Employment Lessons for New Graduates, and for Others, Too!

Each year I notice that as September rolls around new graduates get serious about their job search. Others, too, usually put their job-search efforts in high gear right after the Labor Day (first week of September in the US).

Recently, I noticed that newly minted graduates are increasingly seeking career-coaching advice from me even before they get their first job. This is unusual because during the past 16 years I have been a career coach, very rarely I saw new graduates coming for career coaching advice after they graduate to learn about job-search strategies for their first job from a professional coach. What is more unusual is when they engage me (and pay) even before their graduation, often during their Junior or Senior year about how they should fashion their curriculum to make themselves more marketable in today’s job market. Early this year a Carnegie Mellon U graduate student in CS studies, who is getting his MS in 2017 has already started working with me on how to shape his résumé for landing as a Product Manager—not as software developer—immediately upon his graduation next year. Read his story below in #1, Plan ahead!

So, why this interest in getting professional career advice despite what is available to these students from their Career Development Centers right on their own campuses for free? A recent Accenture Study highlights that only about half (51%) of the graduates believed that their field of graduation would provide them with a good long-term career. In my own view the half-life of a PhD is three years; an MS, five; and BS/BA, seven years. In light of this I think that a look at the employment landscape for new graduates will be illuminating:

In the US the graduate unemployment and underemployment stands at 5.5% and 12.6% respectively,

In the UK more than half (58.8%) of graduates are in jobs that do NOT require a degree. This means only about 42% of those graduating are employed at their right level. In Germany graduates that are in jobs below their level is only about10% in comparison.

In India about 19% of those with engineering degrees are employed after graduation and for non-engineering degrees (arts, commerce, accounting, and others) that number is abysmal at about 5%!

So, what gives?

There are many factors—the region’s economy being a major contributor to this demand and supply calculus. But, beyond that the graduating students’ employment readiness is a key factor. One reason for the unemployment rate in Germany being so low is their emphasis on vocational training throughout their college years. What this provides them is a hands-on skill to engage in a job that puts them on a path to rapid career advancement. Vocational training also readies them for the realities of an industrial or corporate job, unlike what most other universities provide, just lectures and bookish knowledge.

So, what can you do to improve your employability as a new graduate, given that you alone cannot change the economic landscape in any geography? Here are some tips that are worth considering to make yourself competitively better positioned in the job market. These tips may be useful to those who are also in their professional careers already, but are worried about their future employability.

1. Plan ahead: Do not wait until after your graduate to put your résumé together and then figure out what jobs the résumé will fetch you! Before you take any substantial coursework that shows on your transcripts have some idea of the job you are after and take courses that align with those jobs.

In the case of the CMU graduate student in Product Management mentioned at the top of this blog, he approached me as soon as he enrolled at CMU last year for his graduate studies and decided that coding jobs were not for him. So, we brainstormed about various options based on his aptitude and zeroed-in on Product Management jobs. I then helped him with the right mix of CMU coursework that year. In the summer of 2016 I helped him land an internship in Product Management at an e-commerce company. He did so well in that role that at the end of his three moths they offered him a full-time job after his graduation in 2017 as a Product Manager, at an eye-popping salary that will be coveted by those graduates landing jobs in the Silicon Valley!
2. GPA is mere table stakes: It is normal to focus on your GPA as you sign-up for different courses. Place more focus on the right courses, instead. Taking easy courses to boost your GPA may help you graduate at the top of the class, but beyond that if the coursework is not aligned well with your prospect jobs then you will struggle with getting your résumé in the hands with the right reception for it. Although high GPA is always a good thing, you are much better off with a balance between the right mix of courses and an acceptable GPA. Beyond your first job your GPA does not carry much weight on your résumé—now, even at Google.
3. Social skills: There is so much focus on individual work in your academic life that most students do not learn how to build their teaming skills. Most of the work that happens in the business world is based on teamwork. So, doing something on your own (cramming all night to ace an exam) is no longer of much value in the business world. This is why fresh graduates—especially the brilliant ones with high GPAs—struggle in their first year of their career. Their dropout rate in the first year is in 30-40% range for these reasons. They do not realize how much emphasis is placed on working together in the business world and that is a cultural shock to many in their first jobs.
4. Emotional Intelligence (EQ): If a company is hiring for graduates from top schools with high GPAs then the ONLY differentiator a new employee has is their EQ. Unlike the IQ (GPA) EQ is a developed skill. The correlation between IQ and GPA is ~99%, but the correlation between IQ and adult success is only about 20%. So, learn early about Emotional Intelligence (EQ), Political Intelligence (PQ), Contextual Intelligence (XQ), and Cultural Intelligence (CQ). All these “Qs” are learned skills, except the IQ.
5. Honoring commitments: This “skill” requires no preparation or talent, unlike all the others listed here. It is an ingrained habit and a moral mindset. This has to do with your own sense of morality and how seriously you take your commitments you make to others. Once you say to someone I’ll do this you MUST honor that in the way you intended, without excuses. It also applies for being on time every time! This category also includes owning your mistakes and being truthful about your slipups, both in personal and professional life. Your being truthful and honest with yourself is part of this mindset. First and foremost, if you are not truthful to yourself you are deluding yourself.
6. Critical thinking Skills: Most academic courses do not focus much on critical thinking skills. Framing a problem, finding the right strategy to solve it, and then executing the solution within the constraints of time and resources is not something that is part of an academic curriculum. There, a problem is already given for you to solve and then you solve it using the tools given in the lectures. This is why most candidates fail the critical thinking tests during interviews.
7. Leadership: There is a common misperception that leadership requires a title and others reporting to you. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leadership does not require a title and stems from having others follow you because of how you present your thoughts and act on those thoughts. Creating followership requires learning about your own leadership and that comes from engaging in leadership roles throughout your life: in high school, sports, extra-curricular activities, volunteering, starting something new in your community, etc. Accomplishments of such leadership successes must be listed on your résumé.
8. Communication: This is one of the most ignored—and underrated—skills during the evolution of a professional, especially during their student days and then throughout their careers. In today’s zeitgeist of soundbites and tweets people have become quite promiscuous about how they use their language; some even taking pride in how they massacre it routinely. Learning how to speak and write well is perhaps the most underestimated and scarce skill in a professional’s life. Even in my current role as a career coach I spend nearly 50% of my coaching time (billable time) helping my clients write in ways that influences how others see them, and that includes CEOs, who come to me for such help.
9. Negotiating skills: This is yet another skill that must be developed as you navigate through your first job offer. There are many good resources on how to negotiate your way through difficult parameters, but, once again, there is no magic to negotiating. Most people go through their life thinking that they should get what they deserve, not realizing that they will get only what they are able to negotiate, instead! Having the social and influencing skills can go a long way in developing your negotiations skills.
10. Influencing skills: As you navigate through your professional life you will have many encounters with others who do not share your agenda or who do not work under you. Learning how to find common ground from among a diverse set of constituencies is a key skill that must be developed.

For someone fresh out of college or about to graduate this list may appear daunting. But, if you understand the reason behind the importance of this list and how to master these for your own professional success you’ll realize that life is not as hard or as intractable as you first thought. For others already in their professional careers revisiting this list can help them reboot their priorities to stay on track for their remaining career arc.

Good luck!

Begin the journey to your new career today.