I keep meeting college grad after college grad who cannot find a job. These kids are young, eager, bright, and ready to work. They have boundless amounts of energy, but no one will hire them because they don’t have any “experience.” This is a catch-22, because they can’t get any experience if they can’t get a job. So they are driving cars, making lattes in cafes, doing anything they can to survive. They are moving back in with their parents because they cannot afford basic rent and living expenses. Something is wrong if you rack up over $100,000 in student loans, do well in school, and there are no jobs for you when you graduate.
Today 53.6% of bachelor's degree-holders under the age of 25 are jobless or underemployed according to statistics from the Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Labor. This is the highest share in at least 11 years.
What is going on here? First of all, the Great Recession obviously took its toll, and one theory is that we are still working through a backlog of experienced workers who were laid off in 2008. But look at the billions of dollars in cash that the technology companies are sitting on for instance, and one comes up scratching their head.
We hear often that our universities are not graduating enough students with engineering degrees to fill all of the jobs in Silicon Valley, and that is certainly true. Encouraging more young women (now over 57% of enrolled college students) to pursue math and science is part of the solution. I went to the all-girls Presentation High School in California, and there it was not weird, un-cool, or intimidating to be in the Honors Calculus and Physics classes. When I got to Stanford and majored in engineering, it was a slightly different story. Women were in the minority, and the pace was fast and furious with very little help offered. It was sink or swim, and somehow I swam, but if I had not had the confidence-building experience at Presentation, who knows what would have happened. I also give a lot of credit to my parents who always took an interest in my schoolwork, from term papers to extra credit physics problems to science fair projects.
What Happened to Training?
But if we go a little deeper, we learn that companies are no longer providing the level of training they once did. When I first entered the workforce, I remember weeks of intense training sessions at Arthur Andersen & Company (long before Enron, thank you), Wells Fargo Bank, and LEK Consulting. We learned everything from sophisticated spreadsheets, financial modeling, strategy formulation, presentation software, and much more. These skills have served me well for my entire career, and I still use most of them today. These companies were smart in that they understood that if you hired an intelligent, energetic 21-year old, you could teach them just about anything and have a dedicated, hard-working employee for years.
Skills Now Essential
If companies are no longer offering this level of training, then colleges are going to have to step in. Otherwise, they are doing their students a disservice. It is all about skills. Are college students today learning spreadsheet software (and I mean not just the basics, but formulas, macros and more), graphic design, presentations, databases, basic web programming, English grammar? I include that latter one as I see more and more students leaving out periods between sentences, and confusing it’s and its for example. It’s is a contraction, short for it is. Its is the possessive pronoun like his and hers. But I digress. Colleges must also form alliances with corporations and enable students to work in summer internships so they will have the now-mandated “experience” when they graduate and apply for jobs.
The government could also help spur the job market for recent college graduates through incentives. I have always believed that what you incentivize is what you get. Right now, companies are primarily hiring people who already have jobs. The same people are being recruited from company to company, thereby leaving the unemployed and underemployed in a circular loop. The government could stop this cycle by providing a tax break for companies that employ students right out of college. Then companies would hopefully restart their training programs.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention Peter Thiel's new Fellowships in which students are "given a no-strings-attached grant of $100,000 to skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education." Mentors included. I can certainly appreciate the intention behind this initiative and look forward to seeing what amazing things the 2012 fellows do. And I don't think we should give up on college just yet. Even for engineering majors, Stanford demanded a liberal arts education. Some of my favorite classes turned out to be philosophy, Italian, and art history. Those experiences made me a more well-rounded person and expanded my brain and life in important dimensions.
So this is my plea. Hire a college graduate, even if they don’t have any “experience.” Take a short amount of time to train them if needed. You won’t be disappointed. These kids are bubbling over with energy and a desire to become productive members of society. They want to work, if only someone would give them a chance.