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Liz Ryan

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Why College Grads Aren't Employable

Posted: 08/10/2012 8:47 pm

A mom called me to get some advice for her son, who's about to start his senior year of college. "His grades are fantastic," she said. "He's going to be job-hunting in nine months, and my husband and I are very worried for him, because of the economy."

"You say your son's grades are terrific," I said. "What about the rest of the package -- do you think he's well-equipped in general to enter the workforce? Does he have a sense of himself, has he solved some real-life problems somewhere along the line, and does he have some mojo to bring to the job search, and the job?"

Mom thought about that for a second. "He is a smart kid," she said. "He's always excelled academically." "And otherwise?" I asked. "Is he spunky? Can he deal with real life pretty well?"

"I can't say that I totally understand what you're asking me," said the anxious mom.
"Can you do one thing for me? Can you give me two or three job titles that my son should be focusing on, in his job search?"

"What is his major?" I asked her. "Communications," she said. "Why did he pick that major?" I asked. "That is a strange question!" said Mom.

And that, you guys, is the problem.

"Why did your son pick Communications for a major?" is not a strange question -- it's the only question with any relevance for a prospective employer. Who is this kid, anyway? What does he care about? Why did he pick the major that he did? If it's because his mom told him to, that's not a great sign. If it's because he realized somewhere along the way that he loves communicating and wants to do it professionally, that's wonderful.

We churn out college grads who think that getting straight As and towing the line are the keys to a happy life. We don't say to kids in school, "Hey, what do you want to do? What are you curious about?" We say "Here is today's assignment. Here is the mark you need to hit." Can we be surprised that kids come out of the chute after four years in college, not knowing what they want to do, or what the possibilities might be? We haven't built their muscles for figuring out where they could make themselves useful, have fun and support themselves. We've built their getting-good-grades and coloring-inside-the-lines muscles, instead.

You can imagine what interview-weary employers tell me. "Three-quarters of these kids have the academic credentials, and zip-all else to bring to the table," they say. "I need a kid with some guts and confidence. Where are the kids who mowed lawns? I want the kid who knows how real life works." Of course they do. That's not what we emphasize, in school -- how real life works. As my son's fourth-grade teacher said to me last year, "It is extremely important for him to finish all the exercises on the page."

"Why?" I asked her. "He completes three or four problems, he understands the concept, and he gets bored. Could he jump over to a different activity at that point?"

"He will be kept in for recess if he doesn't finish all the problems on the page," she said. "There is a reason there are a certain number of problems on the worksheet." "I wonder," I said. "It seems to me that the worksheet has a certain number of problems on it because that is the number of problems that fit on the page."

When we teach kids to respect authority over their own gut and to value what's conferred on them by others (awards and trophies and gold stars, and then later, big titles and offices and staffs and budgets and more awards and trophies and gold stars) over what they know and experience themselves, we get kids with no connection to the real world, the horse-sense world that they will enter and have to thrive in after graduation.

I talk to these kids and their parents all day long. These are affluent people who believe that parenting means protecting your kid from real life. They believe that if the kid has a chance to go on a safari and burnish his international-travel resume over the summer, that trumps staying home and working at Target, where the kid might learn something about merchandising and customer service and getting out of bed to be at work every morning. We end up with well-educated, well-brought-up new grads who are all but unemployable.

Employers aren't stupid (except the ones that crow "We only hire Ivy Leaguers!"). They know that kids who know who they are, what they want, and how to deal with life on the ground make the best new hires. Those instincts are built in kids by challenging them with real-life problems and expecting them to take responsibility for their decisions. As one mom told me, "I put my daughter in a competitive summer academic program, because all she could hope for in our town would be nannying over the summer."

A kid could learn how to chase toddlers around, wipe spit off a baby's cheek, calm a crying baby, organize activities for preschoolers, and keep her calm during daily crises -- or she could sit in a classroom, as she does during the rest of the school year, and take tests. From a real-world-experience standpoint, there's no question -- the kid should take the nanny job. How could a mom think otherwise?

The Communications major's mom asked me again, "What are some of the jobs my son could apply for?" "With a Communications degree, your son could work in literally tens of thousands of different job titles," I said. "Any organization with more than 10 employees (and lots of smaller ones) could use someone with that background. It isn't a matter of job titles that you son would be qualified for -- that list is way too big to be useful. The question is, what is he passionate about?"

"I don't know," said the mom. "I don't know if he is passionate about anything." "Then forget the job search, for now," I told her. "May is months away. Talk to the kid about what he's learned, and what he's thinking about. He could get a journal and write in it. He can reflect on these four years in college, and the 18 years before that. He can think about what interests him. I'm sure you want to see him a job that suits him, that will celebrate who he is, yes?"

"Any job would be fine," said Mom. And that, you guys, is the problem.

 

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