By Kathleen Waldron (featured as an op-ed column in The Record on May 20, 2017)
At William Paterson University, more than 2,300 new graduates are graduating this spring and, like their peers around the nation, they worked hard to attain the bachelor’s degree that is ever more critical to success in today’s economy. Now, most of the graduates begin their careers with a combination of anticipation, optimism, and anxiety.
According to a recent survey of employers by CareerBuilder, the job market has improved for our new college grads, with more than 74 percent of employers saying they plan to hire recent college graduates – the highest outlook in 10 years. With unemployment also at its lowest level in years, starting salaries are on the rise, with 50 percent of employers surveyed indicating they will offer higher starting salaries than last year.
Although many students in the United States already had jobs while they earned their degrees, most expect the degree to make a difference in future employment opportunities and for higher wages over a lifetime. While the prospects for that first job are positive, the Class of 2017 needs to be prepared for an evolving job market that will continue to change. I have a few thoughts for our new degree-holders as they venture into the workplace:
♦ Your first job won’t be your last job. And your first career probably won’t be your last career either.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, someone entering the job market in the United States in 2017 can expect to change jobs 10 to 15 times during their working lives – and can also expect to change that career five to seven times. Don’t put too much focus on landing your dream job. Getting your foot in the door can set you on your career path.
♦ Lifelong learning must be a reality, not just a nice concept.
Changing jobs – and perhaps careers – will require additional education or training for most college graduates. Continue to seek opportunities that can enhance the degree you have obtained, or that can prepare you for the future. Graduate education in many fields is not a luxury; it is a necessity.
♦ Ten years from now, your bachelor’s degree probably won’t be enough.
While the job market for new graduates is positive, seeking that next position may require an advanced degree. In the metro New York-New Jersey region, many professions require post-baccalaureate degrees within the first five years of acquiring an entry-level position. An advanced degree or additional certification will help you stand out from those other applicants.
♦ Continue to invest in yourself. Build your résumé.
If your employer offers you the opportunity to gain additional skills or education, take it, whether it’s a certificate program, a professional development workshop or conference, or an advanced degree. Get involved in the professional organization in your industry. Employers continue to seek workers with strong interpersonal and communication skills. They like people who have the ability to work in teams and serve as leaders. Put your hand up at work and volunteer to do something special.
♦ Find a mentor who will guide you, challenge you, and be honest with you.
At William Paterson University, we established the Pesce Family Mentoring Institute to help prepare our students for their careers or graduate education by connecting successful professionals to undergraduate students. Many students are the first in their families to go to college, and mentors can provide career advice and guidance and professional networking opportunities. But the need for a mentor doesn’t end when you receive your diploma. Seek out a mentor once you start your position and continue to network in the field you have chosen.
♦ If you have student debt, track your payments closely.
Nationally, 44.2 million Americans carry student debt totaling $1.44 trillion; the average monthly student loan payment for borrowers aged 20 to 30 is $351. Here in New Jersey, students on average have $30,000 in debt. Despite rising starting salaries, new graduates must carefully budget to meet their loan payments and other costs, and may have to be prepared to sacrifice in order to meet their goals. Remember, if you stop paying your debt, someone is going to knock on your door.
♦ Work hard, show up on time, and don’t do anything to get yourself fired.
The old-fashioned advice about working hard remains true. Dressing professionally and a certain formality is expected on the job. Don’t call your boss by her first name unless invited to do so. Check out the culture of your new place and act accordingly. Tell your friends not to text you while you are working. Don’t send angry emails – EVER.
♦ Don’t sweat the small stuff. Roll with the punches.
Be nice to everyone. Smile a lot. Do these sound like clichés? They are! But they work. Oh, and enjoy your freedom from studying, taking exams, writing papers, and attending labs. Now the fun begins, not ends.
Overall, college graduates continue to be a select group – only 33 percent of adults in the U.S. have completed a college degree. So to the Class of 2017, I encourage you to make the best of your future, continue to seek opportunities, advance your education, and make a difference in the world.
Kathleen Waldron is the president of William Paterson University. She previously held executive positions at Citibank, including president of Citibank International in Miami. She holds a doctorate in Latin American history and was a Fulbright Fellow in Venezuela.