What to Advise Unemployed Graduates

Sooner or later, students confronted with unappealing jobs will appear in their former professors' offices

Brian Taylor

June 18, 2009

The National Association of Colleges and Employers' Student Survey shows that less than 20 percent of 2009 graduates who were looking for a job have actually found one. In comparison, more than half of the class of 2007 found jobs before graduation. The situation is apparently so bleak that many college seniors (about 41 percent) didn't even bother to look for work this spring.

I imagine all of those unemployed students sitting in their regalia and listening —with a mixture of apathy and anger —to some motivational huckster preaching the latest bootstraps gospel. They've done everything right —or so they think —and yet here they are: about to end their time as the celebrated children who have been doing "great things" in college. But they're not on their way to brilliant careers; they're headed back to their high-school bedrooms, an embarrassment to everyone, most of all themselves.

Of course, their elders have lots of advice: "I've got one word for you: plastics." "Have you tried looking at the newspaper want ads?" "There are always positions for good people." The graduates smile and nod, accepting the presents, wisely saying nothing.

Perhaps they already have been searching for months, but what they've found offers only some combination of the following: a minimum-wage job with no benefits, part time only, in a field seemingly unrelated to their degrees. Possibly the job is also physically and emotionally exhausting, involves dealing with angry customers, and requires repeating robotic sales pitches and survey questions. Many graduates are not quite ready to adapt to the conditions of entry-level employment as it is today.

Of course, they are right to detect a mild note of schadenfreude. About four years ago, I asked a class of first-year college students how many of them thought they were better than their parents. Every hand in the room went up. They were destined for great things.

It is predictable that students confronted with unappealing work —if they can find work at all —will soon appear in their former professors' offices. And, just as predictably, our tendency as professors might be to suggest graduate school to some of those students. It's what we know; most professors have never worked outside of academe, and many of us have a reflexive disdain for the kind of work that is available to recent graduates in a recession. With the support of their professors, the prospect of returning to college is almost too appealing to resist for students terrified by the realization that good jobs are hard to find (and the postgraduate labor market is too far away to worry about).

The NACE survey indicates that about 26 percent of this year's graduates plan to go to graduate school, up from about 20 percent in 2007. Even though some graduate programs in the humanities are admitting fewer students this year, plenty of new and growing programs are eager to sell students a dream of future greatness, but, depending on the program, the outcome is often a deferral of the problem that sent those students back to school in the first place.

Some of the letters I received in response to my columns about avoiding graduate school in the humanities ("Just Don't Go," The Chronicle, January 30 and March 13) were from college seniors who asked, "Isn't grad school better than the kinds of jobs available to me?"

I remember feeling exactly that way in 1990 —another recession year (though perhaps not as bad as this one) —when I graduated with a bachelor's degree in English. I was a reasonably successful undergraduate —honors program, senior thesis, good grades and recommendations —but not naïve enough to think any of that mattered to prospective employers more than actual experience.

Always in need of money, I did have a lot of work experience by the time I graduated from college. At 14, I started as a newspaper delivery boy, and then, at 16, I was proud to man the ovens in a local pizza place where I eventually became a delivery driver (a step up because of the tips). After that I loaded trucks in a refrigerated warehouse, cleaned boats at a marina, studied all night as a gas-station attendant, cut meat (and my thumb) at a supermarket deli counter, and supervised a weight room at a YMCA, which also gave me time to read.

The 2009 NACE survey indicates that 73 percent of students who did find jobs had been interns somewhere. During my last year of college I "won" what seemed like a prestigious internship at an advertising agency that went out of business just before I graduated. My primary job was fielding phone calls from its creditors, which made me comfortable talking with almost anyone who wasn't already angry. Within a few weeks, I cold-called my way into another job, working part time for a well-known corporation that markets diet programs. The manager thought I could be a diet counselor because of my experience in a weight room. When I was laid off from that position, I found work selling memberships, commission-only, in a rundown health club that went out of business in two months, but, as a result of that experience —and several new contacts —I was able to find a better sales position with a base salary at another health club.

Looking back, I see that I was developing an unintended career path in the diet and exercise industry based on very limited prior experience and having nothing to do with my academic credentials. By the end of the first year, when I started graduate school in English (yes, I know), I was an "assistant manager." I had a large, corner office with two walls of windows, a rubber tree, and a reproduction of Monet's Water Lilies. I might have moved on to manager within a few years, and maybe I would have opened my own franchise by the time I was 30.

Knowing what I know now, that scenario doesn't seem all that bad, even though at the time, I regarded it as beneath me because none of my co-workers had read Moby-Dick or Ulysses. In the end, it was that arrogance —and the promise of extraordinary job opportunities for college professors (announced everywhere in the early 90s) —that lured me back to graduate school.

I don't mean to suggest here something like, "If I did it, you can, too." I'm in no position to advise anyone about a specific job or career path; my knowledge of even the academic job market is nearing its expiration date. Mainly, I try to avoid the temptation to assume that knowledge of a few academic subjects, or even personal experience from another time and place, gives me expertise about a specific student's circumstances. However, I do think I can offer some general advice for the unemployed college graduate based on my own experiences, observations, and conversations with advisees in a variety of economic climates:

Flexibility. A good education should have prepared you to learn almost anything. Don't dismiss whole occupations as the work of "corporate drones" or regard any field as beneath you.

Mobility. If possible, look beyond the local labor market; consider opportunities in an international context. There are often unexpected zones of economic growth in the midst of any recession.

Research. Do not make decisions on the basis of inadequate information, particularly about future job prospects. Informational interviewing is the best thing you can do because you are getting up-to-date, insider's knowledge, you are practicing your interviewing skills, and you are building a network.

Networking. Most job opportunities are unadvertised; they are often filled by personal contacts. Tell everyone you know that you are job hunting.

Communication. Practice speaking with people in your desired occupation; make your résumés and cover letter flawless and perfectly tailored for the positions you are seeking. Develop a variety of ways of describing your aptitudes and experiences to deploy in interviews.

Professionalism. Cultivate a positive attitude, mind your manners, dress appropriately, and build a reputation for integrity and reliability. Accept that you're not too good for any position —yet. And clean up your Facebook page.

Respect. Remember that there are plenty of people without college degrees who know things that are worth learning. Get over yourself and learn the art of making fast food, folding clothes, or mowing grass —with enough care that you come to enjoy them and value those who do them well.

Training. Seek continuous training and experience in support of your emerging career path. But avoid undertaking expensive and time-consuming education for positions that may not be available by the time you finish.

Hope. You can't know the future, so why not hold on to your optimism? A tough labor market can cultivate strengths that you never developed before. Unemployment can lead to despair and flight, but it can also strengthen character.

There are many actions one can take that can contribute to a reversal of fortune, and that can ward off the despair of giving up the search entirely or fleeing into a graduate program for the wrong reasons. Perhaps the one virtue we can convey to our students that includes all of the generalizations I've made above is humility: Accept that you may have to start at the very bottom —lower than you ever imagined —but keep your eyes open, and begin your ascent without looking back while we, your former professors, applaud your progress and hope for your success, however you define it.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College.