Playing Catch-Up: How Our Generation Can Catch Up After Falling Behind

According to this article on the Huffington Post, going to college is no longer a way to secure you a solid future. They say, “even the most educated are having trouble finding work.” With the article highlighting the top eight reasons why America’s youth is falling behind, I’m sure you’d all agree that this is discouraging news. Well, before you get too upset and drop out of school to backpack around the world, read on to discover how our generation can start catching up.

1. View change as a positive thing
Salwa Nur Muhammad, assistant director of internships and service learning at Wellesley College, works closely with college students looking to find internships and future job opportunities. She recognizes the challenges that our generation faces in terms of the changing job force. “It’s definitely a challenging situation with this generation,” she says. “But it’s all about responding to that change and taking advantage of different opportunities.” The Huffington Post pointed out increased debt and increased unemployment rates as two issues that our generation will face. But Muhammad is quick to say that our generation doesn’t need to fall behind just because the economy was hit hard. She suggests more specific methods of “catching up,” but believes that viewing change as a positive thing is the best place to start.
2. Tap into new and upcoming careers

One positive thing about change is the emergence of new job opportunities.  Muhammad says there are many up and coming fields, including environmental and “green” careers. “There are certain fields available today that older generations did not have access to,” she says. “And the government even has more funding for those areas.” Muhammad suggests keeping your eye on where there is more expansion. New web, multimedia and SEO jobs are also available now more than ever. These jobs didn’t even exist 10 to 15 years ago, so young people with these skills are in high demand.

Sharon Jones researches new and emerging careers at UNC-Chapel Hill. She says that instructional design, bio informatics, usability specializing and graphic design are up and coming careers that students should look into. “In order to prepare for emerging careers, students should read and keep up with job trends,” Jones says.
Check out this list of Top Ten Job Trends for the next 10 years. But don’t worry—even though the job market is rapidly changing, there are still some jobs that aren’t going away.
3. View unpaid internships as opportunities

It’s frustrating and oftentimes discouraging to do work that you don’t get paid for. But Muhammad says not to think of it that way. “It’s better to view internships as an exchange process,” she says. “Because you’re learning something, and the company is able to share its values and skills as well.” She says it’s easy to get sucked into the “free labor” aspect of an internship, but it’s better to think of it as a learning process. “I tell students to focus on how they’ve changed from the beginning to the end of the internship period.” Thinking in this way allows you to really see the growth and progress you’ve made during the time of your internship.

4. Broaden your skill set
Remember when Napoleon Dynamite said that girls only like guys for their skills? Well, that may not be true, but it certainly makes sense in the business world. If you want to secure yourself a great job in the future, you’ve got to work on developing some vital skills now. “Having a broad set of skills that are fine-tuned to a specific field of work makes you more viable,” Muhammad explains. Read about how to add skills to your resume here.

What kind of skills should you start developing? Well, that differs greatly from person to person. But Jones has a few concrete suggestions for where to begin. “Students should look for skills that lend themselves to self-employment,” she says. With the job market changing so drastically, it’s entirely probable and practical to be your own boss. Jones says possible self-employment opportunities include project work, working from home, computer programming and freelancing. “Geographic Information Systems (GIS) skills are great to have because they could secure you a job with a federal agency,” Jones says. Jones also says that your math skills correlate to your starting salary. So brush up on that algebra before you hit up the job fair.

5. Think globally

Because of technology, everything is much more “global.” Everyone is more connected and in touch because of technology. Because of this, more international careers are emerging and corporate views are widening. Muhammad oversees the international career services at Wellesley and works with both international and U.S. students. “I’ve seen an increase in the number of international students at Wellesley, which demonstrates the need to think globally in terms of a career,” she says. She notes that the economy wasn’t hit as hard in other countries as it was in the U.S. So if you’re willing to travel, then looking for an international job may be beneficial.
Language skills are another important aspect of thinking globally. Jones says that having knowledge of another language will set you apart from other candidates for a job, and it will make you a more global citizen. “Spanish is a language that’s beneficial to know, but other lesser-known languages like Arabic or Chinese are also great,” she says. She also mentions that computational linguistics is a field in which not many people are currently qualified. But it’s a growing field, so it would be advantageous to jump on that bandwagon.

6. Take advantage of your school’s career center
Jones is a big proponent of taking advantage of your campus’s career center. She says that statistically, students who get jobs through their school’s career center generally have a higher likelihood of succeeding in the work force than those who don’t. They also start with higher salaries.
“Students often think that their on-campus career centers don’t have the things they’re interested in,” Jones says. “But they don’t realize that career services have a lot to offer.” Career centers invite organizations to campus that interview students and help them to make connections with companies. The career center also helps students with interview strategies and resume building.
“Campus career centers host job fairs in the fall for a reason,” she says. “That’s why students need to take advantage of this sooner rather than later.” She says that most companies come to college campuses with structured training programs that start in January or June. This way, students are ready to start their careers as soon as they graduate, instead of going home and starting their job searches after they’ve received their degree. “Students who take advantage of jobs offered with training programs also generally start off with higher salaries than those who find jobs on their own,” Jones adds. If you wait until spring semester to take advantage of job fair opportunities, then you’ll be at a loss, Jones says. “Companies don’t come back in the spring if they’ve filled positions in the fall.”

7. Create your own job
When her students are looking for internships, Muhammad tells them to find exactly what it is that they want, regardless of how outrageous or seemingly impossible it may be. And she thinks that this same concept can apply to finding a job. “If you’re interested in a specific organization, look at it, talk to them and see if you can go in and talk to someone in the certain field or position that you’re interested in,” she suggests. “If you have enough passion, they might just create a position for you.” She suggests attaching yourself to an existing organization that you care about or are passionate about. If you seek a job that you want, then you’re guaranteed to work hard at it. And companies want young, zealous employees who are going to put a lot of effort into the organization’s cause and business plan. You create a job for yourself with passion and determination. “If you fill a need that a company didn’t realize they had, then you have yourself a job,” Muhammad says. “You just have to let them know that you can and will do it.”

8. Be flexible
When someone offers you a job, you can’t be picky. Jones says you have to be flexible. “If someone asks if you’re willing to relocate, the answer should be ‘yes,’” she says. “You have to be flexible in terms of where you’re willing to go.” Things aren’t going to work out perfectly right off the bat, so you have to learn to give some things up at first. “There aren’t many jobs out there, so you have to make sacrifices,” she said. Jones says it’s more important to get the work experience than it is to wait for the perfect job to present itself to you. “You can be more particular later on, once you’ve gained the skills you need,” she said.

9. Have a plan
Jones says that all college students need to think about or have a four-year plan. “Many students change their majors or end up dropping minors along the way, but this is detrimental to the plan of graduating in four years.” Of course it’s okay to change your mind, but if you do something too drastic, it’s going to take you a while to graduate. “Sticking to a four-year plan will save you money,” Jones points out. “If you spend more than four years in college, you’re wasting money that you could have been making from a job.”
Jones says that being productive is the ticket to securing yourself a successful future. “The worst thing you can do is go home after graduation to your old bedroom in your parents’ house,” she says. “That’s not the way to get a job.” Whether it’s national or international, Jones says that a job search is harder when it’s done from home. Meeting someone while they’re visiting your campus and making connections with a company is the way to go.
Our generation is facing a lot of obstacles, but there are definitely ways to get ahead instead of falling behind. Begin by viewing change as a challenge. A good, forward-thinking attitude and a solid set of skills will propel you forward into the future you’ve always wanted!
Salwa Nur Muhammad '06
Assistant Director of Internships and Service Learning
Center for Work and Service
Wellesley College
Sharon Jones
Assistant Director, University Career Services, UNC-Chapel Hill