Framing Career Expectations in Graduating Seniors

By Laura Demarse

Many of the students I work with in the business school at the College of Charleston are smart, savvy, motivated, and ready to make their first million by age 25 while starting out as corner office executives. While I commend and admire their drive and ambition, many of these same students do not want to leave the warm and sunny enclave of Charleston (a tourist based economy) and are generally not industry-specific about career aspirations. The challenge my colleagues and I face is to provide a positive, yet realistic, vision for our students. There are many ways to make a lot of money, especially through lucrative sales positions (where small starting salaries are supplemented with large bonus potential), and new graduates can obtain these jobs with relatively little training and professional work experience. Many students have unrealistic expectations of large starting salaries, often because they have not been exposed to the aggregate data that career services professionals are well aware of.

Our role as career professionals is to provide a framework for success, a career plan to help students bridge the gap between academia and the increasingly competitive business world. I like to understand what the student's goals and aspirations are immediately upon graduating as well as further down the line. What do they want to achieve, accomplish and gain? A litany of ideas rolls off the tongues of my more ambitious students, while others are confused and less focused on what is both happening and about to happen. Nevertheless, what are the realistic and tangible goals achievable for the students who want to make a significant amount of money with little prior time or experience in the business world?

Internships and Experiential Learning

In an effort to align the expectations of students in the business school, I use a number of critical, and actionable, points in every counseling session. First, I highlight the importance of internships and experiential learning, linking this valuable experience with career goals and objectives before and after the experience. What have they learned about the place young professionals hold in an organization? Have their objectives changed or been enhanced based on these observations? I stress that students often increase their starting salaries by completing undergraduate internship experiences. Companies are also more likely to extend job offers to students already familiar with their culture and structure. This is a helpful framing technique because it reinforces the direct connection between business philosophy learned in the classroom and experiential knowledge.

The Value of Bilingualism

Another trend I have observed is the increased desire for students to "travel internationally," which seems to be high on the list of priorities when looking for employment, while the opportunities are scarce. Many companies are cutting down on travel due to use of computer technology, outsourcing, etc. If this path is truly a high priority, it is essential that students understand the value of bilingualism and that we support those efforts within our programs. There are other options for students who aren't multi-lingual; for example, many sales positions offer a territory that must be covered, which may satisfy the graduates eager to hit the road.

Developing Marketable Skills

I also like to speak with students about what marketable skills they think they need to develop. Perhaps now more than ever, "soft skills" (i.e., people skills) are highly valued and of tremendous importance to employers. I highlight the importance of public speaking abilities, team work, motivation, and self-starting. "Getting along" in a work environment is often not as easy as most students may think; however, framing the importance of these skill sets is imperative in career development. Business etiquette is something we also touch on in our programs. How comfortable and well-versed are the students in interacting with employers in a social networking environment? Eye contact, hand shaking, confident articulation, and professional appearance are all important aspects of making a great first impression; this contributes to realistic framing of how the business world functions for the student's future reference. We incorporate developing these skills into most aspects of the curriculum at the School of Business, through offerings such as a career development class, alumni networking events and other professional development seminars and speakers.

Landing the First Job

Another area of discussion with students is the importance of finding and landing that first job (and the next). Many students fear that this first job will keep them in an entry-level, low-paying position for years. I encourage the students to take that first job to get experience and build their resumes for their future dream jobs. The first job might be low-paying and not particularly interesting, but it allows a student to get the proverbial foot in the door and build a "center of influence." This early experience is essential to creating professional relationships and contacts, finding mentors, and learning about other employment opportunities for future growth. National statistics suggest that 80% of available jobs are filled through informal personal contacts. First jobs are not intended to make recent grads fabulously wealthy; they offer an opportunity for exposure and direction in terms of interests, fit and continued growth. Most recent grads will not stay in the same job for longer than two years, switching jobs for more desirable salaries and interesting work. But that first job is the key; it's selling the students on this experience that is the challenge for us!

Creating One's Own Success

I have recently had the pleasure of working with several young alumni who are doing fantastic and exciting new things. They have started their own businesses and are doing really well. They work harder and more hours than many of their peers;however, they enjoy the benefits of setting their own hours and being their own bosses. I like to present this option to students and see their eyes become wide with the possibility of creating their own success, sometimes with little start-up money and one great idea. A few examples I share with graduating students include one enterprising alum who is a freelance energy trader in Chicago, mainly getting paid in company stock, taking small fees to cover his living expenses, Another graduate has created a successful model for importing cashew nuts from Western Africa. Students hungry enough to do it can be very successful and well compensated for their entrepreneurial endeavors. Framing this idea is tricky, but available for the taking now more then ever.

It is ultimately up to our students to decide their paths and create their goals. However, it is our responsibility as career professionals to aide, facilitate and collaborate in this process. This means we provide support through both positivism and realism; we guide students, but we should also dream with them.

Laura E. Demarse, M.Ed., is Career Services Coordinator for the School of Business and Economics at the College of Charleston in South Carolina. She completed her master’s degree in counseling psychology in the Graduate School of Education at Fordham University in New York City. She may be reached at: demarsel@cofc.edu.

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