Question

As a new grad I think I’ve got the I can’t get a job blues! I remain unconvinced that a liberal arts major has transferable job skills in today’s job market. My experience in the workplace has been that I’m seen as overqualified and under-qualified at the same time. Is there a way for a generalist to market his or her skills in business and get out of the academic straitjacket? Thanks to all for your comments.

Nick’s Reply

new-grads-can't-get-a-jobThe New York Times’ Peter Coy recently interviewed me for his excellent column, Why Can’t College Grads Find Jobs? Here Are Some Theories — and Fixes. (It may be pay-walled.) You’re not the only new grad that feels like you’re throwing your resumes into the void!

In my comments to Coy I emphasized that the real problem is the reductionist nature of recruiting. Employers own their hiring problems because the don’t recruit and assess people. They recruit and judge keywords! That’s why you’ve got the blues!

New grads have loads of relevant skills

The only academic straitjacket is often the new grad’s perception. It’s normal to feel at a disadvantage because you’re fresh out of school, but don’t fall prey to the idea that you’re lacking the right qualifications, or that a degree means you’re over-qualified. The ridiculous emphasis in the employment industry (job boards, ATS systems, HR) on lists of keywords and inflexible skills requirements is just that — ridiculous.

You have powerful, relevent skills that you acquired in school. The problem is, no one has shown you how to apply them to a job. Don’t expect anyone to. You have to figure it out for yourself and be ready to explain it to a hiring manager. And that means getting out of the academic mindset. You need to shake the attitude that your education is the chief determinant of success in the job hunt.

Identify your real skills

The chief determinant of your success is how you communicate and demonstrate your value. And that requires that you first understand the real requirements of any job — not the job description! It’s not possible to see the connection between your skills and a job until you first understand exactly what tasks you’d have to do in a job. (Before going any further, please read Does your job match its original job description?)

I was an English major who shifted to Psychology — and I’ll venture that I’ve used more skills that I acquired studying literature than psychology. The ability to write, in itself, is a powerful tool to use when job hunting: most people in business simply can’t write or organize information to save their lives.

Here’s your advantage: with a liberal arts degree, you possess many fundamental skills and attributes that your competition may lack:

  • Writing
  • Organizing ideas
  • The ability to plan and execute research
  • Knowledge of information retrieval systems (not just the Internet and ChatGPT but libraries, books, periodicals)
  • A critical eye
  • An open mind
  • Good work habits
  • Breadth of exposure to ideas and philosophies, and most important,
  • A well-honed ability to learn what you need to in order to accomplish a task.

You sound pretty impressive, eh?

Select companies and jobs carefully — this is KEY!

Here’s your challenge: you now need to thoroughly study the business you want to work in. There is no way around this if you want to succeed. Your main obstacle is “all those jobs I can apply for”. But that’s illusory. There are no more than a few companies and jobs that are right for you. Start with companies, not jobs — just four or five of them, no more! Identify them and pursue nothing else. (See Pursue Companies, Not Jobs.)

Once you have learned enough to begin mapping your skills to the business, you will be on your way. Few businesses are so complicated that this is impossible. But few job hunters are diligent enough to do the exercise that yields the job. Few job hunters ever realize that they can choose their job targets and prepare to tackle them. You cannot do this for 100 jobs — so don’t take the job-board bait and snap at them all!

Lose the blues. Start with the basics.

The reality is that college students are at the mercy of their schools. I’ve seen precious few college “career programs” that help students apply their education to the real world. And that’s the sort of failing that should have you on the phone to the president of your school. The argument, “education is for its own sake” is a legitimate reason to go to school, but it’s a poor excuse for a school to leave you hanging when you’re done, because both masters (knowledge and work) can be served by a school that knows its graduates must be able to earn a living.

If you think you are fatally disheartened, I’ll try to show you why it’s probably not your fault — and what to do about it. Please see Why am I not getting hired?

Don’t have the blues. There’s another way to do this that works. It requires that you:

  • Take off the straitjacket the employment system puts on you.
  • Get to work choosing companies you really want to work for.
  • Take time to study what they need help with — not those personnel-jockey-generated job descriptions!
  • Figure out how the skills I referred to above enable you to do the work.
  • Please check some of my other articles here on Ask The Headhunter, especially The Basics. They’ll help you get started.
  • Then post additional questions in the Comments section below.

I’ll offer my advice, but you’ll get the best tips from the incredibly smart folks that make up this community.

I wish you the best.

What’s the best way for a job seeker to show an employer “this is why you need to hire me”? Is it any different for a new grad? What advice can you offer this disheartened reader?

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14 Comments
  1. The NY Times article is viewable by typing its URL into the search bar at archive.is

    New grads often overlook a best resource they have out there – parents of friends, or onetime teachers. These people have seen them at their best (and learning from mistakes when they were at their worst) and would relish opening doors.

    Capitalizing on relationships – existing ones or doors they open – is everything. I can’t imagine someone building a 22-year track record, and leaving no one along the way to vouch for them. These “vouchers” are way more valuable than an entry level resume uploaded with an online application.

    See https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/summa-cum-unemployed-now-what-dave-george/ for more ideas for new grad job-seekers.

  2. Start with working. Any honest job. Flip burgers. Stock shelves. Sell cars. Dig ditches. Anything.

    My observation is many kids do not have a job in high school (not in college either). These “Joe” jobs are where we learn the basics: Show up on time. Take criticism. Get trained. Deal with all kinds of people. Deal with authority. These are important fundamental skills.

    Working “non-career” jobs also gives us exposure to work that we might never have thought of (or even knew about). The time to explore these possibilities is when we are young and unencumbered.

    • In that vein, consider temping. It brings in money, and you get exposure to lots of different work environments.

    • Absolutely. And while in that “any honest job,” blow everyone away with your professionalism and attention to detail.

      I once had a young fellow check me out of a supermarket so attentively and carefully that I complimented him and told him he would go far in life with his attitude. He absolutely wasn’t trying to hit on me; I have grandkids his age.

      Had I been a hiring manager, I would have asked the young man what he was majoring in at college, and possibly hired him away from Shop-Rite myself, or at least recommended him to someone who needed a very careful and conscientious worker.

  3. I think Nick forgot another hurdle that you have to overcome. College itself can be a restricting feature.
    With what is going on in this country right now, a lot of companies are wary of college grads from certain schools. You also have to look at you. What are you expecting to be paid? I can tell you right now you are not worth 70k a year. You don’t have experience ( as least you did not disclose any) A liberal art degree is nothing special, it is one of two degrees that many people get just to show they a college grads. Yes, the other is criminal justice. In the real world actual knowledge of the job is more important than the paper, unless you are only looking to enter management without actually “working”.

    Take from a GENxer, MAKE THEM tell you no, make them give you a reason. Show humility, bust also be relentless. You might burn a couple of contacts, but you may gain more also.

  4. Great article, solid advice.

    Especially for the about-to-be or new graduate, these 3 books in the order shown:

    1) The Job Closer, by Dalton

    2) The 2-Hour Job Search (Second Edition), by Dalton

    3) The 20-Minute Networking Meeting – Professional Edition, by Perez and Ballinger

  5. Don’t overlook volunteer work as a way to build experience and gain contacts in a geographic area or business specialty that interests you.

  6. I have spent the past 15 years recruiting for pharmaceutical and biotech companies. One thing I noticed is that every company has “revolving door “ positions that have a lot of turnover. For example, I hired many quality entry level people, many manufacturing technicians, many assemblers. I also had to work hard to find entry level people who were willing to work the night shifts. So once you identify your five company targets, dig a little deeper and find out which positions have high turnover. Once you’re in, a steady paycheck, a benefits package and paid vacation will look mighty good.

  7. This is a great topic, and one that doesn’t just apply to grads. It’s good advice for everyone.

    To Nick’s point about universities not offering coursework that teaches students about what to do with what they’ve learned, is spot on. In the decades I worked, I only ran across 1. One! And of all who populate the job hunter community, the grads need this help the most.

    Over the decades I’ve interviewed countless grads, hiring many. Other than those who’ve done internships ..or people who attended college while working, most in truth had zero experience & they knew it. When it came down to it all they had to offer was their degree. They came in not only with no experience, but no idea of the many ways it could be applied. They almost always off balance.

    Knowing that, I’d help us both by asking my favorite grad question. “Have you ever pulled anything off? I don’t care when & where. It could have been in middle school. Pulled something off means you accomplished something against the odds, totally surprising others, and perhaps even yourself. Size of results doesn’t count. It doesn’t have to be spectacular. ”

    Got some very insightful answers. Insightful to them as well. It uncovers commendable attributes e.g. persistence, creativity, risk taking, which I could connect to talents I valued as a hiring manager .

    So many grads don’t know what they know or are capable of. My question would take them down a path to find hidden values.

    I also asked experience people the same thing especially if there was a desire to change careers.

  8. Hey, kid, you’re on the wrong web site asking the exact wrong sheople.

    Ev’ry answer to you has been cliché crud.

    If you ever saw the movie HONDO, John Wayne, when the 6 year old kid said he couldn’t swim, Wayne picked up the kid and threw him in the middle of the stream. Kid immediately dog-paddled to the opposite bank of the stream … with a big smile on his 6 year old face.

    My COMMENTs have been censored numerous times on this web site. That’s the kind of people you’re seeking advice from … in-the-box-thinking censorers.

    Paddle your own canoe, kid. Figure it out for yourself. Owe no one.

    How do you put an elephant in a refrigerator, kid? You open the door and shove it in.

    In other words, just do it.

    And, next time, understand who you’re REALLY seeking/taking advice from … BEFORE you take it.

  9. Yeah, well, that was a movie. Lucky the kid didn’t get caught in a current and sucked under.

    Here’s another model, from a letter quoted inThe Life of Nelson (1916):

    “I can only be a judge of those things that I could comprehend — such as his attention to the young gentlemen [the midshipmen] who had the happiness of being on his quarter-deck. It may reasonably be supposed that among the number of thirty, there must be timid as well as bold; the timid he never rebuked, but always wished to show them he desired nothing of them that he would not instantly do himself : and I have known him say, ‘Well, Sir, I am going a race to the masthead, and beg I may meet you there.’ No denial could be given to such a wish, and the poor fellow instantly began his march. His Lordship never took the least notice with what alacrity it was done, but when he met in the top, instantly began speaking in the most cheerful manner, and saying how much a person was to be pitied that could fancy there was any danger, or even anything disagreeable, in the attempt. After this excellent example, I have seen the timid youth lead another, and rehearse his captain’s words.”

    • There’s always ONE in ev’ry crowd.

      Devil’s Advocate simply for the sake of Devil’s Advocacy.

      It was a STREAM.
      A STREAM.
      THERE ARE NO UNDERCURRENTS IN STREAMs.

      … aaaand you JUST proved my point to the Kid. For lack of complete creativity and ingenuity, you simply copy my example.

      Come up with your own advice and answer.

      Hey, JR, PADDLE YOUR OWN CANOE … and get the hell outta mine.

      Also, for most, your high-falootin’ highbrow quote is simply tl;dr.

      I’ll take Wayne over Nelson any day if the week.

      A movie cannot be inspiring?!?!

      Since when, Rona Barrett?!?!

      This kind of complete in-the-box crap copy-think is EXACTLY what I was warning the Kid about … and why I don’t come to or recommend this web site any more.

      JR, you’re the guy that, in a COMPLETELY EMPTY parking lot, will come and park right next to me. You’re the guy on the freeway that tailgates, and when you finally wise up, and start to pass, you come side-by-side with the car you’re trying to pass, and then just stay there, side-by-side. Completely COMPLETELY clueless, and devoid of any self-imagination and self-creativity.

  10. How about a Library Vacation? I’m going to suggest that my graduating high school senior take one now, before college, and make it a summer habit. Then take those interests and figure out where people who do that for a living hang out. Go to conferences and industry shows and talk to people about their products and work. Some have special attendance rates and networking luncheons for students and new grads. Hone your ideas for a career direction. Find a lunchtime Toastmasters group in your target company or industry’s neighborhood, while you develop your public speaking and leadership skills. Or the nearest group will do. It will help you get out there doing something constructive while you search.

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