It's late May, and it means many colleges and universities are going through, if not already completed, graduation ceremonies. There are a bevy of commencement speeches out there are both humorous and enlightening. Similarly, you are likely to read several posts from students excited about new opportunities and ready to take on the world. I wish I could match their floridness and paint an optimistic picture. I’m angry, frustrated, and worried.
The economy over the past 3-4 years has left some lasting damage. The Class of 2012 has seen their slightly older peers have difficulty finding meaningful employment in their chosen field of study. They have witnessed their parents suffer stagnating or decreased wages. With voluntary turnover low, students graduating in 2012 will have a more difficult time advancing in their careers than in previous years. This will have a significant impact on future earnings. Working in a temporary position with little opportunity for advancement, a smaller salary, and limited benefits will be as much as $50,000 that that graduate will never earn back. Long-term, this is income that will not be invested toward savings and retirement.
Even worse is the psychological effect that accompanies this trend. In my HR seminar several weeks ago, the class and I were having a discussion about wants and expectations about work and the workplace. I was struck by how little demands they expected to be fulfilled. The new normal is that many do not expect to find a well-compensated career in their chosen field. Peers who find a job in their major are treated with reverence. Further, they are likely to view employer mistreatment as tolerable. It was not uncommon to hear students respond to minor cases of sexual harassment or discrimination with “hey, they are lucky to have a job.” Further, in Wisconsin, the majority of students responded to Gov. Scott Walker’s assault on school teachers’ collective bargaining rights and shift of health care costs with indifference or applause, despite the fact that teachers traded increased salaries for better benefits. Students were more likely to demand rights be taken away then demand for stronger rights for employees across all employers.
As passionate as the class of 2012 is about human resources, or whatever major they chose, it is getting to a point where they are not expecting this situation to improve. A common complaint I’ve heard about college graduates over the last several years is the lack of “soft skills” that they possess. As tenure in one’s first job shrinks to less than 18 months, students will find it difficult to gain the political skills required to navigate the organization successfully. Moving back home and living with one’s parents further retards the maturation needed to be a successful adult.
In the 1960s, Martin Seligman developed the concept of “learned helplessness;” which David Myers refined to be “the hopelessness and resignation learned when a human or animal perceives no control over repeated bad events.“ I fear this sense of fatalism amongst those graduating, and concerned about the long-term impact on the workplace for years to come. Class of 2012, you deserve better!
Fortunately, there are signs that things are changing. On the economic side, things are improving. According to the NACE 2012 Student Survey, not only is this graduating class outpacing their 2011 peers in terms of applying for a job with one already in hand, a greater number is also receiving more than one job offer. Similarly, a new study by Millennial Branding indicates that students with post-high school degrees are the most likely.
On the emotional side, the solution lies with awareness. Students who feel like giving up should seek opportunities where they can be successful, no matter how small. Perhaps this means simply an internship or two in a chosen field. Further, seek out a mentor, or contact your career services office; individuals there can help identify and respond to causes of success or failure. Finally, do the legwork and really research the companies to which they are applying. Know more about them then they know about you.
Class of 2012, you deserve better! But, there is hope on the horizon.
Matthew Stollak is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at St. Norbert College in Wisconsin. Along with this he's a long time volunteer with the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) . His most current role is Social Media Director for the Wisconsin SHRM State Council. You can connect with Matthew on his blog, True Faith HR, on LinkedIn, or Twitter.