Why Your College Grad Can't Find a Job

It’s that stressful time of year again, as high school seniors and their parents, applications finally completed, begin the seemingly endless wait to hear from the colleges of their choice. But the truth is, this is only the beginning. The certainty of knowing that your child will go to college--any college—is a comfort compared to the uncertainty of knowing what he will do once he graduates.

If you’re a parent of a new college grad, you may now be looking back on the college application process with nostalgia as your child languishes among the un-hired.

Our higher education system was conceived as a vehicle to teach students how to think, not to prepare for a career per se. And not surprisingly, those who pursue majors associated with a specific career track have had less trouble finding a job in their field.

In May 2011 the New York Times reported, “Young graduates who majored in education and teaching or engineering were most likely to find a job requiring a college degree, while area studies majors — those who majored in Latin American studies, for example — and humanities majors were least likely to do so.”

But there’s a much deeper, more insidious issue that gets to the heart of why certain grads find good jobs out of school and others fail to do so. It’s because, while students may have been taught how to think, they are frequently missing the skills that make them good employees.

Many of them, often with encouragement from their parents, have had their heads down doing schoolwork instead of taking advantage of internships offered on campus or, more creatively, developed by the students themselves.

Yes, maybe a parent found them a summer internship through contacts or within their own profession, regardless of whether that was a particular interest area for their child. And that is better than nothing.

But many have never been in an office setting and had the experience of having to work hard for a difficult boss. They may not understand the sense of urgency that permeates the fabric of most work environments, and they may misread the cues and signals of prospective employers and recruiters as they search for a job.

In research conducted for my upcoming book which is designed to help young adults discover their interests and strengths while designing a portfolio of experiential learning to make themselves more marketable to employers, I interviewed 100 Gen Y kids about their school to career experiences and the lessons they learned in the process.

The hallmark of someone who had found career success after graduation from college turned out to be early internships. And that typically meant sustained experience throughout the year, not just summers.

Early work experience informed coursework selection in high school and college, which in turn fomented deeper interest and skill acquisition through work and volunteer experience. Those students with this kind of exposure had built a wide network of contacts, which helped them keep abreast of job opportunities in the field. And they represented many different majors—frequently in the humanities.

Students must develop a skill set and an area of expertise that will ultimately make organizations want to hire them. There is no reason, especially in today’s environment, to wait until after college to apply your skills in a work environment. And this is not a secret; internships have become a big industry, with many parents actually paying companies to find their students internships to obtain work experience.

As a parent, imagine yourself in the role of an employer. Would you prefer to hire the new grad with work experience, understanding of the marketplace, contacts in the industry and specific enthusiasm for the profession, or a bright kid with good grades and little exposure to the workplace? Marketers will recognize the former as what’s known as “packaging,”and that’s exactly what it is.

The top priority of a college grad seeking a job should be to package yourself and present yourself in the best possible light, within the field where you can make your greatest contribution.

If your college graduate or college student doesn’t know much about that field and hasn’t undertaken the intense work required to network effectively and gather the right kind of information, he or she will be beaten out by someone who has. If your child decides in their senior year that now is the time to get serious about a career, they are starting too late in the game. In this market there will always be someone there to eat their lunch.

Allison Cheston is a New York City-based career adviser who works with mid-career executives and young adults who are in high school, college or are recent graduates. She blogs on career issues for young adults at In the Driver’s Seat, as well as at Forbes.com. And she blogs for mid-career professionals at The Examiner. A marketer and inveterate networker with a background in executive search, Cheston is the author of an upcoming book designed to help young adults from late high school through college develop strengths and interests and match them to internships, coursework and, ultimately, the right career.