Finding the Right Career Path: 3 Tips for New Grads

By Robert Half June 2, 2017 at 10:28pm

Transitioning from college student to college graduate is exciting. And stressful. If you’re not sure what comes next, I have some advice — based on my experience helping new grads start their careers — that might be useful as you begin your professional journey. First, though, let’s get a sense of the current job market by looking at the latest jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

In May, the U.S. economy hit a notable mark: 80 consecutive months of job growth. Employers added fewer jobs than many analysts expected, however, with payrolls growing by 138,000 positions. The BLS also revised the number of jobs created in March and April, noting that 66,000 fewer jobs were added during those two months than previously reported. 

All told, the economy has added about 810,000 jobs since the start of 2017. That’s an average of 162,000 jobs per month.

Industries that created the most jobs in May include professional and business services, and healthcare. Employers in professional and business services added 38,000 jobs last month. That industry has added about 46,000 jobs per month, on average, since the start of the year. Healthcare employment rose by 24,000 jobs. Job growth in healthcare has averaged 22,000 per month thus far in 2017.

According to the May jobs report, the national unemployment rate declined slightly to 4.3 percent — a 16-year low. The unemployment rate for workers who are 25 or older and have a college degree also decreased to 2.3 percent from 2.4 percent in April. As I regularly emphasize in my monthly jobs report updates, college graduates are typically the most sought-after workers. 

Also of note: The BLS released its latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey in May. According to the report, there were 5.7 million job openings in March. That’s up from 5.1 million two years ago.

Positive signs for new college grads

The job market awaiting new grads is a good one. Low unemployment, coupled with millions of job openings, means that many employers are having a hard time finding skilled talent for open roles. In fact, unemployment rates for some jobs are even lower than the national average, according to recent BLS data. For example, the unemployment rate for accountants and auditors is 3.1 percent. For computer programmers, it’s just 1.2 percent.

The point is that there are a lot of opportunities out there for workers with in-demand skills and experience. Of course, you might not have much of either yet. Yes, candidates who have relevant skills and experience do typically have an edge in the hiring process. However, employers look for other qualities and attributes, too, like outstanding interpersonal skills and a solid work ethic.

Strong evidence that you’re passionate about learning — and, therefore, able to quickly pick up new skills — is also an attractive quality to many employers. In the technology industry, for example, highly skilled and experienced talent is in very short supply, so businesses are more willing to provide training to promising new hires. Many employers are also snapping up candidates who they feel are the right fit for their work environment, even if those new hires will need extra ramp-up time.

Your involvement in activities on and off campus will be of interest to many employers, as well. Whether you were student union president or a member of the orchestra, or whether you spent your summers volunteering for a nonprofit or working at the local garden supply store, don’t be afraid to shine a light on activities that you’re proud of and that can speak to the type of worker — and person — you are.

Charting your career path

Now that you have a better idea of the job market for new grads let’s talk about how to find the right career path for you. Here are three tips:

1. Don’t blindly grab the brass ring

If you’re like most new grads, you’re under pressure — self-imposed or otherwise — to find employment soon after graduation. That can lead you to make hasty (and poor) decisions when applying for jobs or considering job offers. 

You’ll feel a lot more confident about the whole job search process if you do some homework before you send out your resume. Research by our company shows that many factors go into job satisfaction — from company culture to the challenge that work provides. Figure out which factors are most important to you. Then, as you evaluate job openings, determine which opportunities are most likely to provide the factors you value. 

Be realistic, though. There is no “perfect” job or company, and holding out for one is a mistake.  

2. Be open to exploring different on-ramps to your career

Applying for full-time jobs is by no means your only pathway to entering the work world after you graduate. Internships — which aren’t just for students, in many cases — can provide in-roads to full-time opportunities. Research by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) shows that more employers are hiring interns this year than last. 

Another route to consider is temporary, freelance or project work. Working on an interim basis can help you to earn new skills and experience (and income to keep up with your student loans!), and build your professional network. Through these employment opportunities, you can also determine what type of company you’d like to work for over the long term.

3. Don’t fear the pivot

Even with careful thought and planning, you’re likely to make some major changes in direction during your career — especially in the early stages. If you leave college with a degree in one area but end up working in a completely different career track, you won’t be the first. That’s OK. People change.

I’ve seen this process unfold time and again with the college students and new grads I mentor, as well as those I meet through my involvement in organizations like Enactus and Beta Alpha Psi. And it’s happened in my own career. I started in public accounting before transitioning to recruitment. I’ve spent 30 years with Robert Half, and I could not have imagined this is where life would lead me when I walked off campus for the last time.

So, if your immediate career outlook is a bit murky after graduation, don’t be discouraged. You will likely experience some stops and starts and unexpected turns over the next few years. That’s normal. A smart approach, I believe, is to consistently pursue work that you believe will make the best use of your talent — and likely to leave you feeling fulfilled. It might take a while to discover the right career path, but with persistence, patience and flexibility, you no doubt will.

Here’s a final note of encouragement: NACE reported that employers expect to hire 5 percent more new college graduates from the class of 2017 than they hired from the class of 2016. You are in demand! 

So, good luck, and good hunting. The right career path might appear sooner than you expect.

May 2017 jobs report image

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