It's not what you know, but what you can do

Gary Swart · June 19, 2013 · Short URL:

To the class of 2013: Understand the job market realities

As the latest crop of college graduates frame their diplomas and prepare to make their mark on the world, the very value of their diploma is being called into question. With student loan debt at unprecedented levels, unemployment rates stubbornly high (even increasing in May, to 7.6%), and the cost of college tuition skyrocketing, many are asking — is higher education worth it?

As these concerns grow, a new reality is emerging — one in which career prospects are determined not by educational pedigree, but by skills. In other words, the competence indicator that education typically offered is being replaced by demonstrated proof of cold, hard skills.

This reality is sinking in, especially with students. A study released today by Millennial Branding and found that only 12% of students think college classes are most important to developing their business skills — a number dwarfed by the 57% who say internships are most important. In today’s competitive job landscape, students realize that actual work experience is more valuable than theoretical experience from textbooks.

Economist Thomas Friedman agrees. In his recent New York Times column, he also discussed new job market realities and related shifts in education, writing: “A bachelor’s degree is no longer considered an adequate proxy by employers for your ability to do a particular job.” Instead, companies want to see proof of the value people will bring to the table.

For an extreme application of this theory, consider the Thiel Fellowship program, which pays kids not to go to college. Backed by billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel, whose theory about the ‘education bubble’ has garnered national attention, the fellowship admits an annual class of 20 people under 20 years old, granting each $100,000 over two years to pursue entrepreneurship, research and/or self-education. Thiel is demonstrating that traditional education is not the only way — or even the best way — for young people to build the foundation for a successful career and life.

It’s clear to me that a major shift is underway in the world of education and jobs. My company, the online workplace oDesk, recently partnered with Millennial Branding on a survey examining the future of work. We asked questions about the value of education, results of which hadn't been released. These findings so strongly resonated with me in light of today’s study on internships and Friedman’s column, that I had to share them. 

Of the more than 3,000 professionals we surveyed:

  • 94% said continued learning was very important, while only 52% said the same about traditional degrees.
  • More than one-third (38%) said they would recommend joining a promising startup over completing a college degree at a respected university.

The bottom line: Learning skills and gaining experience was seen as much more important than having a traditional degree.  

So what does this mean for graduates? How will they not only launch their career, but also constantly refresh their “proof of value” as the years go on?

Those of us further along in our careers already know that landing your first job is just the beginning. It kicks off a lifelong process of steering your career path, that will be more complicated — and yet more critical — for today’s graduates than ever. Several recent graduates have asked my advice, and here is what I tell them.

  1. Be solopreneurs. You need to create your own opportunities to garner experience that speaks volumes. Building that entrepreneurial mindset will help set you up for success, no matter what path you choose. It’s critical to building your own venture, and is highly valued if you want to be a business rockstar, since it shows that you can identify opportunities, solve problems creatively and make things happen.
  2. Stay relevant. As the job market becomes more freelance and on-demand, you need to stay on top of your game. Our survey found that professionals are looking to online classes and other new ways to learn. Want to learn how to code? Sign up on Codecademy. Want to refine your data analytics skills? Register for a class on Coursera or with General Assembly. The Millennial Branding/ survey even found that 69% of students would participate in an online internship if they were able to.
  3. Constantly build your personal brand. Your competition is fierce, so you need to build a strong personal brand — one that sets you apart and promotes your abilities. This goes beyond just your social presence and online search results; it includes your network (online and offline) and your reputation in that network, from your skills to your trustworthiness. Professional sites like LinkedIn and online workplaces like oDesk can also help you build your networks (and in the case of online workplaces, provide a valuable track record of actual experience, too.)

Experience (and proof of it) is the new employment currency. As Dan Schawbel, founder of Millennial Branding, likes to say, "the work is in the work itself.” This is a results-oriented world we live in today — which allows companies to move faster than ever, but also requires workers to keep up with them.

Both businesses and professionals will need to innovate how they work together, if they want to stay relevant.

(Image source: pickmycollege)

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Gary Swart

Gary has two decades of experience in technology. He was previously the VP of Worldwide Sales for Intellibank and a Business Unit Executive for IBM's Rational Software.

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