Graduates with debt, two degrees and little or no income: What have we learned?


Now that the media have moved on after reporting on unemployed and underemployed university graduates and their debt, it’s time to reflect on what we heard and saw and what we hope they learned.

Reporting on those graduates with one or more degrees and, in some cases, considerable debt kept the CBC (radio and TV), The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Economist, Maclean’s and the National Post in material for most of 2013. If I’ve omitted anyone, my apologies.

Generally things that don’t work well attract the attention of the media. So we can safely assume that something is very wrong when bright young minds are being offered unpaid internships while spin doctors try to convince us that there’s merit in working for nothing or almost nothing and university tuition goes through the roof. Why would Employer 2 attach more value to experience acquired through exploitation than Employer 1 who facilitated acquiring it in the first place did? Why did Employer 1 let it walk out the door?

There’s also something wrong when those young minds can’t or won’t grasp the bigger picture. How many of them are holding out for a position in their chosen field when their chosen field has none to offer? There’s a lot of food for thought in this link.

To help their children pay off their student loans, parents are deferring their retirement. Their working longer means that the positions they would have vacated to allow upward movement and the hiring of entry level employees will not be vacated.

Lessons to be learned

  • What a Loss Review is and how to use it

Loss reviews are standard operating procedure in professional sales organizations following a customer defection or a failed bid to sell new business. Comparing what was done with what should have been done highlights errors and omissions that can be corrected and avoided in the future.

We heard and saw no mention of loss reviews. Every documentary and report started with  a description of things the way they are and never looked into how they came to be. Two sources of information on the subject are Richardson Sales Training and Execution and Accredit. There are many more.

One of the assumptions of a loss review is that the people involved will have been trained in professional selling, so not all of what’s there will apply to first time entrants into the labour market . But significant parts of it will. The further you delve into the logic behind the loss review, the more the professional sales process makes sense—the understanding-the-customer-and-the-customer’s-needs part in particular. Changing the words “customer” and “customer’s” to “employer” and “employer’s” can often result in a total rethink of preparing for and executing a job search.

  • Whether you and the prospective employer you want to work for share the same chosen field

Understanding and being conversant with the market into which you’re selling your product—and that you are that product—is crucial. Your prospective employer lives and breathes the market and the economy in which it exists. He or she will expect you to do the same. The economy has never been steady-state and it never it will be. It’s driven by money and 7 billion people who want a piece of it. Since 1914 it’s sustained body blows on the scale of World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, 9/11, and the financial meltdown and recession of 2008, to name a few. More are waiting in the wings.

  • How your successful competitors conducted their job searches

We didn’t see or hear anything about how the graduates who were the subject of those reports conducted their searches. How many were invited to interviews or were called back? How many followed up to see if their application had even been received? How did the quality of their written, verbal and professional presentation stack up against the best?

  • How not to pin your hopes for solutions to these problems on government or the establishment

The ideas they’re putting forward are the same ones we were hearing and reading about in the early 90’s and we’re no further ahead now than we were then.

  • How to select a destination and build a business case for reaching it

For now the action is in science, technology, engineering and medicine. That doesn’t mean that the humanities are dead; only that they don’t appear relevant. Even the legal profession has fallen on hard times: only 1 in 7 articling students will find full-time employment. Employers favour candidates with destinations similar to their own, and little time for those who don’t. They live and do business in the present.

A calendar year’s worth of technological advances takes place in 3 months. To be ultraconservative, a 20-year generation gap reflects 30 years of technological change. Parents and their children should begin their deliberations about post-secondary education no later than the beginning of Grade 11. They’ll have a full year to contemplate the current labour market, how it will evolve and impact on prospective employers and job categories, and arrive at informed decisions about what kind of post-secondary education to buy.

We hope that young people two years away from entering university or any other kind of post-secondary education will benefit from what those graduates have learned.

A final note and a true story

It’s not unusual for airline call centres to hear from people who want to get away and that anywhere will do. They tend to call late at night. I worked as a reservations agent for Air Canada in Montreal, and at the time there was no airline destination code for Anywhere.

There still isn’t. When there’s no destination, there’s nowhere to go.

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