Now What?

That’s the first question facing new college graduates every summer.

In homes with substantial financial resources, sons and daughters may opt to take a year off and travel the world or move on to graduate school. However, the majority will suddenly find themselves faced with the reality that they must now find work. And the advice they’ll most likely hear is this: Find a way to get paid doing something you love.

Nice goal. But is it a realistic one?

America’s “worker bees,” regardless of title, tend to face two huge bookend challenges — at the start, and then near the finish line of their careers. First, on the left-side bookend: Getting that first job to gain the experience required for positions posted to employment websites. Then, on the right-side bookend of the career shelf:  Keeping your job once you pass “that certain age” or just getting a phone interview when your “three-page resume” stamps you as over-qualified, probably glued to TCM and your favorite TV shows run on those “oldies” channels. Good luck.

I hear the first challenge referenced all the time by recent grads. They may have worked as interns during their college years, hoping that could lead to a post-graduation job offer, but they still often run into the wall of “five years of experience required” reality – especially if they were non-paid interns. Back in my day (brace yourselves, kids, grandpa’s about to talk about the good old days), those early working years were chalked up to “paying your dues.” Ever hear that phrase anymore?

You took whatever job you could get, and you worked everything from the sunrise shift to the graveyard shift. Daylight was something you only saw through an office window. Personal life? What’s that? You eliminated the word “weekends” from your lexicon — and were thrilled to at least be paid some kind of salary because the hands-on training trumped anything you could ever learn in a masters course. The “next” job would then hopefully set your career in motion.

So … just get into the game in any way you can — through the back door, side door, chimney, tunnel, whatever. Don’t focus on titles or salary; not yet. Focus on relationships: Making them. Building them. And ultimately, leveraging them. And keep smiling, stay cool and stay focused. Make yourself indispensable.

As for that “coming down the career home stretch” bookend: Frustrating. Don’t kid yourself – age discrimination in Corporate America is real. But isn’t it illegal? Absolutely. And it still goes on? Absolutely. It’s also helped by something called “at-will” that employers can use in all sorts of nasty little ways. All states recognize at-will employment. However, while some states do place limitations on it, always read the “fine print” in anything you sign. Always.

Simply put, employers can basically terminate non-union or high-level (protected by pre-negotiated contracts) employees anytime for any reason, including instances where they admit that performance more than met expectations. And you wonder why when you report for jury duty, law firms handling each pending case introduce a seemingly endless roll call of attorneys.

According to the National Council of State Legislators (NCSL): “At-will means that an employer can terminate an employee at any time for any reason, except an illegal one, or for no reason without incurring legal liability. Likewise, an employee is free to leave a job at any time for any or no reason with no adverse legal consequences.” (Hmmm. Seems pretty clear who has “the hammer.”)

The NCSL continues: “At-will also means that an employer can change the terms of the employment relationship with no notice and no consequences.  For example, an employer can alter wages, terminate benefits, or reduce paid time off.  In its unadulterated form, the U.S. at-will rule leaves employees vulnerable to arbitrary and sudden dismissal, a limited or on-call work schedule depending on the employer’s needs, and unannounced cuts in pay and benefits. “

As a veteran of four decades in the corporate trenches, the bottom line for recent undergrads:

Don’t get discouraged. Don’t panic. If you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive family and good friends, rely on them as your oasis of sanity while chartering those often treacherous job-hunting waters. Search the Internet for the wealth of job-seeking knowledge and tips available at your fingertips; just think what the high-tech era has meant to the process. Incredible. And be creative. Think out-of-the-box. Rather than watch a “Sharknado” marathon on TV, watch “Shark Tank” on CNBC with a notepad handy. Listen to the questions asked and points made by the super-successful panelists.

The future is what you make it because if you are a recent college grad, you still have the greatest gift of all: Your youth … and all the boundless energy and can-do optimism that comes with it.

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