Training

There Is a Cure for the First-Job Blues: Proper Guidance

By Bill Bergman

Oct. 30, 2015

Business schools are in the business of teaching students how to make money. They have never been in the business of teaching students to realize what makes them happy on the job or in life. Historically, that has been left up to life experiences and the hard knocks of the real world.

But as the economy improves and jobs become more plentiful, business schools need to do better at preparing their graduates for the shock of leaving campus and entering the workforce.

First-job disappointment is not a new phenomenon. However, recent trends are adding to the unhappiness graduates are experiencing when they first enter the workplace, resulting in unusually high employee turnover and reduced productivity.

The most striking trend is that larger companies are making offers to students much earlier than they used to. Preying on student insecurities about finding a job, offers in the fall take the pressure off seniors who have been preparing and worrying about finding a job since they were sophomores.

Students who accept early job offers redirect their energies from the classroom to social and extracurricular activities. Yet, acceptances of job offers in the fall can lead to an intellectual shutdown at a time when students finally have the maturity to appreciate the learning, discovery and growth that higher education has to offer. It is an actual dilution of the senior year tuition investment.

The business school student dream is accepting a job offer in the early fall from a company at which, just a few months earlier in the summer, the student was an intern. Unfortunately, those who live the dream never have to do the hard work of researching, contacting and interviewing with multiple companies. They take the easy way out and miss the learning process of finding out what a broader range of companies may have to offer.

Seven months in the life of a 22-year-old can be an eternity. A lot can happen in the maturation process from October to a June start date. So when fall recruits arrive months later for full-time employment, they slowly begin to wonder if they might have been happier elsewhere had they spent more time comparison shopping. 

Recognizing that these recent grads may quickly grow disenchanted with their new assignments, some employers offer signing bonuses that lock them in for two to three years. Leave the job early, and grads have to pay back the bonus that they already spent on elaborate trips to Europe before starting or to help pay down their student debt.

After a few months into their first job, some recent grads feel let down, disappointed, angry and trapped in positions they find boring. Add to that the realization they have new adult responsibilities like paying rent, credit card bills and student loans, these kids feel doomed to a mundane life. It is a world that was portrayed much differently by everyone they had come to rely on during their college years.

Today’s business undergrads are as proficient at interviewing and job seeking as they were a few years earlier at taking standardized tests in high school. This is a direct result of well-funded business school programs in soft skill development. As early as their sophomore year, students learn about interviewing techniques, networking, meal etiquette and even tricks about proper behavior around grown-up executives.

But, it is more challenging to teach them the skills required to make an informed decision about an early semester job offer. Unfortunately, years of entitlement coupled with parental and peer stress get in the way. Students usually celebrate thinking they are receiving early admissions to a prestigious university. Most of them don’t have the maturity or training to understand the implications of making a commitment to a corporation beyond a three-month internship.

Many schools try to give students a realistic view of working life by bringing in a constant stream of guest speakers from the executive suite, including successful alumni who graduated decades ago. However, these executives don’t always remember life as a college senior. Also, there are usually professors, deans and fundraisers in the audience muting the tougher questions students would really like to ask.

What juniors and seniors would benefit from would be “safe haven” meetings with recent alumni. The young alumni would need to feel comfortable that they are in a secure environment where their honesty about the work experience remained confidential. Ideally, these would be student-only attended sessions where the alumni can humbly talk about the transition from campus to working full time with challenging questions from the student audience.

It is not healthy for anyone to have a recent alumni spend an hour in a professor’s office complaining about how much they hate their job, and then stand in front of the same professor’s class energetically trying to recruit students to come to work at their company. Current students need candid exchanges with recent alumni so they have a realistic understanding of what awaits when they accept a full-time job offer.

Student expectations are so inflated about life after graduation that some degree of first-job disappointment is inevitable. Business school professors, career service professionals and recruiters need to help students temper these expectations so they can better appreciate the first-job experience and the invaluable skills they will be acquiring.

Bill Bergman is a full-time instructor of marketing at the University of Richmond (Virginia) Robins School of Business. To comment, email editors@workforce.com. Follow Workforce on Twitter at @workforcenews.

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