Life After College: Ensuring a Smooth Transition to the Workforce

This article originally appeared in the September issue of Public Relations Tactics.

Photo courtesy of Public Relations Tactics.

“It used to be that you’d go to college, maybe go to graduate school and you’d be done — along with some professional development along the way,” said “There Is Life After College” author Jeffrey J. Selingo. “But now, you have to constantly be in a learning mode, and that doesn’t necessarily mean formal education — going back and getting certificates or graduate degrees — but it’s really this idea of ‘just-in-time’ learning.”

Selingo, an award-winning columnist and best-selling author, spoke with Ray Kotcher, Fellow PRSA, on Sept. 21 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., for the first “Life After College” webinar. Kotcher is professor of the practice of public relations at Boston University’s College of Communication, non-executive chairman of Ketchum and senior counsel to PRSA’s Board of Directors. (He will serve as the moderator for the “Life After College” webinar series presented by PRSSA.)

“There’s this idea of lifelong education, but the reality now is — because the economy is fast changing — entire careers are coming and going with massive amounts of change,” said Selingo, who’s seen a similar evolution in journalism with print and digital.

He noted that professional education today can often mean Googling a search term or watching a YouTube video. “The students who have that kind of learning mentality, and are what I call ‘a learning animal,’ are going to be the ones to succeed because they’re prepared to do jobs that are going to change every day, every year — and the employer is going to have the confidence that they are going to be able to learn.”

Selingo highlighted some specific areas that students should focus on to find success as they move on from college and into the real world:

Continuing to learn

First, he says, it begins with your mentality — you have to be curious.

“Most people in communications are curious by nature. They want to learn about the world and explain it to other people. It starts with that foundation and having a growth mindset, and wanting to learn something every day. If you have that, you’re ahead of the game. Then you look for the resources.”

He refers to that as the formal learning economy, like colleges and universities that offer certificates or master’s degrees. But, Selingo says, a new learning economy has emerged over the past few years, which encompasses three buckets of continuous learning resources:

  • Boot camps (informal learning environments, like General Assembly and Galvanize, where you pay to learn a skill in a few weeks)
  • Online learning providers (a massive online open course, or MOOC, like Coursera or EdX, or a short online courses like those offered by Lynda.com/LinkedIn)
  • Free learning resources (many different online and face-to-face options)

Honing skill sets

“The signal of a college degree or credential is still the strongest signal in the job market,” said Selingo. “That’s the foundation but [hiring managers] don’t know about your skill set and if you know how to use certain programs or software, or have soft skills like problem-solving and working in teams.

These courses can give you “micro-credentials,” which show employers that, on top of that degree, you’ve learned a new skill. It’s not a replacement, he said, but it gives students an extra edge to complete a course from recognized places like EdX or Coursera.

Most employers look at a résumé for a minute, he said, adding that an applicant tracking system often first screens the résumé before it reaches a human.

“A degree is less important than underlying competencies and skills you gained from it,” Selingo said. “What differentiates you from others? In three minutes, you want to be able to tell what you learned. (And not just the software, show what you learn. Can analyze a large data set or find patterns?) Worry more about the underlying foundational competency because that’s what’s going to get you hired.”

Growing in your career

First jobs are important, Selingo said. Too many students just dive into any job they can get right out of college without properly investigating it.

“You want to be in a dynamic labor pool,” he said, adding to look for places where you can be part of a team. “You want opportunities for mentorship and to learn — from bosses and other people in organization.”

While job-hopping has previously been frowned upon, Selingo encourages it.

“It’s a dress rehearsal for the rest of your life. Your 20s set you up for your 30s and 40s — not in terms of earnings, but in terms of the rest of your career. Look for places with opportunities and room to move and grow. Ask the question: What did the person I’m replacing go on to do?” He also recommended getting to know the players in the organization, finding a mentor and learning from your peers.

Taking action

Selingo shared a variety of tips and takeaways in closing. Here are a few things you can do to make this transition a smooth one:

  • “Pick a major that makes you work hard and read and write a lot,” he said. “If you can write, then you can do any job.” If you can write and communicate, you have a huge advantage.
  • “Meet new and different people. Take as many opportunities to travel and meet new people from other cultures,” he said. This teaches tolerance and an understanding of how to be in uncomfortable situations.
  • “Be a student of the world and know what’s going on in the news and in the economy,” he said. It’s important to understand the media and have an awareness of different global viewpoints.
  • “Put down your smartphone — have more old-school experiences,” he said. Read news sources in print and talk to people face-to-face.
  • “Know how to communicate,” he said. “The No. 1 skill that most recruiters are looking for is communications.” Learn to explain how technology works and also be digitally savvy.

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.

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