Looking for the recipe for how to approach college today? Jeff Selingo describes what parents and students should know about navigating school to prepare for the jobs of tomorrow in his 2016 New York Times Bestselling book There is Life After College.
Another book title that may aptly apply is Career Launch.
Launch as in rocket. To career success.
Selingo describes a world of sprinters, wanderers, and stragglers in relation to the wide stratosphere of people navigating their lives from high school into the working world.
It’s all about approach.
One main tenet is to not treat college or your job as a spectator sport.
“Jeffrey Selingo digs deep into what frustrated employers have known for quite some time: to fuel the economy with the next generation of leaders and innovators, we need grads who ask questions, have the grit of determination, and can make quick, thoughtful decisions in ambiguous situations.” – EDWARD B. RUST JR. CHAIRMAN OF THE BOARD, STATE FARM MUTUAL AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE COMPANY
Selingo throws down a challenge to young adults today to stand out in this competitive economy with a story that resonates with both colleges and employers. He introduces the book by throwing out the belief that getting an undergraduate college degree by itself guarantees a solid job after graduation.
That’s just not how it works today.
He also informs that too much attention is spent on the front side of college: getting in, paying for and picking a major. The book details how the current landscape wants more than just a degree and wants graduates with practical experience that will apply to their jobs after college. This means focusing on the college experience and how time is spent in college to prepare for the world after college.
The following items below provide a summary of what stood out for me as described in the book. Additionally I list several others worth reading for more detail.
#1. The Barista Effect
Job trends and a change in the economy has led to the highest unemployment rates in four decades for those under the age of twenty-five. Even more alarming is that nearly half of college graduates are underemployed. This means they are working in jobs that do not require a bachelors degree.
The increase of technology and the production of goods overseas has led to a major decline of manufacturing jobs in the United States. This has resulted in a devaluation of the high school degree as it is no longer a ticket to good, steady blue-collar work. Since a small percentage of high school seniors enlist in the military a majority of students head off to college, creating a massive amount of college students and undergraduate degrees. Factor in the large baby boomer generation that continues to work and accepts lower paying jobs that used to go to entry level college employees. It is a recipe for a “tough to find jobs” scenario for college graduates.
Thus, the stereotype that more college graduates are working as waiters and baristas is no exaggeration.
Today’s twenty-somethings are referred to as the Boomerang Generation because they often return home before or after graduating from college. Financial independence is now not typically achieved until the age of thirty. In the eighties and nineties this used to be age twenty-six.
This is also being referred to as the delayed adulthood effect, where the age that people graduate college, leave home, get married, have children, and buy a home has all been pushed out many years.
“The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma.” – There is Life After College
#2. Sprinters, Wanderers, and Stragglers
The different groups are separated by their ability to navigate through their path to adulthood, career startups and long-term career path.
Job and career change is high across all groups based on the current landscape with twenty-somethings expected to change jobs eight times before thirty and change entire occupations three times in the same time span.
Sprinters are the investors in human capital. The group that makes higher education attainment a high priority, securing graduate or professional school early on in their career. Sprinters make key decisions early in college and career and also have key work experience so their resumes are ready for landing that opportunity they run into.
Common attributes of Sprinters are that they:
- had a job in high school
- picked a major early on in college and stuck with it
- dedicate time to research projects or internships (79% had internships in college)
- have little to no student debt
Sprinters are able to take more risks in their twenties. They can try new things and make strategic job shifts because they have a solid resume, good initial work experience, and no debt. These shifts commonly lead to better jobs and higher pay. This cascades to great benefits, a great career path and stability,
Wanderers are a group that do not lack motivation or hard work. They just do not get it together fast enough. They are indecisive and this extends their time in college, increases their college debt and the likelihood that they will not gain key internships or starting jobs in the fields that they finally determine that they are interested.
Common attributes of Wanderers are that they:
- go to public university
- take a long time to declare majors
- change their majors and extend their time required in school
- have student debt that limits flexibility
- 85 percent begin jobs not related to their major after graduation
About half of the 1.7 million seniors of the class of 2014 were unable to land a full-time job within six months of graduation.
Stragglers are the last and largest group in the career line. They start college late and commonly part-time. They switch majors and colleges often and commonly do not finish college at all.
Common attributes of Stragglers:
- start college late
- start college part-time
- do not finish college in four years
- have high college debt that limits career choices and flexibility
- do not gain key internships or work experience in their major field
Selingo describes that the first pass through college is like an assembly line, moving faster than ever before: pick a major, secure internships, takes classes in the right order to graduate on time. Most students cannot keep up this pace.
There are over 31 million adults in the United States who left college short of a degree, with 12.5 million in their twenties. Employers want degrees, they do not want “some college classes”. Especially in a landscape where so many are getting their college degrees. It has become the foundation, the starting block to a solid career.
#3. T Shaped People
Selingo describes in Chapter 2 how IBM use to hire experts in single core areas. They were referred to as “I” shaped people, symbolizing that they are deep in one skill. The current economy requires T shaped people, which emerged in the 1990s. The vertical is the subject matter expertise but the horizontal line is the ability to work across a variety of complex subject areas with ease and confidence. Not being a “T” today is career limiting.
An example used in the book was the task of detecting credit card fraud. It requires skills in math, law, finance, technology, psychology, and political science.
The “T” is key.
Students need to proactively get the experiences they need, work on projects or do research, and put in extra effort to develop their expertise and work in teams and solve problems. Whether this be in the college setting or not. Working in teams and on problems generally presents opportunities or situations where failure is encountered.
Failure breeds success.
Knowing why something does not work and what to do (and what not to do) next time is a blue print for success.
#4. Grit – Like a Pro Athlete
In the book grit is defined as a combination of initiative and persistence, “to keep going in the face of adversity.” When referencing the skills required to hit the ground running post-college it describes the need to build an expertise, take risks, and learn the meaning of grit.
Enterprise Rent-A-Car was mentioned as a company that likes to hire former college athletes because they know how to work on teams and multitask.
Selingo describes that athletes are a textbook example of the ten thousand hours theory described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers – that is takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field.
- practice at all hours of the day and night
- show up even when they don’t feel like playing
- must have the drive to win
- they have been reprimanded by a coach at some point
- they have overcome failure
- they have a will to win
I can only imagine the number of free throws and jumpers shot by Stephen Curry or Michael Jordan in their basketball careers. Or the number of passes thrown by the Manning family. And the big games that required them producing to give them the lead, the win, the advantage.
Were they prepared and ready?
Of course they were.
It is a combination of experience, intelligence, self-discipline, dogged determination and grit that really moves the needle.
“‘Hard working’ is what gets the job done.” – Carol Dweck, Stanford University
I interpret this as the effort is what its about. The “get ‘er done” mentality and approach. No excuses, just knock it out.
I have worked alongside many a colleague that lack these innate skills.
It is surprising how many employees in Corporate America feel entitled to raises, bonuses, and promotions even though there performance demonstrates a lack of hard work and grit.
#5. Make an Impact
Mary Egan, founder of GatheredTable, informs that excelling at any job is about doing the things you weren’t asked to do.
My personal experience aligns to this position.
Every job I have applied has had a basic job description. It is typically vetted by Human Resources and outlines all the skills required for the position. Some skills are technical based, some soft skill based. Experience, Education and Credential requirements are also provided.
The key to making a difference and standing out is the ability to not only rock the tasks outlined by your manager, but to go above and beyond those core tasks seeking ways to add more value to your boss, to your partners, to your business area.
This is the stuff that gets noticed.
Working extra hours to do more, especially if gaining new experience and skills that you can unleash onto the marketplace.
So make an impact, do more, do above and beyond. It will be noticed and you will thrive.
#6. It’s All About Tangible Skills
The book outlines the importance of having tangible skills that can be applied immediately to your first jobs after college.
I believe that when a company looks at your resume or interviews you for a job opening that they want to understand one thing:
Can you do the job?
Then they want to understand yet another thing.
Can you do the job better than the other people they are talking to?
It is important that your resume, your experience, your interview responses, and your body language all lead to one thing:
Proof that you are the right person for the job.
Johnny And His Pipe Dream
Say Johnny wants to be the Lead General Contractor to build houses. Johnny has been a handy man his whole life. He knows how to make and fix most anything. His resume does not necessarily demonstrate his house-building experience. It shows he has built kitchen cabinets for a few years and did roofing for year. He doesn’t have formal education in housing construction but he applies nonetheless because he wants the job and believes he can do it.
Well, how do you think this story ends for Johnny? Does he get the job?
Not a chance. He does not even get a call. The resume barely got a look. The resume instead became a three point shot into the garbage can in the corner of the HR office.
Johnny does not understand the world we live in. If his resume showed years of master tradesman work, years of house-building experience with a portfolio of neighborhoods/projects he has been responsible for, education, training and certifications – then he may have a better chance. The stack of resumes the company sees has careers worth of experience by trained, educated, and certified house builders.
The companies of the world demand qualifications.
Johnny will be better served approaching his job search differently. He needs an apprenticeship structure and needs to be an assistant to highly experienced professionals that he aims to be one day.
Networking and talking to people will be key. Learning who can help him get in the door at any company should be his focus point.
Getting 10,000 hours of work helping others build houses should be his target. As he gets experience he will get more opportunity to lead and drive the process.
He should also consider what certifications or education he can do on the side that will also give him an advantage.
To be educated can lead to management and office jobs too.
When in high school and college it is prime time to be getting jobs any way possible. Getting a job to be responsible, earn money, and develop customer service and soft skills is valuable.
If you can get experience that forces teamwork and team building, even better. If you can get tangible skills that have value in the marketplace, you have struck gold.
And you want gold.
Go find the gold.
Proof That Having Tangible Skills Is The Winning Formula
My wife had a coop work assignment while an undergraduate computer science major. She worked at a local utility company in the IT department as a programmer analyst. This job was no different than other full-time employees. The pay was MUCH higher than her first job on campus working in an administration office.
Baffling when you think about it. The work people choose to do or accept and the pay that goes along with it.
When she graduated she had employers lined up to hire her. She had technical skills that were undeniable and had practical real-world experience demonstrating that she could do the job they needed done.
Great pay. Check.
Great benefits. Check.
Twenty years later it as proven to be a great career path. Check.
Get the tangible skills while in school or early in career so you can rocket your career launch.
#7. Where You Go To College Can Matter
While Selingo points out that college is more about what you do while you are at college than where you go to college, he does point out some important items worth considering such as college location and student debt.
- College Location: Some college locations are more conducive to internships and coop arrangements where students can get jobs while taking classes. Colleges in large urban cities with active corporate activity may prove valuable
- Debt at Graduation: Also to be considered is the financial component of the degree. One important focus point should be the amount of college debt you will have at graduation based on the total cost of college, factoring the time it will take to earn your degree
- Further Education Needs: Also understanding the plan or path if further education is required for your career track. This may make you focus on the cheapest and fastest path to your undergraduate degree while still getting you into position to get to that next level of entry or education point
I have covered some of the topics and themes within this book and supplied some personal experiences related to some of these key themes. The entire book goes into much more depth and covers more concepts and areas as mentioned below.
Other key and noteworthy items:
- why a gap year may make sense
- why coops and internships are important
- make good decisions (don’t make bad decisions)
- how to make college pay off
- why you should get a mentor
- the four paths to careers of the future
- important soft skills great employees need
- the changing degrees of the future
- new approaches to gaining skills for jobs
Selingo confirms that there are many pathways available to the right kinds of education at the right times in your life to achieve the life you desire.
The key is the ability to adapt, to change, to learn, unlearn, and relearn as the times demand it.
For those hardwired or conditioned to just one lane of life’s highway, it will be challenging.
For those able add value and be agile and nimble, shifting here and there, pivoting here and there – you will always have a port to land your ship.
Remember to be awesome.
PBS Video Making the Grade segment
This video highlights how decisions made in college impact life after college.
More About The Author
Jeff Selingo has a web site to learn more about his career and other work.