Become an entrepreneur. Start a business. Blaze your own career path.
Many “Millennials” can recite this advice by heart, since it sometimes seems like the only way to find meaningful work in the toughest job market in decades. Except that many people, no matter how ambitious, simply aren’t cut out for entrepreneurship, which is risky in its own right and punishing on people who lack the indomitable personality it takes to get a business off the ground.
The good news for Millennials—the 16-to-34-year-olds who represent the future leaders of America—is that traditional corporate careers still exist, and despite a weak job market, companies do need young workers to fill entry-level jobs and inject fresh blood into aging organizations. The trick for young workers is to differentiate themselves from thousands of others vying for a limited number of openings in corporate America. “You’ve got to contribute on a higher plane,” says David Smith, head of the global human resources practice at consulting firm Accenture. “Ask yourself, ‘how can I, as a new employee, build my skills to help contribute to innovation at the company?’”
Millennials, often derided as a pampered generation raised by overweening parents, do face particular challenges in the job market. Many may have unrealistic expectations about the value of their skills. They may be disheartened to learn they have to start at the bottom, as their parents and grandparents did. Perhaps even lower. Starter jobs may be temporary, with few benefits, and raises and promotions scarce. “Kids today have broad expectations of being the CEO someday,” says Smith.
Instead of aiming for the corner office right away, he suggests focusing on the specific things you can bring to an entry-level job and convincing potential employers that you can contribute in tangible ways—without asking what the company can do for you. That means researching the job opening in advance, understanding what it entails, and highlighting specific ways you can provide what the company needs.
The “skills gap” hiring managers often talk about is very real: The strongest demand is for young workers with a mathematical, engineering or science background, yet most college students these days still major in softer fields such as psychology, education, history, English or sociology. To fill such gaps, young workers can round out their college curriculum with more quantitative courses in analytics, statistics, or mathematical fields. Or, they can pursue such training after graduating, at a community college or other type of adult education center. And if paying for more education right after graduating from college seems unfair, too bad: As many older workers know, education is a lifelong process that, for the best workers, never stops.
Some recent grads may have developed useful job skills in college they’re not even aware of, such as using social media for marketing purposes or developing familiarity with the latest design or engineering software. “Help hiring managers make sense of your transcript,” advises Ryan Craig, managing director at University Ventures, a private-equity firm focused on higher education. “Nobody understands what competencies you’ve learned from those courses. That’s something that might help you stand out.” He suggests showcasing your skills on a Web site, Tumblr page or some other digital format potential employers can access easily.
Some companies form partnerships with nearby community college as a way of building a hiring pipeline meant to help them get job applicants trained in the particular skills they need. To find programs that might entail a good chance of getting hired at the end, look for ones in which the employer seems directly involved at the outset, with company officials helping to design and administer the program. That indicates a legitimate interest in hiring. Shy away from programs that seem to have just token support from local businesses. One way to tell: If a training program is paid for by an employer, that’s a good sign they’re committed to hiring out of it.
It might also pay to join local civic groups or other types of volunteer organizations, which look good on a resume—since many companies increasingly want to emphasize their role as good corporate citizens—and can provide opportunities to schmooze with movers and shakers you might not meet any other way. And if your phone rings or your text-message alert sounds while you’re chatting with somebody who might be able to help you get a job, defy the stereotype and ignore it. Proving you’re not a typical Millennial may be the best way of all to set yourself apart.
Rick Newman’s latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.