For those who are graduating from college…
My oldest son graduated from college one year ago. After working a variety of jobs in the past year, now he’s working full-time at Whole Foods, earning premium pay during the pandemic. It’s not what he thought he’d end up doing after college, but he’s grateful to have a job with benefits, especially since he has a theater degree. Theater jobs are even more rare now than they were before COVID-19.
In 2020, liberal arts graduates face a future that’s especially uncertain. Even retail and food service jobs are scarce now.
You might have to rely more on your parents or friends to survive in this time of high unemployment. Unfortunately, not only must you deal with the havoc wreaked by climate change and economic turmoil, but you also have to put your lives on hold for an unknown period. I understand if you are feeling discouraged and uncertain about your future.
When I graduated from college with a B.A. in English, I had no clue what I would end up doing. When I started college I wanted to be a teacher until after I had a discouraging practicum. When I took Advanced Composition from an encouraging English professor, I changed my course to major in English.
My English professors suggested I not go straight to grad school, so I heeded their advice. I worked as a nanny for my cousins after graduating. I felt called to live overseas, so I headed for Japan in the fall, the best choice I ever made. I ended up teaching English there for three years after meeting my now-husband in Wakayama, Japan. When I returned to Oregon, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
I thought I wanted to work in international relations, but I didn’t want to work in a Japanese firm because of the sexism. I began temping and endured a couple of horrible jobs before landing a temporary receptionist job at environmental consulting firm CH2M HILL, where I worked for 28 years. In the first few months, I interviewed for an admin assistant job. Of course I didn’t get it when I honestly answered I didn’t want to be doing that kind of job in a year’s time. Then one of the men interviewing me said the magic words: “Do you know we have an editing department?”
My entire career at CH2M HILL was full of these types of stories. An opportunity appeared in front of me, mentors encouraged me to apply, and I progressed. I’m not much a goal setter; I’m more of a float-along-and-see-what-appears type. But when that golden ring appeared before me, I grabbed it. During those 28 years, I worked as a technical editor, newsletter writer, proposal manager, group leader, department manager, Northwest Regional Publications Manager (for 13 years), Northwest communications manager, business development manager and then communications manager for Firmwide Publications, and finally marketing & communications manager…all with an English degree.
And even though I have been a writer all my life, I only embraced that title after I realized how much I preferred writing and creating original content to editing someone else’s work.
In the 34 years since I graduated from college, this is what I’ve learned:
You have time. You might feel like you should have a super-important job by now, but trust me…you have plenty of time to climb the career ladder. Unless you majored in engineering and have been picked up by an engineering firm before you graduated, you’ll probably have to wait a while until you earn a decent income. Very few people land high-paying, prestigious jobs right out of college.
You can’t waste your time worrying about what other people think about your life choices. I know you’re feeling pressure from your parents and other older people, but it’s your life. Ask them to show you some grace as you get your bearings and decide what you want to do with your life. Unfortunately you can’t go off to live in Japan right now, but you can come up with other ways to explore your options and find your path. Maybe you can live overseas after we get a vaccine and travel reopens.
Most people change their careers several times before finding one that fits. I will never forget seeing one of my sister’s classmates at their graduation from the Medical College of Wisconsin. As a woman in her 50s, she graduated from medical school after having four children. It’s never too late to follow your dreams. I know countless people who have shifted their careers several times after college, such as one friend who began majoring in engineering and is now a nursing professor. Many people are not satisfied with their first career choice.
You don’t have to use your major to find a job you love. I have a friend who worked as a CPA for years until he realized how much he hated it. He reinvented himself and became a home builder and eventually started a business building homes. You don’t even need a degree to build homes. It’s more important to find a job you enjoy than one in which you can use your major.
It’s time to get creative. Yes, you have college loans to pay off, so you need to find a way to make money. It’s time to put those critical thinking skills to use. According to the Community for Accredited Online Schools, “2017 research from the Center for Generational Kinetics shows today’s entrepreneur tends to be younger – 30% of millennials have already started a small business of some type and 26% are able to live off of their small business.” What better time to start an online business than during the “Great Pause,” when so many people are working from home. Or perhaps you could create a business that helps people who are stranded at home or become a virtual assistant?
You can teach online without a teaching accreditation. You could do what I did fresh out of college—teach for a few years in a nontraditional environment. Outschool issues a list of courses people have requested to take, so you’d already have a group of students. You could also design and teach a course on just about anything via sites like Teachable. Until you can actually go overseas to teach, you can teach young people online at sites like VIPKid.com or Qkids Teacher.
Finding coworkers you enjoy and a positive workplace where you feel appreciated can be enough for a while. Although our son doesn’t want to work at Whole Foods forever, he likes his coworkers. That goes a huge way toward job satisfaction! I stayed in my last two jobs longer than I should have because I loved my coworkers, even though I was less than thrilled with my supervisors. Great coworkers make your days worthwhile!
Life’s too short to work in a job you don’t like. When I used to manage a large team and I noticed employees complaining about work, I would always ask them this: are you happy in your job more than 50 percent of the time? If the answer was no, I’d tell them they should look for another job. I’d rather have engaged, satisfied employees than unhappy ones, even if their departure would be an inconvenience or loss to the group. You will spend so much time at work during your life that it’s important to find some enjoyment in what you’re doing. Fun and daily satisfaction are important.
If you don’t feel appreciated by your boss, start looking for another job. See above. If I don’t feel appreciated, it’s more difficult for me to thrive. If you’ve been working in a job for six months to a year and you don’t feel appreciated for your hard work, start looking for your next opportunity.
Be patient. You’ll find something that fits into your passion and also makes money. It just might take a while. That’s okay, though, because you are still young. Many people don’t find this sweet spot until they’re in their 30s, 40s, or 50s! Back to the first bullet and the theme song of “Orange Is the New Black,” “You’ve got time.”
And a message for parents and others who love these college graduates!
When I’ve experienced some anxiety about my own children’s futures, I try to remember that I was not always a go-getter when it came to job hunting. When I returned from Japan, I remember my extremely hard-working dad getting agitated that I wasn’t looking for a job as hard as he thought I should. Of course, the extra pressure I felt made me even less inclined to amp up my job hunt. The most important thing our young people need right now is love and encouragement.
Here are some reminders for parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and friends:
Take a chill pill! Our young people are already feeling overwhelmed. One young person recently told me that her parents keep reminding her that she needs to get off their insurance. Don’t add to their stresses by reminding them of their looming college loans or need to get insured. They know, they know. Encourage, but don’t overload them. Give them grace.
Let them chase their own dreams, not yours. Support them in pursuing their own dreams, not chasing yours. Some parents even choose to withdraw funding for college unless their kids pursue “practical” majors. A study in the UK found that “More than half (54 percent) of the students who took part said that their parents tried to exert influence over their choice of course or career, while 69 percent said their parents had tried to influence their choice of university.” As parents, we need to step back and let our children choose their own way. If they choose yours, they might not be happy…and they might waste years of trying to please you before they discover they are not happy.
College offers far more value than a major. If your child does not end up pursuing a career or getting a job that fits their major, let it go. The four-year college experience offers so much more value than a bachelor’s degree. College enables independence, intellectual stimulation, autonomy, and creativity. Even if your accounting major becomes a house builder or a plumber, they will have benefited from their college experience.
When I changed from the practical education major to English, my parents didn’t skip a beat. They had both been education majors who realized, later on, that they didn’t really like teaching. My maternal grandmother was the same way—she didn’t even last a year in teaching. My dad went on to become a social worker and my mom became a mental health therapist. That’s probably why they blithely accepted my change of major!
But even then, I must admit to some discomfort with my son’s choice to major in theater. I encouraged him to get a more practical minor, which he did, and I tried my best to be supportive even as I worried about his future. This parenting stuff is no cake walk! I’m just glad he earned his four-year degree and had a wonderful college experience. Feeling comfortable on stage and speaking in public, being outgoing and friendly, and being able to organize a complicated production and team of people are all important skills that will serve him well in any career. And I'm incredibly proud of him for working so hard as a frontline grocery worker during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Whatever you do, please don’t say “I just hope they find a job where they can use their major.” If I hear someone say this one more time, I might scream. I cannot begin to tell you how many times I’ve heard people say this about many people in my life.
During this time of the “Great Pause,” most of us are reassessing what matters most in our lives.
Young people: think about how much material possessions mean to you. Are you longing to travel? What do you need to do now, before you have long-term commitments like marriage and family? What kind of job will be fun and offer challenges, in addition to flexibility? How can you spend your time in ways that match your values? Can you come up with a way to contribute to the greater good during this pandemic?
Take a deep breath.
Celebrate what you’ve accomplished and tackle your future as you did your college career.
Take your time, develop a plan, and find something to occupy your time during this Great Pause.
And congratulations graduates! You’ve got this. After the pause ends, you’ll find your way.
Contact me for more information about marketing & communications or creating a professional LinkedIn profile or resume. I help people discover what makes them special and help them share that with the world.
With over 30 years of experience as a team leader in the environmental consulting industry, I am passionate about sustainability and corporate citizenship, equity & inclusion, businesses that use their power for good, and doing everything I can to create a kinder, more sustainable, and just world.
Fertile Ground Communications LLC is a certified women-owned business enterprise, disadvantaged business enterprise, and emerging small business.