They Don't Teach This in College

These are painful times for recent college graduates. Some 7.9% can't find work, and another 50% or so are marking time in low-paying jobs that don't require anything more than a high-school degree, according to a recent Georgetown University study. What went wrong? And what can we do to help?

It's fashionable to blame the college/careers mismatch on deep-rooted factors that seem too big for anyone to fix. Such lists start with slow growth in the global economy, followed by offshoring, big employers' dwindling interest in training new graduates, and students' tendencies to major in fields that don't have great career prospects.

If those are our only points of leverage, it's hard to see how to make headway. So lately, I've been wondering how college graduates -- who are bright, nimble and passionate -- can thrive even in the face of a harsh current job market.

I've got three ideas. This first comes from Austin Allred, the 20-something founder of Grasswire, a social-media/news startup that's about to go live. Most of his visits didn't go well in Ukraine . But he kept trying. And in a recent blog post entitled "Mormon Missions: the Ultimate Startup Accelerator," Allred argues that he's a much better business person because of the persistence and teamwork that he learned from his Ukraine days.

Just about anyone in his or her early 20s should have some cause-related experience to draw upon, even if it doesn't involve anything close to religious proselytizing. Think about the work it takes to be successful on a sports team, a school play, a fund-raising drive or an urban cleanup campaign. College graduates who do nothing more than circle job ads and mail in resumes are short-changing their greatest strength.

Fields such as sales, marketing and startups are well-suited to young employees whose proven energy and passion will turn them into winners in such new callings. If the big multinationals aren't offering cosseted trainee-program jobs anymore, it's time for college grads to be more entrepreneurial and build their own futures.

This needn't be a lonely quest. Missionaries work in teams -- and job-hunters can, too. Take a cue from Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, who got some vital nudges (and kicks) toward his eventual career by sharing a house with a few friends right after college. Peer reinforcement can do great things for young job hunters' morale, networking and sustained focus on big goals.

Which brings me to point No. 2: We live in an increasingly networked, collaborative world, yet somehow academic training is violently at odds with this truth. To my horror last summer, Harvard announced that it was taking disciplinary action against more than 100 students who might have pooled resources and formed impromptu study groups. Their goal: to develop shared answers for an open-book test in which the questions were issued a week ahead of the exam.

Hello? In just about any imaginable post-college job, employers will be praying that new employees ask for help, talk to their colleagues and form ad hoc brainstorming teams. That's how work gets done, whether you're straightening the aisles at WalMart or doing strategy consulting at McKinsey. To set up a grading system that punishes students for working together on an open-book exam seems bizarre.

Figuring out how to grade collaborative work will require university officials to let go of some old habits. Whatever solutions they devise will probably be more time-intensive and subjective than marking up those classic exam books that are filled out solo, by hundreds of students who are forbidden from interacting. But this isn't the 1960s anymore. Colleges owe their students a grading system that's in step with modern-day workplace realities.

Finally, it's an open secret that many of the best jobs don't ever get posted. They come into being because the right candidate showed up -- usually through a referral or a brave cold call -- when the employer wasn't yet certain that he or she was going to be hiring. I talk at length about this in my e-book, Becoming a Rare Find: How Jagged Resumes Lead to Great Jobs. That book explains how recent graduate job hunters can make the most of this hidden job market.

Most of the necessary tactics are nothing more than simple common sense. They just take a bit of courage to apply. Start by identifying a realistic set of desired employers. Visit them. Find alumni that work there. Ask neighbors, family friends, local merchants -- or anyone, really -- for introductions. Establish some basis for rapport and then make your case. If there isn't a job right away, ask for advice on how to be well-prepared for future openings.

Any college graduates waiting for a much friendlier macro environment could have a long, lonely vigil. But those who try to create their own luck may be surprised how much people with more work experience are willing to help.

(Photo credit: George Eastman House Collection.)

Authour: George Anders - Contributing Writer at Forbes magazine.