How to Graduate From College and Go Precisely Nowhere

Here are six career blunders young workers make--with tips for how to avoid them.


Nearly 2 million new college grads are about to join the workforce, and for many the prospects are discouraging. The unemployment rate for 20- to 24-year-olds is 13.2 percent, more than five points higher than the overall rate. Many popular degrees, such as education and psychology, are in fields where there are few jobs. And many students are saddled with debt that will force them straight back into the arms of Mom and Dad.

If there's a bright side to this bleak picture, it's that many recent grads doom their own career prospects through arrogance, laziness, or unrealistic expectations. A recent survey of hiring managers by the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania found that 40 percent of young job applicants show up dressed inappropriately, 29 percent are late for interviews, and 26 percent don't know much about the company they're interviewing with. More than 11 percent send text messages or use their phones during an interview. Put another way, it's not hard to distinguish yourself from the rude and clueless blunderers at the bottom of the heap.

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There are other, more subtle mistakes that might not seem like deal breakers, yet can easily leave you out of the running in a tight job market. And if you're lucky enough to get a job, don't assume that a rewarding career will automatically blossom. Here are six crucial mistakes that can scotch the career prospects of young workers—-along with tips for how to avoid them:

Assume your learning is complete. Getting that degree might have seemed like hard work, but if you think you're now free to coast, plan to do it on a skateboard. "Your job in educating yourself is really just beginning," says David Smith of consulting firm Accenture, who helps companies strategize about staffing. "The onus is on you to upskill yourself."

In case you missed that buzzword, "upskilling" means continually adding to your knowledge and capabilities. That's what the grads who are actually getting good jobs are doing—by researching the companies they want to work for, learning about their clients, and even taking additional courses to fill in gaps on their resumes. This is one way to turn an otherwise indistinct degree into an asset. A sociology or psychology major who can get some added technical training following graduation, for instance, might be a good job candidate in the hot field of consumer analytics.

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Wait for others to shape your career. Corporations used to mold new hires through training and enrichment programs, in-house mentoring, tuition reimbursement, and other perks. There are still vestiges of that, but it's a more cutthroat world at most companies today. Many nonessential programs have been axed to save money. The tight labor market means companies that are hiring can often find terrific candidates without having to woo them very hard. That means young workers need to figure out their own way ahead. How to do it: Seek mentors yourself, read business journals in your field, go to professional conferences even if you have to pay your own way, and network relentlessly.

Limit your networking to Facebook. Twentysomethings might think that all the resources they could possibly need are on Facebook—but bosses don't. "Kids today have the mistaken belief that all networking means is technology," says Smith of Accenture. "That's not how business really operates." He emphasizes the importance of several types of networks—including lots of personal interaction.

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One network includes the people you know professionally and through work. Another group might include people you know through shared interests or hobbies. Then there are people you know in your local community—once known as a social network, before Facebook usurped the term. People from all of those groups can help with career guidance, and you might even meet your next boss while playing hoops with neighbors or volunteering on a church project.

Turn down offers that seem beneath you. It might be tempting to turn down a job with low pay or banal responsibilities. But maybe you shouldn't. Work of any type can open new opportunities, especially if there are better jobs elsewhere in the company and you're aggressive about finding ways to move up. You might also distinguish yourself by starting on the bottom rung. About 27 percent of managers in the Center for Professional Excellence survey said a sense of entitlement among young employees was their biggest managerial headache, with 23 percent citing a poor work ethic among new hires. Working hard, even at menial jobs, is a chance to prove you're not a slacker.

Make sure you're comfortable. After graduating, you might want to stay near your friends or work convenient hours that leave plenty of time to socialize. Yet you may never have more freedom to move where the best opportunities are, or work odd hours or multiple jobs to enhance your odds of success. Staying in your comfort zone can severely limit your opportunity.

Let your parents get involved in your job hunt. Parents and other family members can be good mentors and vital pillars of support, but they should stay in the background. One of the oddest trends that hiring managers have noticed lately is the habit of some parents to place follow-up calls after their adult kid has had a job interview, or intervene in some other way. Don't be that kid. Your future boss will have enough to worry about without having to report to your parents. As will you, if you're lucky.

Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.