THE BLOG

Job Hunting in College: Expectations Vs. Reality

01/23/2014 03:42 pm ET | Updated Mar 25, 2014

"I really enjoyed my time at Oberlin and I felt like I was learning, but I wasn't progressing towards a job at the end of graduation," said Ned Lindau, a 2011 graduate from Oberlin College in Ohio. He noted that his liberal arts education focused on students exploring subjects that they were interested in learning, not the practicality of a job after college.

That corresponds to the continued discussion about how well four-year colleges are preparing their graduates for the workforce. Though students might leave with an ability to think critically, solve a calculus problem set, or write a paper that argues their point of view, college is not a place where one becomes accustomed to sitting at a desk for eight hours, learns how to navigate office politics, or gains insight into effective meeting management and strategic planning, unless students are in a specialized program that focuses on those skills.

Add to that the fact that most students try to do well in school, and the focus shifts to what students face right in front of them instead of what they will encounter four years into the future. "I think mostly everyone was focused on the actual content and then just getting through, passing the NCLEX," said Vanessa Perez, referring to the exam for a nursing license. Perez is currently in her last year of a Bachelor's program in nursing at a state university in Northern California.

Perez, who asked for her real name to be withheld, began her educational journey at a junior college as a pre-nursing major, then transferred to a nursing program at the same junior college. Upon completion, she transferred to a four-year university to complete her Bachelor's degree, through a bridge program that connects nursing programs at community colleges to nursing programs at four-year universities. "It was mostly focused on getting through the content," Perez said, of her time in school at the junior college.

Perez was in an academic program that was very career-oriented. Yet for those who are on a generalist track, career prospects don't necessarily come during the college years either. "At Oberlin, I had a lot of friends who had no idea what they were doing," Lindau said. The same was true for Matthew Jordan, who also asked not to be identified by his real name. He didn't begin to think about a job until after graduation. Jordan grew up in Westchester County, New York and graduated from Brown University as a biology major. His parents supported him financially throughout college and he graduated without any student loans, which he realizes puts him in a very different position than most of his peers. "I didn't have all of these financial pressures, and I think that for me enabled a certain kind of indifference to it all that was not typical of my peers," he said. Jordan saw three types of jobs that his peers were pursuing: consulting or finance opportunities, computer programming and what he calls "Silicon Valley-type" jobs, and fellowships or work in non-profits. "Those were the options I was aware of during school and none of them appealed to me," he said. Though Jordan might have found other options had he made an effort to seek out career advice, finding a job wasn't a priority for him.

Thinking about jobs too late in the game can be problematic in a market that requires six to nine months to land a job, according to career counselors. Meg Heenehan, director of career services at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, noted that student initiative during school is key to making the job search successful. "I view the relationships between students and our office as partnerships," she said in an interview. She added that the philosophy of career service facilities is to guide students through the internship and job search process. "We're here as coaches for students," she added, "but ultimately the responsibility of securing a job is on the student."

Bev Principal, associate director of employment services at Stanford University, agrees. She noted in an interview in September that before the economic downturn, students focused on employers who came to campus. She said that those employers only make up ten percent of available employment opportunities. "A large part of our job is helping students figure out how to find those companies [that are not on campus]," she said. "We had to do a lot of one-on-one counseling and workshops to demonstrate what it is like to network," she added.

A study of 2,000 students and 1,000 hiring managers, conducted by Chegg, a textbook seller and rental company, found that there are discrepancies in how hiring managers evaluate students' expertise in certain skill sets compared to how students evaluate themselves. The study pointed out,

"Students put more importance on the name of the institution listed on their diploma, versus an employer's view of the importance of school prestige. A full 45 percent of students, from schools across the nation, believe a degree from a prestigious school is very or extremely important to make them more attractive to employers. By contrast, only 28 percent of hiring managers found this important."

"More than three-quarters of surveyed college students, 77 percent believed professional or personal connections in their field of interest was important for securing a job. Thankfully, employment opportunities aren't based exclusively on "who you know" -- only 52 percent of hiring managers agreed that those connections are very or extremely important for a graduate to land a job in their field of study."

"...When it comes to grade point averages, employers are much more forgiving than students expect. 68 percent of students think a high GPA is very or extremely important for landing a job. 48 percent of hiring managers think it is very or extremely important."

The study cites these as three misconceptions that students have about the job market. However to be fair, the second and third points are arguable: the study itself notes that 52 percent of hiring managers regard personal connections as important. That's more than half, which could be considered important. How can we blame students who prioritize networking if there's a 50-50 chance of getting a job through a personal connection? Additionally, the point on GPA -- again the study itself points out that 48 percent of hiring managers consider it an important factor. That's almost half of the hiring managers, which would make passing classes and doing well in school an important consideration for students.

But perhaps it is there where the discrepancy lies: what type of focus do students have on their careers and on the job hunt while they are in school? As noted earlier, Perez, Lindau and Jordan weren't focused entirely on careers while in school, but on making the most out of their college experiences.

Part of the disconnect may also have to do with knowing how the job search works and knowing what to look for. Lindau, who double-majored in English and Latin American Studies at Oberlin, said, "I had no idea what an English major does, except some people go to law school and some people become writers." The same was true for Jordan when he ultimately began his job search. "I was looking for work, but it wasn't obvious to me how to proceed and I wasn't having much success." That gap has been of so much concern that the Lilly Endowment, a private foundation in Indiana, awarded $62.7 million to 39 colleges and universities in the state to pursue activities that will increase job prospects for college graduates. The grant's focus is on ensuring that graduates are ready to take jobs that require bachelor's degrees and on assessing Indiana's lagging growth in jobs that require a bachelor's degree. The underlying premise of both of those initiatives highlights the gap between what students are doing in school and what they find once they graduate.

After graduating from Brown, Jordan spent three months in Norway living with family members and pursuing his interest in sustainable aquaculture. However, a month into his stay, a mass shooting at a youth camp shocked Norway. "It threw the country into a period of mourning and shock," said Jordan. "It made it clear to me that it wasn't the time to go around asking for favors and introductions." Jordan returned to the U.S., moved in with his parents and began some part-time work. He tutored, worked as a gardener, began taking a physics class at Brooklyn College and started volunteering in a lab for a professor at Brooklyn College. With medical school on the back burner and having lived with his parents for a year, Jordan decided to make an official decision. He applied for a Master's program in sustainable aquaculture and began his first semester last fall.

Jordan is trying to pave his way toward a job in an industry he is interested in. He says that his focus has never been on making a lot of money, but on being self-sufficient. He is looking for a job that allows him autonomy in how he works and has an altruistic mission. "Something that ultimately makes the world a better place is important to me," he noted.

Lindau feels similarly. "I want the end product to be more along the lines of what I'm passionate about." Lindau went to Chicago after completing college and taught reading and writing through Teach for America. He credits his time in TFA in helping him narrow down his career choice to working in education technology.

After completing a year with TFA, Lindau made some inroads with tech companies but realized that hiring was not going to pan out with them. He was recruited by a logistics company outside of Chicago for its management training program, and he took the job. He says that he is using his time there to find a route to a job in education technology.

Deeper fulfillment was also something Perez wanted from her job. "I guess it's my way of helping others," she said. She became interested in nursing after witnessing the care nurses gave her mom after surgery. For Perez, there are a few other expectations she has when it comes to future jobs, the most important being training. Throughout her time in school, Perez worked part-time, at one point at an assisted living facility. She noted that there was a big gap between what she was taught in school and what her employer expected of her. Her main concern was that she had all the time she needed in school to ensure proper procedures, but work was limited. "A lot of times, my shift was done but I had to stay there to do charting and they didn't want you do to overtime," she said. "It didn't seem possible for me to get all my work done in eight, 8.5 hours." This was especially concerning for her as a nurse, because she was dealing with people's lives and the threat of losing her license should she commit a grave error.

Proper training is very important, especially to young workers, according to Beth Carvin, CEO of Nobscot Corporation, a human resources consulting firm. The firm focuses on employee retention and part of Carvin's work has been administering and analyzing exit interviews for employers. Carvin noted that there are multiple areas where young employees can feel frustrated with their employers. Having access to career development opportunities or a path to career advancement is one; lack of training is another. Feeling appreciated within the workplace and having access to mentoring are also factors, Carvin noted. It's important for employers to pay attention to these factors because high employee turnover costs companies, both in hard numbers, such as training newcomers, advertising and recruiting, and soft costs, such as institutional knowledge and client relations. "That's why CFOs have such a hard time with this, "she said, "because [the soft costs] don't show up on a balance sheet." This makes it in the employer's interest to understand what employees are looking for and see if there's a way to meet those needs.

Of course, therein lies the conundrum: as we've seen through Lindau's, Jordan's and Perez's experiences, young employees are themselves trying to figure out what they want from a job. And the hard part is that some of this discovery is purely through trial and error: unless someone spends an eight-hour day at a desk, they won't know whether they can handle that schedule everyday or whether they prefer a workplace that's structured differently or a job that keeps them out of the office.

Jordan's reflections on his job search experience describe the conundrum well. "I started at zero, which was I didn't want any of the jobs that existed. My initial expectation of the job market was that there wasn't anything that I wanted to do, which didn't square with the idea I grew up with, which is, you can do anything you want to. I think for me, looking at careers and a job has been about squaring those things. The reality that I lived for the first 18 years of my life with this idea that you can do whatever you want and the reality that I graduated with, which was that you have these three options, none of which are appealing. And the reality is somewhere in between."

While Jordan had the luxury to reconcile the options he thought were available to him with his interests through travel, independent study, and volunteering, others go from one job to another until they determine what feels right. For young adults who have financial constraints and responsibilities, the process of determining what they want from a job and reconciling their own desires with real financial responsibilities can take a long time. Add a very tough economic market that is improving but moving slowly, and the process takes even longer.

The growing pains aren't new, but coupled with the backdrop of the recession, they will be felt more acutely. There are long-term consequences of the current economic conditions, said Heidi Shierholz, an analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, in a phone interview. "These kids, research suggests, will make less money and that lasts for one to two decades," she said. "If you have one to two decades of low earnings -- that could be a down payment on a house -- you're never going to get that back." Add to that: stiff competition for jobs. Catherine Ruetschlin, a policy analyst at Demos, noted in an email: "As of the latest count we're looking at 3.8 unemployed workers for every job opening in the economy. That tally suggests that competition is still stiff for young people just entering the market." Ruetschlin said that the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows an average of 182,000 jobs added each month in 2013, the same amount as in 2012, but noted, "One of the implications of that growth will be people who previously left the labor market re-entering and looking for jobs. Since we're still well-below the labor force participation rates from before the recession - both for young people and the population as a whole - we're probably going to see the ratio of labor supply to labor demand worsen before it gets better." That exacerbates young workers' ability to determine what they want out of a career and can add to the sense of frustration and at times failure that job hunters might feel.

Jordan worries that his story is one of someone who didn't have his act together. "But I don't necessarily want this to be my legacy," he said. "I'd like to think that I can recover from that."