take off more rapidly when graduates take responsibility for their decisions — good and bad — and learn from them. Almost every successful professional has taken risks and experienced failure. The lessons that come through such experiences are invaluable, but much less likely to happen if there is an ever-present parental safety net.

Even if parents enjoy having their adild at home, they need to let go for the sake of their child’s career. Once they do, they’ll be able to return to all those activities they put on hold while raising children. In the process, they’ll be giving a priceless gift to their graduate.

First published in 2006 in the Louisville Courier-Journal and The News and Observer