A Reality Check for New College Grads

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July 7 New York Times story described the job-hunting troubles of a 24-year-old, 2008 graduate of Colgate University, with top grades. Judging by readers’ comments, older folks have only so much sympathy for the obstacles confronting recent college grads.

Dozens of readers wrote critical comments, some calling the subject of the story a whiner, others suggesting he was picky, unrealistic and spoiled.

Some noted the young man was suffering from his own bad choices, having majored in political science and minored in history, two subjects offering no clear career track.

Others noted he’d passed up two perfectly good job offers, one as a $40,000-a-year insurance adjuster, the other an invitation to apply to Marine Corps officer candidate school. The young man said the first job did not provide a good enough career track, and the Marine Corps had lost its appeal after having passed him up earlier.

There’s no question that the job market is tight and lots of young college graduates are struggling to find work, many looking with envy at the easier road traveled by siblings and friends who are just a few years older. But new graduates’ dilemma isn’t really new. All job hunters, whether they are just starting out or are more seasoned, have to decide whether to hold out or settle for a job that’s not exactly what they want.

Most people who have been in the workforce a while have learned a few facts of life that fresh graduates might find useful.

First, graduating from college is often followed by a plunge in standard of living. While many people eventually earn more than their parents did, the first few years may involve some crummy apartments, beat-up cars and bargain-basement vacations (or no vacations at all). It can be hard to leave the parents’ roomy colonial in a leafy suburb to share a place with a roommate or two.

Second, if your undergraduate education didn’t prepare you for a specific job, it should at least have equipped you to make the most of opportunities that do arise. Ask successful people how they got where they are and most will admit it wasn’t due to a master plan set up in their early 20s. Most will say they capitalized on opportunities that sometimes took them on unexpected paths.

Third, you have to go where the jobs are, even if that means you don’t live exactly where you want to. Lifestyle has to take a backseat to work until you’ve advanced enough to pick and choose.

Fourth, the days of spending a whole career with a single employer are probably over for most people. Industries and professions now change so fast that it pays to be job hunting all the time, even if your current job is satisfying and seems to offer a promising future.

Finally, it’s essential to do something. Just about anything is better than sitting around unemployed for two years, which will make a prospective employer think others saw flaws in you, or that you’re difficult, choosy or lazy.

One of the Times readers suggested the young Colgate graduate table hopes of career in finance or marketing and become a river guide for a couple of years. That, or something like it, might not be a bad idea. Someday a corporate recruiter might look favorably on a sense of adventure and flexibility. It would surely look better than main alternative, sponging off parents and mowing lawns for pocket money.

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