Last month, I found myself sitting across from my dad in a nice restaurant in Georgetown, when he popped the question.
“Have you ever thought about law school?” he asked. He’s really curious about my plans for when I finish college. “I think you’d make a great lawyer. And then you’d be able to make some money.”
This wasn’t the first (or last) time I’d been told to drop journalism to pursue a career in something more lucrative. My dad’s comment, I’m sure, came from a place of both love and fear. Love because he wanted me to be happy and comfortable later in life. And fear because he didn’t want me living in his basement until I was 40. Fair enough, Dad.
Which left me worrying: Has college been a waste? What am I going to do with my life? Am I completely screwed? I needed answers about life after college, and it turns out, there’s a new book out about that: There Is Life After College.
Author Jeffrey Selingo argues that college isn’t the only education required for succeeding later in life. College grads, he writes, need “soft skills” — things like leadership, the ability to communicate, resilience and creativity.
So, journalism student that I am, I went right to the source. Here’s my chat with Selingo, edited for length and clarity.
What are some of those “soft skills” that students need, but aren’t necessarily learning or developing in college?
The soft skills students need to have are curiosity, the ability to navigate ambiguity and the ability to deal with failure. They need humility, good communication skills, team-building skills and problem-solving skills. In a digital age, they need to be what I call “digitally aware.”
Increasingly, we know that there’s certain activities and certain experiences that you need to have in your undergraduate years in order to learn these skills.
So what are those activities? What are those things that students can be doing to develop those soft skills?
For one, inside the classroom, they need to pick rigorous majors and courses where they’ll be reading and writing and challenged by both their work and their professors and by their peers.
The outside experience is probably more critical than ever before. They could include co-curricular activities like clubs and sports, undergraduate research, project based work and, most of all, they include internships.
There are fewer companies recruiting seniors on campus for full-time jobs. And what they’re now recruiting for are underclassmen into internships. Because their intention is they want to take 50 to 75 percent of those intern classes and eventually turn them into full-time employees.
How can you learn the resilience that seems to be so important in the workforce now?
Most students are going through experiences, either at home or at school, where they’re not getting these opportunities to build resilience. One of the biggest “ah ha” moments for me was the fact of teenage employment. So we’re at the lowest level of teenagers being employed while they’re in school since the 1940s. That’s one place, for example, where previous generations had the chance to build some resilience — by working while in school.
Why do we as a society still have that road map of high school, to college, to job, to house, to family, etc., so ingrained into our culture?
We only really have this small period, post World War II, where people really launched after college. We tend to think of that period in American history as the golden era in many ways. So I think we think that, well it happened for that “greatest generation,” so why doesn’t it happen for students today? But we’ve seen since the ’60s that there’s been a longer pathway to adulthood. And we see it as a negative thing, which I don’t think we should. Because the fact of the matter is, the more you invest in your human capital in your 20s — going to school, job hopping — by doing those activities you’re going to end up being in better shape in your 30s and 40s. As a result, I don’t think we should be rushing students through college and right off into the workforce.
One of the things I found most helpful in this book was how to search for a job. Could you elaborate a little more about how companies are looking for employees? How you have to be really strategic in how you write a cover letter or resume?
Companies have basically outsourced hiring to a computer that sifts through the resumes. So they design these job ads with certain keywords, and when the computer crawls through the resumes that come in, they’re looking for those keywords. That’s the bad side of technology as I would call it, in terms of the hiring process.
The good side is the idea of people analytics. I profile Credit Suisse, one of the biggest investment banks, in the book. They were like all other investment banks, recruiting largely at elite colleges for students who have extensive background in quantitative reasoning and math skills. But what they found through data of their employees who did well, was that alma mater and GPA and major didn’t matter as much as they thought it did. So it enabled them to recruit at a much larger swath of institutions and a much larger swath of students.
I think at some points it seems that everyone is saying something different. So at one point you say pick a major that’s rigorous. But then this company says it doesn’t matter what you major in and it doesn’t matter where you go to college. But at the same time these companies are only going to the elite colleges to recruit for jobs. So how can someone make sense of all these conflicting messages we’re getting?
It is conflicting. And first of all, just like higher education is not this monolithic thing, employers aren’t this monolithic thing. Everybody hires differently. So it’s very difficult to give straightforward advice in this area. Even employers contradict themselves. So I tell the story in the book about Proctor & Gamble, about how the CEO loved liberal arts colleges and thought students should get a broad education. But then I spoke to a Proctor & Gamble recruiter, who said while they still do job training, they’re looking for very specific skills. Because while the CEO might be looking to hire somebody for the next 20 to 25 years, the person hiring for the job is looking for someone who can fill the job now. And I feel bad for students because they’re trying to wade through all this advice but you see the same contradictions in companies.
So, my takeaway? I may have more control over my life after college than I thought. And according to Selingo, my potential employers are as confused as I am.
NPR Ed intern Jacquie Lee is a student at American University in Washington, D.C.