Trey McKinney, Staff Writer
Millennials are coming of age in a period of flux. There are rapid changes in our social dynamics occurring all around us, and the ability to learn and adapt quickly to these changes is the principal talent of this generation. In just over fifteen years we have witnessed the most deadly terrorist attack ever on American soil, the failing of longstanding economic institutions, the greatest recession since the Great Depression, and the emergence of Apple and Facebook as multi-billion dollar companies operating in spaces that twenty years prior hadn’t even existed. Yet with all of the awe and grandeur, with all of the tumultuous change, certain things remain constant. And nowhere is this more obvious than in our preoccupation with the state of the world’s largest economy. At the end of the day, we all need to find—and remain—employed.
Today, this is a more tricky proposition than it has been in some time. Traditional markets are changing drastically or even disappearing completely in a wave of change driven by the current technological revolution. Services are being streamlined, outsourced, and democratized. More specific skills are required. On-the-job training is becoming a thing of the past; employers are now shifting the expense of time and resources of of this training onto the potential employee. With all of these perceived impediments it would seem that the millennial job seeker faces a steep uphill climb to find steady employment and financial security. This is true. However, the task is not insurmountable, though it will require some strategic planning and a return to the basics.
The Thing About Education
It has long been held that higher education is the key to finding economic security. Even now, there is much political discourse about how to reduce the expense of getting a college education, so that more people can access the benefits of higher education.
The common sentiment seems to be that if we are able to reduce the expense of going to college, we can make its value accessible without the expense that might nullify its value or deter people from pursuing higher education in the first place. This position is not without its merit, as a college education holds significant value in terms of lifetime earnings. The average lifetime earnings of someone with a four-year university degree is $570,000 more (and an associate's degree holder earns $170,000 more) than those with a high school diploma alone.
In a labor force increasingly divided economically, holding a degree does allow for a certain level of upward mobility one is otherwise unlikely to see. However, there is another issue that has not received as much attention: the growing competition existing among degree holders. The value of a degree does not lie exclusively in the skills you acquire during undergraduate or graduate study. Frequently, it operates more as a credential which differentiates you from other potential job seekers. Many jobs require associates, bachelors, or graduate degrees just to apply, whether or not the degree is directly applicable to the job in question. In this respect, a college degree is a major advantage.
However, the question we need to ask is “what happens when there are more than enough degree holders to satisfy the demand for employment?” This is the issue we are beginning to confront today, as nearly 50 percent of people ages 25 to 34 have some kind of postsecondary degree, up from roughly 30 percent as early as 1992. Put straightforwardly, a credential decreases in value the more people that have it. The more applicants available, the more selective employers can be, and the most valuable thing that someone can have is relevant, work-related skills and experience.
In a somewhat incendiary piece for millennialmagazine.com, Ryan Brown remarks on the fundamental importance of acquiring practical work-related skills. While his negative view on the value of formal education may be a bit extreme, Brown’s commitment to the pragmatics of finding work in the current labor market is both poignant and astute. As he points out, ultimately, employers are most concerned with whether an applicant can competently handle the work required of them.
This demands certain professional skills; skills that may or may not have been developed during the course of undergraduate study. People majoring in STEM fields are in a relatively advantageous position, as they are at least acquiring skills that tend to transfer directly into a particular line of work. But what about those among us who didn’t spend their college years developing specific, technical skills that fall in line with a specific career path? What of those who aren’t planning on such a course of study? And what can be done for people looking to work in a field different from the one they majored in in college?
Let’s take a closer look at some solutions.
Be the Architect of Your Career
There are many ways of achieving any one goal, and it is an awareness of this fact that is of the utmost importance when trying to adapt to the changing economic landscape. Progress does not always occur in a straight line, so being able to think outside the box is essential. Having had extensive academic study in an area is definitely an advantage, but developing practical skills that pertain to a specific line of work can occur in a variety of ways. We can help ourselves by focusing less on the title or field associated with a particular opportunity and instead thinking about the actual skills it will allow us to develop. Also, take the initiative and create opportunities to grow and develop as both a person and a professional. Paths to developing the skill set you need could include:
Perhaps the most obvious and straightforward option, internships provide you with an opportunity to work with an employer in a field of your choosing and to actually see how things get done. There is no substitute for actually being in a space and seeing how things work on a day-to-day basis. Internships also provide you with valuable networking opportunities as you come into contact with professionals already connected in a particular domain.
If you envision yourself exploring fields that are beyond your previous experience or for which no formal academic option is available, self-education may be the way to go. We live in a time where massive amounts of information is available at our fingertips. Research your field of interest and find out what skills or background information are necessary to have. Once you are aware of what is required, do your own independent study and training until you become proficient. While this approach is unorthodox, it can yield results. Remember, the most important thing is to be able to do the job demanded of you.
Watch below as CNN correspondent Zain Asher explains how self-education led to her dream career:
Advanced Degree/Certification Programs
Consider a graduate degree or certification program following completion of your undergraduate or associates degree to provide yourself with the requisite skill set for particular kinds of work. While such programs can be expensive, they will provide you with the practicals skills required to perform certain jobs.
Strategic Job Selection
Perhaps there are no internships or specific job opportunities available to help you get a feel for a field you want to pursue. In these instances it may be important to be a bit resourceful. Again, familiarize yourself with the demands of the field. What do you need to be able to do? Next, try to find jobs that might cultivate some of those skills even if they are in an unrelated field.
Few people can help you learn about a job more than someone who has extensive experience in that area. Even if you cannot get a job or internship with them, make an effort to reach out to people working in your field of interest. Ask questions, find out what they do and how they do it. Perhaps there are programs they could recommend. Maybe they know of skills or areas in the market that are lacking, where you can focus your attention in order to create a demand for yourself.
In modern society, with our focus on start-ups and entrepreneurship, oftentimes we forget the value of vocational study. As an alternative to conventional thought on postsecondary education, trades can provide viable and more financially reasonable routes to successful careers. Though a second thought (or non-thought) for many, graduates of vocational programs can earn as much or more than the average four-year college graduate. Pairing this with a substantially lower cost of attendance and better employment prospects, trades may once again become valuable options for those seeking promising careers.
Then of course there is the option of striking it out on your own. The economy can always benefit from more job-creators, and there is certainly something to be said for going into business for yourself. This can be a risky proposition, as all of the responsibility for making the business work shifts to you. Acquiring all of the skills necessary to facilitate the function of the business becomes an absolute necessity, and you will be forced to learn a lot of unfamiliar skills on the fly.
But in case you haven’t noticed, you’ll probably have to do that anyway.