05/27/2010 02:17 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Graduating to What

All over America, the cap and gown rental business is celebrating the best month of their year as high schools and colleges release a fresh crop of smiling graduates. Parents are in that pride parade, having demonstrated some level of parenting skills and/or sound money management. If you are a graduate, especially at the college and university level you may be filled with a mixture of pride and anxiety. There is a sense of pride at completing years of study and hopefully learning a lot, but with this also comes the anxiety of not being sure of what you are graduating to.

Some good news is that this year's college graduates face better job prospects than the disheartening job market encountered by last year's grads. But that doesn't mean the job market is in a happy place. Starting salaries are a bit lower and according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, there will be only 5% more job offers to this group of graduates than the previous year. Last year job offers were off by 20% from 2008 levels.

There is however a double opportunity in all of this for employers and job seekers. For small business owners, this job market offers the possibility of picking new employees from a broader and deeper pool of prospects. If you are looking for an opportunity, a smaller entrepreneurial company can offer a vibrant, growth oriented and probably grateful atmosphere. Since the seductive fragrance of easy money has at least temporarily evaporated from Wall Street, smart and eager young men and women are considering other paths. I'm not surprised that computer science and finance remain the hot fields according to recruiters. Sadly for me as I survey the scene, some of the graduates are so traumatized by the slim job pickings that they are opting for the academic default position which is to remain in school for advanced studies. If you are one of those people, I can almost hear the groans from your parents.

My advice for graduates at any level is that you have to think like an entrepreneur or business owner because that is what you really are. You are the marketing manager, sales VP and fulfillment officer in a business of one, that enterprise being you! Even if you don't have any current interest in starting an independent business of your own, you are functionally in business for yourself with the responsibility of creating a desirable personal brand and selling yourself into the right situation. If you have a clear feeling about the field you'd like to grow and prosper in, the rest is about strategies, tactics and persistence.

If there is a magic bullet for navigating the success path, it is simply persistence and I don't know if today's graduates really know what that means. Ray Kroc, the man who launched McDonald's into being a national franchise used to keep a plaque on his office wall inscribed with words from the 30th U.S. President Calvin Coolidge. "Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

So, couple that persistence with credentials, and connections and you have three of the most important tools to grow your personal brand and business of one. Hopefully you got the credentials in exchange for the thousands of dollars and hours that went into fulfilling your deal with the education system. As for connections, you must realize that you've been them since kindergarten. Establishing a great a network of acquaintances and friends is like creating a lush garden. If you nourish it, it will nourish you. There are two books on effective networking that I recommend to every young person who works with me. A foundational volume is "Dig Your Well before You're Thirsty" by Harvey Mackay. The other book is by Keith Ferazzi and is titled "Never Eat Alone." Mackay sums up the reason for developing his amazing networking habits by saying "other people know other things--and other people--that I don't know."

I feel that our formal education system has become so heavy with administrators that it operates in a kind of slow motion, too often training people for opportunities that have sometimes passed them by. You want to be looking where the opportunities are going to be flourishing five or more years in the future. For example, it may be green technology or teaching people how to navigate the labyrinth of the health care system. Trying to see ahead is like an ability that great athletes such as hockey player Wayne Gretsky had. He didn't make his moves based on where the puck actually was at the time--he skated to where he thought the puck was going.

You might as well start thinking and behaving with an entrepreneurial attitude right now even if you don't have a desire to own a business that employs others. I believe that our social, political and financial structures are changing in substantial ways and that entrepreneurial thinking will get you where you want to go. Sixty years ago, one working person could support a household of four or more people, politicians qualified as true leaders and investors could expect steady if modest returns on their capital. Today all of those expectations are suffering San Andreas Fault type shaking. The graduating class of 2010 has to learn a set of life's fundamentals that were readily apparent to our ancestors regardless of their level of formal education. Having clear goals, focus and positive expectations are among those fundamentals. As my flight instructor said when I was granted my first pilot's license many years ago, "Congratulations Nelson, you now have a license to learn." After the proud graduation walk and the loving hugs of parents and friends, I hope you know that the freshly printed diploma offers no guarantees but it is a license to learn. The day may come when the signature on your paycheck is your own.