Monday, October 12, 2009

How New and Recent Graduates Can Get Jobs

The cover story of the October 19, 2009 issue of BusinessWeek is about the so-called new “Lost Generation”: new and recent graduates of college and graduate school who cannot find jobs.

Here’s the problem. To get jobs, new grads must show experience in solving business-relevant problems. In a normal economy, this is done by internships that students work at during the summer, sometimes winter or spring break, and sometimes right after graduation. Jobs like these, as well as entry-level positions, allow students and new grads to show their stuff and build their resumes.

The problem, of course, is that we left a normal economy behind sometime in the early winter of 2007. Now students are having a hard time getting internships and entry-level positions, because firms have eliminated them (along with millions of other, regular jobs). Therefore students and new graduates can’t demonstrate the kind of experience that they need to get regular paid employment. It’s the Catch-22 of our economic system: you need to have had a job to get a job.

As bad as this news is, it gets worse. When the recovery comes, recent grads will be at a real disadvantage even in relation to brand-new grads: recent grads will have a period of unemployment after graduation on their résumés, a disadvantage that brand-new grads won’t have. (Crazy, I know, but we can all reform the corporate world from the inside once we get jobs there.)

There’s no doubt that the news in this article is especially grim. The danger, as the artice points out, is that we are growing a ‘Lost Generation,’ like Japan did in the 1990s, of young people who are perpetually behind the curve when it comes to income and career advancement. This would be bad news for everyone: the graduates themselves, of course; also, corporate America, who will be missing youthful exuberance (on the employee side) and lower sales (on the customer side); and finally, the increasingly larger number of older people on Social Security (because there will be fewer young workers to pay into the system).

However, this bad news is not reason to curl up in the corner and sniffle. Yes, it would be good if the old system worked: get diploma, get job, go to work. But the old system doesn’t work anymore, for an increasingly and painfully large number of people. Recent grads can show that they are true (if young) adults by adapting to new circumstances. If conventional methods fail, new and recent graduates can get jobs through the use of more innovative approaches. Here are two paths to potential success:

Path #1: The Personal Showcase

I call the first path to success “The Personal Showcase.” The idea here is that you build your resume through volunteering your brilliance.

So here is what you do. If you can’t work for cash to get the experience you need to get a real job, you can work for free.

Here’s the process. Identify some not-for-profit organizations that address important problems in society: unemployment, homelessness, lack of economic development, environmental crisis, you name it. Here’s the kicker: You devise some way to solve part of those problems. You went to school; you’re bright and full of energy. Go to the library, read up on the problem, read what other people have done, and see what inspirations strike you. Then approach the appropriate not-for-profits and volunteer yourself to implement your vision, or extend theirs.

Yes, it’s a gutsy approach. However, you actually do have something of an advantage here. In the best of times, not-for-profit organizations operate in marginal terms. Now, although some are seeing an increase in volunteer labor, others are downright desperate. They may very well welcome your offer to work for them on what is called a “pro bono” basis. See if you can get them to agree not to mention that you are working on a pro bono basis to the other employees. Depending on the labor laws in your state, you may need to have a title like “Intern” or “Volunteer”; operate within the law.

Try to structure the job on your terms. You’re not doing this to spend all day stuffing envelopes (although you should be willing to do your share of scut work). From the beginning, you want to structure this job to get entry-level front-line, management, sales, manufacturing, accounting, and/or software development experience depending on the nature of the not-for-profit).

You may need to educate the not-for-profits you approach, to indicate that you are not trying to be a traditional “volunteer”; rather, you are a “pro bono worker.” At some agencies, a volunteer really is like a junior executive; at others, a volunteer sweeps the floor. As noble as either form of work is, you are doing this, in part, to build up a business resume, and your experience on the job needs to reflect that.

When you get the job, treat it like the “real” job it is: get to work on time or, preferably, early, and be prepared to work late. Dress up to the level of your manager. Just because you’re donating your effort does not mean they owe you anything: they’re doing you the favor, not the reverse.

After a year, if you’ve structured the experience appropriately, you should have a great resume and terrific references (also a necessity for future career development).

Budding actors do this all the time: it’s called a “showcase.” People get together, hire a theatre for an evening, and put on a show. The actors may make nothing (or perhaps a pittance), but they have documented experience on stage.

Will you need to live with your parents, essentially begging them for room and board? Probably. But unless they’ve just been hitting their heads into the wall repeatedly for recreation lately, they know that there’s a recession on. They may very well understand the need to operate like this, and they will probably respect you for your willingness to go to work, even pro bono, to give yourself a leg up the ladder later.

Path #2: The Pop-Up Start-Up,
or Showcase Firm

I call the second path to success “The Pop-Up Start-Up”; you could also call it, “The Showcase Firm.” This involves the formation of a time-limited partnership firm. You band together with other jobless grads to start a time-limited company; one year is a good period. During the lifetime of the firm, you all pledge to develop and market a product or service. You each commit to a year of daily work; flextime is okay, but 40 hours weekly is a minimum commitment. (People can be released from their commitment if a paying job comes along. People can also be fired!) You all beg your families and friends for resources (office space, legal advice) and raw materials if you are manufacturing a prototype. (I never fail to be amazed at the amount of raw materials simply thrown out every night on the streets of New York: lumber, metal, even file cabinets and office furniture.) And, of course, you beg your folks for free room and board.

Think about it. You guys are the best and brightest. The bookstores and libraries are bursting with books about unleashing your creativity. There are plenty of magazines about entrepreneuship and business. And, the world is full of problems to be solved, market niches to be filled, people who, even in a recession, will follow the Universal Rule of Sales: someone will buy something if it provides more value to them than the purchase price. (Looking for inspiration? Check out BusinessWeek's articles on Best Young Entrepreneurs of 2008 and 2009; the Yahoo! version of the latter includes some interesting profiles.)

You can do this.

Over the last month, two locations within walking distance of my residence in midtown Manhattan have sprouted something I’d never heard about before: the pop-up restaurant. One was a showcase for new chefs in the New York City area. Another was a showcase for a popular soft drink, and some magazines. At the end of a week, each restaurant disappeared, and the empty retail space went back to being empty. I thought this was a clever idea. It is the inspiration for the Pop-Up Start-Up Company idea.

At the end of a year in your Pop-Up Start-Up, at the very least, you will have a solid résumé. If you are fortunate, you will have a product or service that you can sell to another firm. At the very best—you will attract investors who back your pop-up firm and transform it into a continuing concern. You will have a paying job you love!

If you go this route, you will want some good business advice. Someone will need to arrange for liability insurance, in case of an accident at work. Everyone will need to sign contracts as pro bono professionals or interns. You should have policies about intellectual property. For all this advice, check with your contacts at your family, place of worship, and so forth; don’t forget to check with the retired executive corps in your community.

Response to an Objection

"Work for free? Work for free??"

Look at it this way, champ. You could not work, for the same period of time, and not have anything to show for it. Or you could work for free, and have a great deal to show for it. Your call.

Having the courage to take an unconventional path to career success is definitely On The Mark.

(This post expands on a comment of mine on a news item in The Huffington Post. The original news article is available here. An archive of all my comments on The Huffington Post is available here. Readers are welcome to become what The Huffington Post calls “fans” of mine on HuffPost.)

(Copyright 2009 Mark E. Koltko-Rivera. All Rights Reserved.)

[The photograph above shows doctoral academic regalia of different types being worn by people at the May 2008 graduation ceremonies of Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The photo was taken by Alex Zozulya, who has placed it in the public domain. It was obtained from Wikipedia.]


  1. Thanks Mark for posting this!

    A lot of people do not understand the situation that students are going through at the moment and this identifies it well!

    I am currently studying an Automotive Engineering course in the UK and the future of the UK car industry is non existant. I'm currently looking for an internship for next year and this is prooving very difficult. My course requires me to do a year in industry to pass. All the big blue chip companies are cutting the number of Internships down, and some have stopped completly. It's become a very competitive industry and with my average grades, I'm struggling. It know comes down to who you know in the industry and not how good the grades are.

    I'm hoping that the problem sorts itself out before I graduate as I would prefer not to emigrate just to get a standard job. I like the idea of starting up a quick business, but it will require some money borrowing which is also hard nowadays. My parents wouldn't dream of putting me up for free! (I don't blame them either! haha)

    Any way,

    I'm taking some of this onboard so I can consider my options when the time comes!

    Thanks Mark!

  2. Brett: How good to see you here. Thank you for your kind words and contribution.

    Two things for your consideration:

    1) You know your parents best, of course, but one wonders if perhaps on this issue they might be different than imagined. Would they at least accept an IOU, I wonder? (An Americanism for a note saying "I owe you ..." a specific amount of money.

    2) If the future of the automotive industry in Britain is as bleak as you say--would you consider a change in course? (In America we would say a change of "major.")

    I ended my freshman year in college as a major in XYZ. At the beginning of sophomore year, standing at the back of a 2-hour long line to buy my books, I looked over the many books I would be reading as a major in XYZ, and realized that if I were stranded on a desert island, with only this to read . . . I'd still use it all as fuel for my campfire.

    I left my place in line, put everything back on the shelf, and wandered the shelves picking up books that looked fascinating, and settled on a major that used a lot of them. I majored in psychology, and am pretty happy to have done so.

    Just a thought. Be well.


  3. The best thing about my course is that it covers a wide range of subjects. This year it involves Business Enterprise and Management so it would probably be more beneficial to stay on this course after coming so far. Preferably, I would love to be in the Automotive/Motorsport Industry, but any Engineering job would do.

    A lot of students in the UK only go to University to party. They pick the easiest courses to study, so they can put that they went to University on the CV (Resume) and it looks good. They leave University and end up with the same dead end jobs that people that don't go to university end up with. Except they are in a massive debt which they cannot pay back due to a low wage. This is what I believe to be contributing to the cause of the recession.

  4. Brett: I understand your rationale about wanting to stay with your program. If I may be so bold, I would suggest that you give some thought after this term to what sort of program would give you the best shot at a fulfilling future.

    One of the shames on our society is the student who wastes the opportunity of a higher education. I'm glad that you are taking a more thoughtful, dedicated approach. More power to you.


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