Careers and the New Economy

For some, the reason to attend college is to get a good job. For others, it is to fulfill a dream of getting an education. For many first-generation college students, it's both. College not only helps you land a better job but also helps you become an effective leader, prepares you for graduate school, enhances your critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and elevates your societal status based on merit. Over the past few years, the economy has experienced fluctuations not seen in your or your parents’ lifetimes. In 2012, the unemployment rate for students with new bachelor’s degrees was 8.9 percent. This rate is high, but it’s a shattering 22.9 percent for job seekers with a recent high school diploma and an unthinkable 31.5 percent for recent high school dropouts.1 The good news is that employers will likely hire many college students in the next few years. Economic uncertainty is a reality, and although a degree is one of the best weapons a job seeker can wield in the fight for employment and earnings, it is important to make decisions about your course of study and career path based on information about yourself and your economic need.

Characteristics of Today's Economy

In many ways today’s economy is different from previous economies. It is worldwide and has new characteristics.

A Global Economy.

Many industries are multinational, existing in overseas markets as well as seeking cheaper labor, capital, and resources abroad. Factories around the world built to similar standards can turn out essentially the same products. In addition, the overall ratio of United States college graduates to college graduates worldwide fell substantially in the first decade of the twenty-first century and stands to drop even more by 2020 as developing economies in China and India continue to produce more college graduates. This competition presents challenges for the ability of workers in the United States to remain globally competitive, particularly in demand-based industries such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Your career is bound to be affected by the global economy, even if you never leave the United States. In his best-selling book The World Is Flat, Thomas Friedman reminds readers that talent has become more important than geography in determining a person’s opportunity in life. In the United States, he states, talent in the form of innovation, creativity, and problem solving are of principal necessity. College graduates in the United States are now and will continue to compete for jobs with others around the world.

An Unstable Economy.

In late 2008, the world economy began suffering from a series of events that led to downturns in stock markets, bankruptcies, foreclosures, failing businesses, and lost jobs. Scandals within the highest ranks of major companies and constant mergers and acquisitions of companies have destabilized the workforce, and uncertainty has become the dominant theme that continues to negatively affect Americans today. The economy has and will continue to make a slow recovery as long as the country remains deeply divided over how best to stimulate growth, placing increasing pressure on the Federal Reserve and the nation’s leaders to stabilize the economy and create jobs. Because the global economic situation is changing continuously, it’s important to keep up-to-date on the economic situation as it relates to your prospective major and career. Sectors that are prosperous now may not be by the time that you graduate. Although this situation is unsettling, having a college education gives you a significant advantage in this job market, especially over those without one.

An Innovative Economy.

The economy has always depended on creativity in new products and services to generate consumer interest around the world. Creativity is increasingly important in times of economic instability because the flexibility and responsiveness of companies to the changing economic climate affect their ability to survive. Albert Einstein said, “The most important decision we ever make is whether we believe we live in a friendly universe or a hostile universe.” His words are fundamental to entrepreneurship and innovation because to improve, we must perceive that improvement is possible. The United States has always been a leader in industry innovation, and moving forward, graduates who possess creativity and ingenuity will be instrumental to the nation’s growth.

An Economy without Boundaries.

Teams of workers within an organization need to understand the missions of other teams because they most likely will have to work together. You might be an accountant and find yourself working with the public relations division of your company, or you might be a human resources manager who does staff training for a number of different divisions and in several different countries. You might even find yourself moved laterally to a unit that has a different function rather than being promoted to a higher position in your organization. The ability to extend or even eliminate boundaries within your skills, abilities, and knowledge will be essential to your professional success.

A Customized Economy.

More and more, consumers are demanding products and services tailored to their specific needs. It is especially true of those born after 1970 who were raised on the individualistic concept of consumer choice. For instance, the popular frozen yogurt franchise, Orange Leaf, allows patrons to “become the master of your dessert” by building their very own yogurt treats, boasting that “the possibilities are endless!” We customize our cell phone ringtones, our coffee, and our iPod playlists. Some universities even allow students to customize their own majors. Such market segmentation requires constant adaptation of ideas to identify new products and services as new customer demands emerge.

An Ever-changing Economy

More than two-thirds of the job losses during the Great Recession were in construction and manufacturing, yet prior to 2009 these industries were booming. As we rebuild our economy, new jobs in nearly all industries will demand more education and training. The most important skill that you need to learn in college is how to keep learning throughout your life. To give yourself the best chance at avoiding a negative employment situation, it’s important to adapt your skills to the job market that exists. Doing so requires both flexibility and the desire to continually develop yourself.

A Social Economy.

Technology has allowed us to stay more connected in our personal lives and business, but it has also decreased our need for, and exposure to, face-to-face social interactions. Written and verbal communications skills remain the top thing employers look for in new graduates, and most stress the importance of personal relationships in business as a key indicator to success.2 In this ever-increasing world of individualism and technology advancements, the ability to communicate with others, especially in face-to-face social interactions, will be an asset that organizations will seek to meet their hiring needs.

By considering today’s economy, you will make more informed decisions about your future. The characteristics noted above (global, unstable, innovative, without boundaries, customized, ever-changing, and social) provide a road map to guide your career decision making throughout your college experience.

Building The Right Mind-Set For What Lies Ahead

When you are a new professional, you will be expected to continue learning and developing yourself. As you prepare for your career, keep in mind the following:

  • A college degree does not guarantee employment. If competition from a faulty economy isn’t enough, consider what it will be like competing with hundreds of other college graduates earning the same degree as you and graduating at the same time! Postsecondary degrees earned between the fall of 1999 and the fall of 2009 increased by 41 percent, from 2.4 million to 3.4 million.3 With a college degree, however, more opportunities will be available, financially and otherwise, than if you do not have a degree. For those who pursue a degree and complete it, the payoff is substantial. On average, for example, Americans with bachelor’s degrees or higher make twice as much in annual income as those with a high school education or less.4 But just because you want to work for a certain organization or in a certain field doesn’t mean that a job will always be available for you there.

  • You are, more or less, solely responsible for your career. Career development is a lifelong process, controlled only by you. At one time, organizations often provided structured “ladders” that employees could climb in their moves to higher professional levels. Although virtually all employees at all levels require some degree of training, in most cases opportunities to work your way up through an organization have disappeared. Companies might assist you with assessments and information on available positions in the industry, but the ultimate task of creating a career path is yours. Students who realize that they are responsible for managing their careers actively throughout their lifetime will be more successful and more satisfied than those who do not.

  • To advance your career, you must accept the risks that accompany employment and plan for the future. As organizations continue to restructure, merge, and either grow or downsize in response to economic conditions, you must do your best to prepare for the unexpected. As has already been stated, in college you are learning perhaps the most vital skill of all: how to learn. A commitment to lifelong learning will help keep you employable and will arm you for opportunity regardless of the economy.

  • Career choice is not permanent. College students often view the choice of a career as a monumental and irreversible decision, but this assumption is inaccurate. A career is the sum of your professional development decisions over a lifetime. There is no one correct occupation just waiting to be discovered. Rather, you might find many career choices fulfilling and satisfying. The question to consider is: What is the best choice for me now?

Now the good news: Hundreds of thousands of graduates find jobs every year, even in recessionary times. Some graduates might have to work longer to get where they want to be, but persistence pays off. If you start preparing now and continue to do so over the next few years in college, you’ll have time to build a portfolio of academic and co-curricular experiences that will begin to add substance to your career profile.

co-curricular experiences Learning that occurs outside the classroom, through on-campus clubs and groups, co-op programs, internships, or other means.