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An Alternative Graduation Speech for Parents of New College Grads

There ought to be a second graduation speech just for parents, in the afternoon, after the celebratory lunch, while the kids are off whooping it up. It should go like this: We know you have a great kid. We also know that, as amazing as she is, she may not have a job lined up, and that this fact is eating away at you.

Oh, sure you may have heard that hiring on college campuses is up more than ten percent from the past few economically horrendous years, but you’ve also heard that there are still over 30 applicants for every job and a backlog of unemployed young people milling round out there. You want to hear a speech full of practical advice about how you can help your kid land a job. Here it is:

Get them to network in four different ways

You may have a bleak image in your mind: Your kid, sitting at the computer in your house day after day, responding to online job listings. Is this the new job search, you wonder? Thankfully no; that would be isolating and depressing. Your new grad will need to use the computer and social media in her job search, but she will also need to get out there and make connections with real people.

First, have her contact her college career center. Job opportunities these days
emanate from a diverse array of companies, far different from the Fortune 500 firms that dominated the landscape when you first looked for work. Many career centers’ counselors are knowledgeable about these opportunities. They may also help her compose her resume and cover letters; gain access to job and internships listings, and companies’ recruiting systems; and learn how to use social media in her search. Luckily, summer’s a quieter time for them. If she lives close enough to go in person, even better.

Next, suggest she join fellow alums of her alma mater on linkedin.com/alumni, after establishing her own linkedin.com profile. This will allow her to connect with alums who graduated within a few years of her, and to see what career paths they have taken. If they have listed their college major, she’ll be able to search by that, too. She may find that fellow alums are eager to help her once she has a better idea of what she’s looking for.

After that, she ought to visit the local Chamber of Commerce or State Office of Business Development, where employees can direct her to a wealth of information on local companies and potentially even opportunities for freelancers.

Lastly, have her seek informational interviews, in which she can learn how people in careers that interest her got their start, or what skills they deem important to their success. If you know someone in such a field, you could ask if they’d be open to talking with her. She should go in with thoughtful, focused questions. One warning: If your kid has never before emailed someone to ask for this particular favor, guide him in composing his first request so that he doesn’t naively ask too much of the person, as in, “Hi, I’d love to hear everything you know about becoming an entrepreneur.”

Convince them to do some research

Especially in the early days after graduation, many grads find it useful to initiate broad Google searches, such as: “What kind of jobs can a psychology major do?” Get yours to also stop by your largest local public library, and speak to the (always very helpful) business librarian. He or she can direct your child to databases, like hoovers.com, which contain vast amounts of information on industries, companies and their competitors.

The job search will be faster if your new grad taps into all of these resources. Example: while visiting the Chamber of Commerce, your daughter learns of a local start-up that has recently received a large contract. She researches its competition at the library, and discovers, on linkedin.com/alumni, a fellow graduate who has done freelance consulting for the firm. He gives her insight into its culture and goals, which helps your daughter go into an interview far better-informed than other applicants. He may also give her ideas on which Community College courses prepared him to be an effective freelancer.

Clue them in to what employers want to hear

When new grads hear about a particularly appealing job, they often get caught up in how happy it would make them to land it. What they neglect to focus on is: what kind of applicant, with what skills and personal qualities, is most likely to get the job? Offer to read through job listings with your grad and say, “Here’s what I think they’re looking for in an employee.” Emphasize that interviewers are looking not only for enthusiastic applicants, but also for ones who are focused on what they have to offer the company.

Urge them to learn one new skill a month

When your son sits down for an interview, the prospective employer may ask him what he’s been doing since he graduated. “Looking for a job,” he’ll say. How much more impressive if he can add: “I also learned Java and how to design a website,” The more talents he has, the more marketable he is. He’ll also come across as resourceful, a go-getter who will find ways to contribute to his team.

Assure them they will get hired if they persevere

There may well be days when you get as frustrated as your child with her continued lack of a job. Perhaps you come home after work to find her acting as if she has given up: parked glumly in front of the TV, or on Facebook. Worse, you’ve just talked to a few friends whose own new grads found work (for seemingly vast sums of money). If at those moments you can be supportive, you’ll help her to get back out there the next day.

Remind yourself that just as not all kids learned to walk exactly the same week of theirlives, they won’t all master job-hunting the same week. Swear to your child that her time will come—as long as she persists in networking, researching, and mastering new skills.

Now tell them they own the job search

Never invest more time in your kid’s quest to find a job than he is. It’s one thing (reasonable) to offer to proofread his resume. It’s another to actually compose it for him. If you are the one googling what careers math majors can have, or the one tracking down alums from his college for him to email, how will he learn to research or network on his own behalf? He needs to develop these skills for the next time, when he’s ready to jump further up the career ladder.

Okay, that’s the speech. Now you can drive off into the sunset with your kid, back home for a short while–until he sets off on his own for good. And maybe, just maybe, five years down the road, your one-time new grad will be offering you career advice.

Careers and College Debt: Don’t Blame the Parents

There is no doubt that today’s college graduates often leave school owing more money than they can easily repay. Writing in The New York Times on May 28, 2010, Ron Lieber puts the blame on higher education, banks and families. Many families have, indeed, been loath to put the brakes on excessive borrowing for college, but I believe Mr. Lieber’s finger pointing at parents misses a very important point.

Parents allow, and even encourage, their children to borrow for college, because they believe higher education provides an economic return on investment in the form of a well-paid job. The better the school (so parents think), the more likely the student will access the path to prosperity. Small wonder that the parent profiled by Mr. Lieber supported her daughter’s desire to attend NYU, even if it meant borrowing many thousands of dollars. Numerous ranking systems are testament to the perceived value of a particular school.

Probe the prosperity assumption just a little, however, and it rapidly disintegrates. Top schools often have access to prestigious employers, and robust alumni networks. But that doesn’t mean there are enough highly paid jobs available for all students with debts to discharge. Nor does it mean students will be qualified for those jobs—or even want them. And, alumni networks do no good if the student has no idea how to engage with adults around career issues.

A poor economic climate favors graduates with pre-professional degrees and directly related internship experience. But who is telling that to parents who would do anything to have their son attend an Ivy League school? And who is telling students that they don’t need a $200,000 education to become a Fortune 100 CEO?

Students from all schools–but particularly liberal arts majors from top colleges–need good career advice that is based on real world, not ivory tower, knowledge. Unfortunately, the media is complicit with colleges in perpetuating the erroneous belief that all it takes is a good education to secure a lucrative job at graduation.

Surveys conducted by consulting companies like Eduventures clearly demonstrate the importance of career preparation to the prospective college parent and student. Yet few colleges provide the kind of data that would support an informed college choice. Small wonder: gathering data costs time and money. And, schools have typically not invested in providing the kind of career services that would enable students to transition easily from college to career. The truth about the job situation for most new grads from top schools is not nearly as positive as most parents believe.

Parents might assume that in a down economy, colleges and universities would pay extra attention to the offices charged with helping graduates succeed outside the academic bubble. Not so. In the past year, most college career services have been hurt as badly as other administrative offices. In a recent benchmarking survey of sixteen college and university careers offices, conducted by Curran Career Consulting, only two escaped last year’s budget axe—and neither of those received an increase in funds. Most parents would be appalled to know that the annual amount of money spent per student on career services is often less than the cost of a couple of gourmet restaurant meals.

Parents and students need the facts about career preparation before they choose a school and sign the loan forms. In the next blog post, I will suggest a number of questions parents should ask colleges and universities before making a matriculation decision. Only with this information can a parent or student definitively say the risk of debt is worth the post-graduate reward.

Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Foreword for Parents


“Career is not what it used to be; it’s much more interesting”

One week into a new term.  The message on my voicemail was from a distraught father, claiming that his student son needed intensive career counseling.  Returning the call, I inquired, “What year is he?” “Well, actually, he’s a freshman,” replied the father. “In fact he’s still in orientation.  But I need your help.  You see he’s always loved computer science.  He came to Brown because he knows you have a great computer science department.  Trouble is, he’s met some wonderful people and now he’s convinced that he should study philosophy instead.”  There followed a pause, and then the father said what was really on his mind. “But what can you do with a degree in philosophy?

Actually, you can do just about anything with a liberal arts degree as the  stories in this book so vividly attest.

But if you’re like most “millennial” parents, you won’t be satisfied by such vague pronouncements, and maybe not even by statements from Fortune 500 CEOs who say “we love liberal arts graduates.” Wanting the best for your children, you’re eager to know how you can help them make the most of their liberal arts education—while also preparing them to get off the family payroll!

Identifying and happily settling into a career that matches a heartfelt passion isn’t easy for anyone. Think back:  how quickly did you identify your own passion? How long thereafter until you brought your career and your passion in synch?  Have you yet?

In a recent Duke University survey of its soon-to-graduate seniors, over half claimed that their primary source of career advice after graduation would be their families. But most families are ill-equipped to help with post-graduate career decisions. Your own college or work experiences no longer provide a good enough compass to guide your son or daughter from point A (graduation) to point B (career success). Why?  Because in recent years the career landscape has changed dramatically.  Choice has exploded, new careers—like “usability specialist” —have been invented, and the Internet has changed everything about the way people look for jobs.  Examine the myths in chapter one. Did you think they were true? The reality for today’s liberal arts graduates may be very different from what you expect.

Suzanne Greenwald and I wrote Smart Moves because there’s a black hole of ignorance between graduation and career success. You’ve read in the media what’s “out”: commitment to a single career, a continuous upward financial trajectory, and lifetime employment. You probably even know what’s “in”: managing your career, moving frequently, seizing opportunities.  Much less clear is how a liberal arts graduate actually identifies and follows his or her passion. With so much personal happiness riding on this seldom studied but quintessential career imperative, we thought we’d search for answers by looking in depth at the lives of a small but very diverse group of liberal arts graduates.

The stories and voices of these twenty-three graduates fill most of this book. Their lessons are not prescriptive, and don’t come with a money-back guarantee. We can’t tell you a fail-safe formula to conjure up career readiness or a six-figure salary.  There isn’t one. So much depends on interests, talent, personality—and luck.  But the collective smart moves of our graduates, which we’ve gathered into seven career lessons, do provide a framework for success. As you consider career realities in the twenty-first century, you may be surprised to learn that:
•Major doesn’t equal career.
•Graduate or professional school may not be the best choice immediately after graduation – if ever.
•Your son will probably not get his first job through on-campus recruiting, but he may still benefit greatly from career office resources.
•Internships may prove more valuable than a second major, or summer school—and often the most valuable internships are unenjoyable ones.
•What happens outside the classroom is just as important as what happens inside.
•The best first job after graduation doesn’t have to be the most prestigious, or the most lucrative; ditto the second job and the third.
•There truly is a career value to a liberal arts education.

The final chapters of Smart Moves are devoted to stories from some of the most interesting liberal arts graduates you’ll ever meet. Liz, an American studies and art history major, is now the cheese buyer at one of America’s most celebrated cheese shops. Theresa, a philosophy majors, runs her own small non-profit, providing technical support to other non-profits that can’t otherwise afford it. Brad is a human biology major, who’s combining his work in finance with his interest in third world health issues.

If you’re looking for a quick rundown on which colleges and universities our graduates hail from, what undergraduate majors they pursued, and their current position, just turn to the story chart at the back of the book. Perhaps we’ve profiled someone from the college or university that you attended.

And speaking of you, perhaps now, a generation out of college, you’ll discover this book helpful to you as well as your children.  We strongly believe that you’re never too old to learn – or to change jobs.  You may not be able to go back and re-live your college years, doing everything right this time around.  But there are plenty of tips and insight in these stories to inspire you to action—whether you’re contemplating a mid-life job or career change, or battling a full-blown mid-life crisis

Perhaps you intend to give Smart Moves to a son or daughter in need of career direction.  Or, you may discover like me, that your wonderfully smart and charming second son has no intention of reading this or any such book until after he’s made his post-graduate career mistakes.  If that’s the case, recognize that the best you can probably do for now is to ask the right questions and steer him in the appropriate direction for advice, support and knowledge.

Career planning is like learning to walk and talk.  Everyone does it in his or her own time. Those who walk first don’t necessarily grow up to be dancers and sprinters. And those who talk late–well, some of them grow up to be actors and newscasters and virtuoso mezzo-sopranos.    Read Smart Moves for your sons and daughters and read it for yourself. There’s enough inspiration to go around.

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