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As a college and graduate school admissions consultant and career counselor, I work with young adults of all levels of motivation, many who amaze me with their talent, discipline and goal-orientation. Often, however, I find myself nudging clients along, usually at the request of their parents, hoping to breathe life into comfortable suburban twenty-somethings who are sadly lacking in passion and purpose.

I have frequently posted about the next generation’s need for meaning and purpose. Occasionally, I encounter a young person who seems to have found a rudder for the future.

Last night, I attended a reception for the children of family friends, a son graduating from Georgetown and a daughter finishing high school and headed for Elon. I had met their parents back in my corporate years. I had known the children since they were babies, but due to geographical moves had not seen them in recent years. The reception was held at the family’s close-knit African-American Baptist church in NJ, which had been a nurturing home base for them despite several relocations over the years.

Ross, a handsome, articulate and charismatic double major in philosophy and theology, spoke about his future, bringing many in the gathering (including myself) to tears. He talked about his extracurricular community service work with inner-city teens in Washington DC throughout his years of study at Georgetown.

Ross mentioned a special connection with a young man who wanted to drop out of high school, because none of his friends had lived to be twenty-one. With such a morbid perceived life expectancy, this disillusioned teenager did not want to spend his “last years” in school. After encountering such a heartbreaking situation, Ross decided to commit two years of his life to Teach for America.

Teach for America is a non-profit organization that aims to eliminate educational inequity by enlisting the nation’s most promising future leaders to teach for two or more years in low-income communities throughout the U.S. The organization was founded by Wendy Kopp after she developed the idea to help eliminate educational inequity in the U.S. for her senior thesis at Princeton in 1989–the year Ross was born.

Applying to Teach For America has become highly popular among seniors at America’s elite colleges. In its first year, TFA placed 500 teachers; in 2010, it received more than 46,000 applications resulting in 4,500 new corps members. These applicants included 20 percent of the senior class at Spelman, where Ross’s mom went to college; 12 percent of all Ivy League seniors; 7 percent of the graduating class at U Michigan-Ann Arbor; and 6 percent at UC-Berkeley.

Dismal job market news for 2011 graduates continue to fill the newspaper headlines, broadcast airwaves, and cyberspace. Recent examples: “Tight Job Market for Recent Grads” (UPI.com); “Class of 2011, Most Indebted Ever” (WSJ.com); “Jobs for College Grads Growing at a Snail’s Pace” (U.S. Chamber of Commerce).

Concerned parents are understandably encouraging their college students to pursue “practical” majors that will give them a good shot at employment. Their greatest fear is that after spending  (or borrowing) $200K for their kid’s education, he or she will have to move back in with Mom and Dad after college is over, with no job prospects. And their worst fears are oftentimes coming true.

Yet, here’s a young man who did not major in accounting or economics to hedge his bets. He followed his heart, studying philosophy and theology. He saw a desperate need in society, and took it upon himself to answer the call to meet that need. Pretty simple. And profound.

Many kids coming out of college these days do temporarily move back with Mom and Dad, to begin a job search, prepare for graduate school admissions tests, get a stop-gap job and save money, or try to otherwise find their way. And I understand that for many college grads, that is a necessary route to take. But it is also deceptively easy to waste several years in a state of suspended animation. Instead, what about changing the world?

I don’t know how much TFA teachers get paid, although I know graduate school partnerships offer benefits ranging from active recruitment of TFA alumni to tuition help. But most important, experiences like TFA change the person who joins forever, and change the young people that member influences.

Ross will be teaching 8th Graders in New Orleans. Can you imagine the impact this smart, centered, charismatic young teacher will have on disadvantaged teens, especially boys, who need a grounded role model?

I work with many college and graduate school applicants writing essays about how they want to improve society. I believe most are sincere. But very few applicants find a way, through their college majors, internships, entry level jobs, or long term career choices, to actually become agents of change. Most people, in the end, settle for survival and perpetuating the status quo. Once in a while, however, someone decides to really change the world.

Related reading: A Chance to Make History: What Works and What Doesn’t in Providing an Excellent Education for All by Wendy KoppStart Something That Matters by Blake Mycoskie (founder of Toms Shoes, available September 2011); Global Girlfriends: How One Mom Made It Her Business to Help Women in Poverty Worldwide by Stacey Edgar. Great summer reading for college students to help them incorporate entrepreneurial social action into their evolving life purpose.

Related posts: Liberal Arts and the Real World; Finding a Job in a Tough Economy; So You Didn’t Get That Summer Internship…What To Do?

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Note: This is an update of my popular 11/09 post (where new data were available). Since last year, it is important to note that Sunbelt cities, especially in Texas, have peppered the top ten lists in greater numbers. Austin, Dallas, Houston, Denver and Atlanta are well worth considering.

Graduating from college in this economy! Finding a job in your field, in a stimulating city where you can survive the cost of living and have a social life.  What a complicated equation! So many “best cities” rankings! San Francisco is a cool place to live, but how can you can afford it right out of college? You can afford Omaha, and hey, Warren Buffet lives there, but what will you do on Saturday night?

For direction, I turned to Florida. Not the state. I mean the urban economist Richard Florida, best-selling author of The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life and the amazing Who’s Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where You Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life.

Florida posits that metro areas with high concentrations of high-tech knowledge workers, artists, musicians, LGBT, and “high bohemians” correlate with high economic development. Florida believes this “creative class” fosters an open, dynamic personal and professional atmosphere, which attracts more creative people, as well as businesses and capital.

Florida says living in the right place significantly affects happiness, as much as choosing a career or a spouse. All three choices are very individual. When choosing a city, Florida suggests matching one’s lifestage and personality with a city’s physical aesthetics, social networks, career opportunities and basic services. Before choosing your location, explore Florida’s “Who’s Your City?” website.  The maps are  particularly intriguing: Singles Map, Creative Class Map, Personality Maps, New Geography of Work, Real Estate Map, and Mega Regions of North America.

Gallup-Healthways’ Happiness-Stress Index emphasizes the role of time spent with friends/family for emotional well-being. “Happiness scores” for US Congressional districts were developed based on this index, which Florida presents on his post “Happy (and not so happy) places”.  Five “happiest districts”:  Silicon Valley, Atlanta’s Northern Suburbs, Orange County CA, Denver’s Southern Suburbs, Morris County NJ (where we live–now I know why I’m so happy!).

Next Generation Consulting has studied relocation of 20-40 years olds since 1998. Its indexing system evaluates a city based on priorities of “next gen” workers. NCG’s 7 indices of a “Next City”:  Earning, Learning, Vitality, Around Town, After Hours, Cost of Lifestyle, Social Capital. Top five hotspots by population category:

“Mighty Micros” (Pop. < 200K): Fort Collins CO, Charleston SC, Eugene OR, Cedar Rapids IA, Springfield IL. “Midsized Magnets”(200-500K): Madison WS, Minneapolis MN, Colorado Springs CO, Atlanta GA, St. Paul MN. “Super Cities” (Pop. > 500K):  San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Washington DC, Denver.

Forbes.com developed a list of “America’s Best Cities for Young Adults (2010)”, based on young adult salaries, unemployment rates, cost of living, median ages, the nightlife scenes and Harris Interactive’s ranking of the “coolest” metropolitan areas. Top Ten cities: Austin, Houston, NYC, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Seattle, Atlanta, San Antonio, Minneapolis-St. Paul.

SingleMindedWomen.com analyzed US cities’ job opportunities, cost of living, access to travel, entertainment options, social opportunities, ratio of women to men, singles population, and healthy lifestyle. The result: “2010: Top 10 Cities for Single Women”. And the winners were: Boston, Washington DC, NYC, Seattle, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Denver, Pittsburgh, Dallas, Austin. Gradspot.com, a website dedicated to life after college, identified its “Top Ten Best Cities for Recent Grads (2010)”: Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, NYC, Boston, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Atlanta.

These same cities keep popping up, despite varied selection criteria. Paradigms described in this post explain why young professionals are drawn to these cities. These cities offer: ntellectual stimulation, prevalence of  young single professionals, social networking, knowledge  jobs, physical aesthetics, basic services, all attributes deemed important by Florida or NGC.

NYC, San Francisco, Boston, Washington DC or Chicago are not surprising for careers or coolness. Why didn’t cost of living knock them out of the top spots? I would guess it is because: knowledge workers make good incomes, twenty-somethings rent vs. own, often do not own cars, and have few expenses besides food, rent, wardrobe and entertainment.

When the focus is on jobs and cost of living, the rankings shift. Apartments.com and CareerRookie.com recently released “Top 10 Best Cities for Recent College Graduates (2010)”, ranking US cities with the highest concentration of young adults, inventory of jobs requiring less than one year of experience, and one bedroom apartment average rental cost. It turns up some Flordia or NGC cities, but less obvious ones pop up as well: Atlanta, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Boston, NYC, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cinncinnati, Los Angeles.

Businessweek.com‘s recent ranking, “Top Cities for College Grads (2010)“, based on AfterCollege.com’s entry level job postings, turns up similar cities: Houston, Washington DC, Dallas, Atlanta, Austin, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Columbus, Ft. Worth. It is worth noting that four of the top ten are Texas cities. Could it be time to move to the Lone Star State?

The repeated appearance of Houston, Dallas, Denver, Austin, and Atlanta throughout many “best cities for young professionals” lists is worth noting. The Sunbelt, especially Texas, should be on new college grads’ radar screen. Minneapolis is another city worth considering. Checking beyond the top 5-10 will also uncover hidden gems. Worth studying for such an important life decision!

Relevant reading: Live First, Work Second by Rebecca Ryan,  How to Survive the Real World: Life After College Graduation: Advice from 774 Graduates Who Did by HOH Books, The Quarterlifer’s Companion: How to Get On the Right Career Path, Control Your Finances, and Find the Support Network You Need To Thrive by Abby Wilner, Ramen Noodles, Rent & Resumes: An After-College Guide to Life by Kirsten Fischer.

Related posts:  Finding a Job in a Tough Economy, From College…To the Real World, Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart,Why Should a College Student Be on LinkedIn?, and Best Wesbites for Careers in Finance.

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A recent post from Businessweek‘s daily “Getting In” blog asked, “MBA Applications: Is the Party Over?” Based on the Graduate Management Admissions Council‘s GMAT registration numbers from first four months of 2009, the volume of B-school applications may be leveling off after an all-time high in 2007-08.

Reporter Ann Vander Mey points out the precedent for a boom, then bust in B-school applications during recessions: “During the 2001 dot-com bust, there was a spike in applications as people fled the job market. The spike was followed by falling GMAT test volume for the next three years.” Mey makes a persuasive argument for a similar pattern occuring today: “The financial industry, once B-schools grads’ bread and butter, is in crisis ; many news outlets, including this one, have published articles about MBAs graduating without jobs; and the MBA brand itself has taken a beating.”

Leveling out of MBA applications may be a paradoxical bright spot in the dismal 2009 economy. This past cycle was “not a pretty picture” for many applicants! My clientele fared well, but geographic flexibility was essential: a willingness to consider elite graduate business programs beyond the Northeast Corridor.

According to US News & World Report‘s 2009 rankings of the top 15 B-schools, acceptance rates for Northeast Corridor MBA programs were: HBS 11.5%, MIT Sloan 15.0%, Yale 14.4%, Columbia 15.1%, NYU Stern 13.6% (11th rank but ground zero for financial services!) and Wharton 16.3%. With the exception of Stanford and Berkeley, top schools outside the Corridor had higher acceptance rates: Third-ranked Northwestern Kellogg 19.4%, U.of Chicago 21.9%, Dartmouth Tuck 16.0%, U.of Michigan 20.1%, UCLA 19.5%, UVA Darden 24.6%, Carnegie-Mellon 28.3%, and Duke Fuqua 30.4%.

Recommended reading: The Best Business Schools’ Admissions Secrets: A Former Harvard Business School Admissions Board Member Reveals the Insider Keys to Getting In by Chioma Isiadinso. Related posts: Does Your College GPA Matter? Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Getting a Job with a Lackluster GPA.

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The Daily Beast’s contributor Zac Bissonette recently posted, “Is This The Worst Year to Graduate College Ever?” Whether summer internship or entry level position, it’s a jungle out there. Life has become tougher for the Entitlement Generation, and disappointing for their parents, who wanted them to have everything.

When my 20 year old son was growing up, he listened eagerly to his grandfather’s dinner tales of ancestor immigrant hardships, the Great Depression and WWII. When my son was five, Poppop described having nothing to eat but oatmeal. My son (who carries on the oatmeal-loving gene) exclaimed, “You’re so lucky! Wish I could eat oatmeal all the time.”

At 15, my son expressed almost an envy that his generation was not given the opportunity to face adversity like his grandfather. With wisdom beyond his years, he recognized the role of hardship in eliciting courage and character, as it did for Tom Brokaw’s Greatest Generation. Looks like they’re going to get their chance.

I don’t mean to trivialize the stress, anxiety, frustration, humiliation and discouragement that a fruitless job search, subpar entry level position, or arbitrary layoff brings. As a parent and career coach, I wince at the thought of young people I care about enduring painful experiences. My posts and  website offer resources for finding a job as quickly as possible in this economy. But this post is about perspective.

Richard Carlson, author of Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, told a story about a wise man who was consulted by a villager about a series of dramatic events. When the villager asked, “Isn’t this the worst thing that could happen?” the wise man replied, “Maybe, maybe not.” When he asked, “Isn’t this the best thing that could happen?” the wise man replied, “Maybe, maybe not.”

Check Thoughts.com for a quick racap of this insightful story. Someday you may look back on this tragic unemployment situation as the crucible in which you proved the qualities your grandson will admire.

There’s a movie I wish would be re-released right now. It’s based on a true story, Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner, a young African-American homeless single father who became a successful stock broker during the 1970’s economic downturn. Mr. Gardner’s struggles and triumph were immortalized by Will Smith (with real-life son Jaden)  in the award-winning motion picture:

Not everyone will be a Chris Gardner, but this economy might produce a few. It will call upon all your creativity, intelligence, perseverence, hustle, courage, grit, and belief in yourself. You may find yourself taking detours and end up in a far different place than you originally imagined. But hang in there! It just may bring out your best.

Related posts: College Internship and Entry Level Resumes, From College…To the Real World, So You Didn’t Get That Summer Internship… What To Do?,Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Why Should a College Student Be on LinkedIn?, Time to Apply to B-School? Your College’s Career Center, What Is Informational Interviewing?

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My favorite: Careers-in-Finance.Com. They claim to “demystify” jobs in finance, a great word, because college students who major in economics still ask, “What does an investment banker actually do?” The site describes key career paths,  offers great sitelinks, recommended books, key players, job listings, a place to post your resume, headhunter list, and job outlooks. BTW, it’s up-to-date! This site identifies opportunities in a field that has changed dramatically this year. Yes, there still are opportunities, if you know where to look!

Another “fave” is WetFeet.Com, offering profiles of careers, industries and companies. It covers a wide range of fields. It has sections for undergrads, MBA’s, entry level and experienced professionals. Wetfeet publishes Insider Guides, terrific booklets on careers, industries and companies. Another site I recently discovered is CareerTV, a global TV programmer and interactive website designed to help college students and young professionals explore careers, industries, and companies. Watch a video, you’re ready for the interview. 

What have your experiences been like in financial fields over the past year? I would like to hear from twenty-somethings who have faced difficulty finding positions, or those who have dealt with job uncertainty and loss. How have you been affected by these experiences? If you spent time laid off, what have you done during that time period? What nuggets of wisdom would you offer to students coming out of college who are interested in economics or finance?

Related posts: Liberal Arts and the Real WorldWhat I Did on My Summer Vacation, Er-Internship, Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Why Should a College Student Be on LinkedIn?, So You Didn’t Get That Summer Internship… What To Do?

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Summer internships, especially paid ones, are tough to land in any economy. But it is especially difficult during a period of  high unemployment. And you are competing with the huge population of baby boomlet students, just as you did in the college application process. So it is possible that you were not able to get an internship for this summer. However, there are many valuable alternative ways to spend a college summer, which will be personally gratifying and resume-building as well. Here are ten ideas:

1. Take a course. Get a requirement out of the way, especially a hard one. Give it full focus, perform better, and have an easier workload this fall. Or take an elective at an accredited school near home if your college will give credit. If you attend a private college, take summer courses at your state university to save money on tuition. For exposure to elite academics in a stimulating urban environment, consider Harvard Summer School, London School of Economics, Georgetown, GWU, Columbia, NYU, or USC, to name only a few.

2. Attend a workshop. Gain professional tools as valuable as an internship, or perhaps more.  If you didn’t land that Wall Street summer gig, how about four weekends at the CFA-accredited Investment Banking Institute, offered in ten U.S. cities? Its student price is a bargain compared to executive education at prestigious universities, and you’re free during the week to do hourly work to pay for it.

3 Beef up your technical proficiencies. Add to your professional toolkit for a future job. Let’s say you are a fine arts student interested in exploring applied visual arts, such as digital graphics, videogaming, web design or animation. Buy a software program through Academic Superstore, which offers reduced prices for students. Or enroll in a non-matricultant online course (i.e.,  Academy of Art University.) The fine arts metaphor translates to any field.

4. Do volunteer work in your field. For medical, education and helping professions, it is essential to develop your human contact capabilites, not just academic skills. Volunteer work can help you assess the rewards and frustrations of dealing with clients in your prospective field, as well as different working environments. It may strengthen your grad school application. And it will undoubtedly enhance your experience as a human being. You will never have more time than you do right now to “give back.”

5. Do research. What about approaching a professor  to do unpaid research? Structure an independent study for academic credit. Undergraduate research is expected for graduate school applications in academic, science and medical fields (see Science Magazine‘s Science Careers and Student Doctor Network). If you plan to go into the workforce after college, research demonstrates your initiative and deep knowledge of your field. Your professor may also have connections that may lead to an entry level position.

6. Travel. Do one of your own college’s study abroad programs led by your own professors, other schools’ renowned programs (i.e., NYU, Syracuse, Boston U), or external programs that partner with universities (i.e., IES, CSA). You will enrich your experience in your major, or in your life, and you will never have as much time as you do now.

7. Take grad school prep courses and exams. If you plan graduate school straight from college, take advantage of this time window (vs. during a regular semester). If you plan to join the workforce and are considering eventual graduate work, take the test now. Tests are valid for five years. You’ll never be “smarter” than right now! Click here for GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, or GRE.

8. Learn a foreign language. Master a language for an employment edge in the future, such as Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic or Hindi. Enroll in a college course or Berlitz program, or buy Rosetta Stone (this incredible software could even teach me, the most “unlikely to succeed” language student!). Consider Middlebury‘s renowned language schools, University of Chicago’s intensive language program, or University of Virginia’s Summer Language Institute.

9. Do informational interviews and job shadowing. What do you want to do when you grow up? Finally you have time to find out! Unless you grew up under a rock, you know adults in careers that hold interest for you. Your parents, extended family, family friends, neighbors, teachers, doctors: and people they know. It’s a Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon thing. Whether they are young professionals or high-powered veterans, they’re likely to agree to an informational interview, since you are not specifically asking for a job.

Ask about rewards and frustrations, long term career path, and lifestyle. Remember, people love to tell their story and give advice, so let them!  Ask to “shadow” an individual for a day and find out what “life in the trenches” is really like. The bonus of this approach is, it often leads to landing a project, internship or job later on, directly or indirectly. Every time to meet with an adult professional face-to-face, you will learn something that will help you in career exploration, job interviews, or career decision-making.

10. Earn money. If you can find a semi-skilled summer job, that can also fit the bill. You may be able to take a workshop or online course in your spare time. The money you earn may allow you to do some educational travel at the end of the summer. Working during the summer may free you from having to do part-time work during the school year, resulting in stronger academic performance.

There is nothing more noble and than self-sufficiency, responsibility and elbow grease, and you can be sure future employers will be impressed with a proven work ethic. A summer job requiring physical labor in an outdoor environment can actually be a refreshing break from academia. There is always something to be learned from every experience, from supervisors, co-workers and customers. Soak it all in.

Related posts: Liberal Arts and the Real World, Your College’s Career Center, What I Did on My Summer Vacation, Er-Internship, Take the GMAT While You’re Still Smart, Why Should a College Student Be on LinkedIn? Does Your College GPA Matter? and What Is Informational Interviewing?

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