At a dark bar in the Flatiron district one overcast weeknight, an old friend from college and I whispered over drinks, our hands cupped conspiratorially around our wine glasses.
My friend, who I’ll call N, had just started a comfortable new job at a PR agency a few months before. I hadn’t seen her since graduation, and I learned that it had been a long road (two and a half years, in fact) to land at her agency. Our conversation told me that she was an expert networker—it seemed she knew someone everywhere in every industry, had mentors in the tops of their fields, and was eager to do whatever it took to excel in her job.
“Everything I learned that got me where I am today,” she said, “I had to teach myself.”
Her comment was far from surprising. In fact, I felt exactly the same way. And apparently so do almost half of our peers.
A recent McKinsey study found that only 45 percent of recent college graduates felt their colleges adequately prepared them for entry-level positions in their fields. Many of them can’t find jobs. Paradoxically, despite the estimated 75 million unemployed young adults around the world, 57 percent of employers surveyed say they’re unable to find enough skilled entry-level workers.
The main issue, the study highlighted, is that students aren’t being equipped with the applicable skills they need to succeed in the workforce. Employers seem to agree: almost 40 percent cite a lack of skills as the main reason for entry-level vacancies.
So why are so many colleges and universities producing unskilled graduates, and what can we do to nip the issue in the bud? The McKinsey study points to two fundamentals that need to be in place in order to create the skilled workers companies are aching to hire: skill development and job creation. Companies need to work with colleges and universities and simply lay it out in terms of the skills they are looking for so the professors know what to teach.
It seems simple enough at first glance, but we may be a long way off from How to Conduct a Killer Business Meeting 101. Until then, there are things that we can do ourselves to cultivate the skills a potential employer desires.
Intern Early in Your Field of Study
Early in the semester, make an appointment at your college’s career office and have a counselor narrow down some places you can intern that will reflect well on you when you go to begin your career. Interning is a great way to pick up skills in a low-pressure environment; observe and note which skills your employer appreciates most. An internship is also a great way to find a mentor who can show you the ins, outs, and etiquette that make a person in your industry successful.
One of my first internships was at a startup media company, which also ran an independent online news site. I knew I wanted to write, but I wasn’t sure where I wanted to do my writing. The internship allowed me to stretch my skills across marketing, writing branded content for a number of corporate clients, and journalism, writing articles for the site. The flexibility equipped me with skills I wouldn’t have gained if I was limited to just one type of writing.
Take Classes That Teach Versatile Subjects
A perfect example of this might be a public speaking class. Public speaking is a skill valued in almost any job, as most will require you to make presentations, pitch your ideas at company meetings, or sell an idea or product to a client. If the class provides you with any kind of certification at the end, this is something employers also like to see, and makes you a much more appealing candidate.
My first year of college I took an introductory writing workshop seminar. Among 10 other students, I was able to present my work and get constructive feedback on my writing. I also critiqued my classmates’ work, and learned to edit for voice, clarity and syntax. These proved to be useful skills when I graduated and launched my career in writing.
Learn From Your Professors, In and Out of Class
More often than not, your professor used to do what they’re now teaching you, which means they’ve probably held the job you hope to have some day. If you can, schedule time to meet one-on-one with your professor and ask his or her advice on the industry. Find out what is most important to know going in, who excels in the field, and what skills or experience you should have under your belt before you start. If you’re unable to meet with your professor one-on-one, shoot an email asking for his or her advice. Your professor’s insight can help you plan out and execute a strategy that will carry you into your first job.
The most essential piece of information I ever learned was from one of my writing professors who used to be in the publishing industry before teaching. She taught me how crucial it is to write for your audience. A writer has many different writing styles, and each is tailored to the audience reading the piece. The voice of the writer is the same, but knowing your audience is the most important thing if you want to create good content.
Ask Yourself, “What Should I Take Away from This?”
In your classes, in your extracurricular activities, in your internships, always ask yourself what you should be taking away from the experience. This kind of introspective question puts the experience into perspective, clarifies the choices you make, and solidifies your reason for making those choices.
At my college, students weren’t required to take certain classes. We had free range of the curriculum. It was a blessing and a curse, because many students took classes that they thought would be interesting, or cool, without giving too much extra thought to it. I took a Modern Jewish Literature course one semester, which I loved, but on the outside, it doesn’t have a lot to do with what I do now. Going in, I asked myself, “What skills will I gain from picking this class?” I knew I would learn analytical skills from studying complex works of literature, and how to effectively communicate my critical thinking of these works. But more importantly, I knew these would be skills that are highly valued in my field, and it validated my choice. I applied this way of thinking to every choice I made after that, and each one has propelled me one step forward.
Do you feel that college prepared you for the real world? Tell us in the comments.