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Op-Ed: College Graduates Often Need Help Landing the Right Job

Study shows 43 percent of graduates find work that leaves them underemployed, a problem that can dog them well into their work lives

Vince Marigna
Vince Marigna

With the overall unemployment rate reaching a 49-year low in December — and even lower for college graduates at 2.1 percent — the economy appears to be in good shape for those who are just setting out to launch their careers.

But low unemployment stats hide some alarming truths: More than 15 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed, and too many college graduates who are employed face underemployment. Even though they have jobs, these college graduates aren’t in roles that reflect their hard work, dedication, and diplomas.

According to a new study by Burning Glass Technologies and Strada Education Network, 43 percent of college graduates are underemployed in their first jobs out of college. And the consequences of this initial underemployment can be long-lasting. According to the same study, those who are initially underemployed are five times more likely to remain so five years into their careers.

This month, with college seniors having returned to campus for their last semester thinking about where they’ll land after graduation, it may already be too late for them to land the strong first job of their dreams. High-paying industries like finance, accounting, and management consulting all begin their recruiting season every fall and your fate is sealed by winter — of your junior year.

Some students seem to intuitively know this, and other secrets of career success, and others just don’t. What happens to those students who don’t know that they should be thinking about their careers as early as freshman or sophomore year and don’t secure those résumé-building early internships? Or to those students who are focused on making good grades to keep their scholarships?

The advantage of a strong network

In a completely merit-based world, the most ambitious, hardworking, and high-achieving students would land the best jobs. But your gut probably already tells you that’s not quite how it works. The reality is, so many jobs are filled based on internal referrals, meaning that your network is crucial to career success. In turn, this means students whose parents have strong networks of their own start with a big advantage in launching their own careers.

There are signs of hope. A report released last month found that a segment of graduates from Rutgers University–Newark is outpacing peers by 30 percentage points in attaining strong economic opportunities six months after graduating college. Participants in the Braven program, they are well on their way to attaining their piece of the American dream, with 48 percent of them already out-earning their parents in their first jobs.

Kaitlyn Iglesias, for example, started a full-time position with one of the top four accounting firms, where she interned the past two summers. If you’d asked her two years ago, this path would have seemed out of reach. Of the 1.2 million first-generation or low-income college students like Kaitlyn, only one in four graduates with a strong first job or to enter graduate school. But with her own diligence, intelligence, and some guidance from Braven, Kaitlyn was able to leverage the skills she had built working in customer service and expand upon new ones in interviewing and networking to secure an excellent first opportunity out of school.

Partnering with employers

It works through deeply embedded employer partnerships, where Braven fellows make the connections and gain the experience that will carry them to strong first jobs. For example, Newark-based Prudential Financial has been one of our most significant partners, tapping into their shared-value approach of driving both social and business impact. The partnership provides employees with leadership development and mentorship experience in addition to giving Prudential early access to strong talent. As a result of this partnership, 14 Rutgers-Newark fellow have secured internships or full-time job opportunities with the company, with more on the horizon.

Paving the way for underrepresented perspectives in the workplace isn’t a charitable cause. Companies that value employees with non-traditional backgrounds who bring different experiences to their teams benefit. The Harvard Business Review asserts that diverse teams are more likely to remain objective and constantly re-examine facts, leading to sharper thinking and better work product.

What’s more, even as Newark is on the cusp of a renaissance — established companies are growing and startups are flourishing — local residents hold only 18 percent of the 137,000 jobs in the city. So when New Jersey continues to work together to help a broader group of young people land great careers, we create a stronger business community from top to bottom, and keep talent here, to take Newark forward into the next decade.

Vince Marigna is executive director of Braven at Rutgers University-Newark. Braven, which is also in Chicago and San Jose, works on fixing the education-to-employment gap.

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