Brian Weed is the CEO of GradStaff, a national career matchmaking firm specializing in entry-level recruitment and hiring. We recently talked with Brian about how recent college graduates can take stock of their skills and determine which job or career field is ideal for them.
Tell us a bit about your background. Why did you decide to take the helm at GradStaff?
I have a diverse background, starting with a stint as a management consultant where I was a partner at The Boston Consulting Group. This period gave me a great foundation for my career, but I knew I wanted to be more involved in seeing ideas through to implementation and impact. The theme for my last 20 years has been having leadership roles in lower middle-market businesses during rapid growth stages. I’ve helped these businesses identify the most attractive market opportunities and then add the people, infrastructure, and processes needed to capture those opportunities.
The opportunity to lead GradStaff was particularly appealing to me because the core of what we do is help recent college graduates—most of whom are in that large segment of peers who are struggling to find their “calling” professionally—get on a path to a potentially exciting career. Everyone at GradStaff feels great about what we do, and the thank-you notes from our placements, many of whom have advanced into management roles at our clients, are inspiring and rewarding. At the same time, we hear from clients that we are a valuable partner in helping them succeed in recruiting their future leaders, which reinforces the key function we play in the overall labor market.
Broadly speaking, what types of skills do most new college grads have that can give them an edge when competing for a job?
According to a recent Forbes article, most employers today look beyond college degrees or internships and seek strong “soft skills” in candidates, such as leadership, communication, collaboration, etc. Employers especially value candidates that can identify real-life examples of how they applied those skills. Many entry-level job seekers don’t leverage their non-professional work experience when interviewing for professional roles, which represents a missed opportunity to show how they have used soft skills effectively. For these job seekers, the retail, restaurant, or service jobs they took during college or after graduation may be just the experience they need to demonstrate their value to prospective employers.
most employers today look beyond college degrees or internships and seek strong “soft skills” in candidates, such as leadership, communication, collaboration, etc.
Also, job seekers shouldn’t discount the importance of volunteer experience gained during college, especially leadership roles in student organizations, sports, or Greek life. All of these roles help develop important transferable and marketable skills attractive to prospective employers. Employers will take note of a candidate’s ability to harness what they’ve learned from all of their paid and volunteer work experiences – and they’ll be looking for job seekers who can bring those skills to their companies.
It’s also essential for candidates to show how they contributed to business momentum and success in previous non-professional positions, not just the tasks they accomplished. Answering the question, “What did you do at your last job?” with an abstract laundry list of duties without putting accomplishments in context demonstrates a lack of understanding about business strategy, goal-setting, and attainment. Job seekers should be prepared to share not only what they did and how they did it, but also how it ultimately helped move the needle for the company.
If a new grad were to say to you, "I don't really know what kind of career I want to pursue, so I'm not going to apply for any jobs until I figure that out," how might you respond?
According to GradStaff research, more than 70 percent of grads don’t know where their skills and education fit in the workforce. This often results in a “shotgun” approach to job searches. Job seekers should research careers and industries that value the transferable skills they’ve built in college, and then develop a strategy for marketing those skills to specific employers and open positions.
One question liberal arts students have heard frequently over the years is “What are you going to do with your degree?” This can create a false perception among students that major subjects are closely tied to specific career paths, which tends not to be the case with liberal arts majors. While the debate over the value of a liberal arts degree vs. specialized study continues, we see increasing momentum towards renewed respect and demand for liberal arts graduates in the workplace. Academics and business leaders alike, including billionaire Mark Cuban, are now touting the ascendance of liberal arts grads in the workforce as automation continues to transform the labor market. Liberal arts grads in any field can take several steps to “sweeten the deal” as they seek footholds on their inaugural career paths, the most important being identifying and demonstrating soft-skill expertise.
How does an applicant's soft skillset impact the type of job at which he or she would excel?
More than two-thirds of all new jobs created from 2014 to 2016 were with companies of 500 or fewer employees. Most of those companies don’t recruit on campus, so there may not be as much competition at the entry level as there might be at a bigger company. Coincidentally, these are also jobs that require a high degree of adaptability, problem-solving, and cross-functional teamwork, as mid-sized companies often ask entry-level employees to fill many roles. Soft skills are at the root of these necessary workplace competencies.
Here are a few industries looking to hire grads right now, along with the skills necessary for success in each field:
Insurance – Graduates with analytical and problem-solving skills are best positioned for success in the insurance field.
Health care – New grads who are highly adaptable and adept at managing complex relationships can be particularly valuable to health care organizations.
Financial services – Job seekers with attention to detail and a meticulous, inquisitive nature often possess the skills needed for success in this field.
Logistics – Grads that understand business processes and possess research and problem-solving skills will succeed in this high-growth profession.
How early before graduation should a college student begin his or her job search in earnest?
As long as it doesn’t become all-consuming, it is never too early for a college student to begin their job search. Ultimately, the job search should be about what a student enjoys doing, which will evolve over time but is likely to have some characteristics that remain constant (like interacting with people, solving problems, or using creative skills).
While the link between a student’s major and their career options is not as strong as most people think, selecting a major does have implications on the types of jobs that are more easily accessed after graduation; so a way to start the job search process is for students to list the natural career options that come for the majors they are considering. This can be a “tiebreaker” when a student is trying to settle on a major, or decide which minor to add to their major.
Throughout the process (and as soon as possible), students should network with family friends, alumni, professors, and business people to get ideas on jobs that “fit” what the student likes to do. Networking is also a primary source of internship opportunities, which are increasingly important in positioning graduates for attractive entry-level jobs right out of college. Students who don’t consider career paths and don’t begin this networking before senior year might be at a disadvantage upon graduating.
That said, a career is a marathon, not a sprint, so it is never too late to start planning a job search strategy. We've helped many students get serious about their job searches after graduation; and after placing these students on attractive career paths, these individuals who thought they were way behind some of their classmates can “catch up” very quickly once they find the right fit in the workplace.
Finish this sentence: "Other than actually applying for jobs, the most important thing new college grads can do to maximize the chances of finding a full-time job is…"
The most important thing new college grads can do to maximize the chances of finding a full-time job in an area of interest is to develop a strong value proposition and job search strategy. Graduates should be honest about what they enjoy doing (i.e., what gives them energy), which is a common trait in successful careers. With that in mind, they need to identify the transferable skills they possess that are required for the positions that align with their passion. Finally, they should research the potential employers with roles that demand the skills and abilities they will bring to the company.
The best way for grads to do this is by crafting a story or narrative that describes their unique set of life experiences, what they learned from their successes as well as mistakes, and the important decisions they made along the way. In developing this narrative, grads should look to important experiences they've had in internships and jobs, extra-curricular activities (athletics, music, theater, etc.) and leadership opportunities as well as academics.
What's your philosophy on whether a new college grad should accept an internship at a company instead of looking for a full-time position?
Obviously, internships during college can be very helpful in getting a full-time position in that same field. However, while all college grads want a full-time position in their “ideal” job, many struggle to find that fit right out of the gates. For those that struggle, post-graduation internships present opportunities for both companies and job seekers. For hiring managers, internship programs can help them identify talent and perform a “test drive” with the candidate before making the longer-term commitment.
What do the future employment prospects look like for those students who are just entering college? What can these students do during their matriculation to prepare themselves for their eventual job search?
Future employment prospects for entry-level workers are fantastic, but only if job seekers (and the companies doing the recruiting) take the right approach. Baby boomers are retiring from the workforce in record numbers (more than 10,000 per day worldwide). Their heir apparent, Generation X, is smaller than most preceding generations, so there won’t be enough qualified employees to fill the need; particularly in aging industries like insurance, financial services, health care, and manufacturing. The future of the U.S. labor economy rests on the shoulders of millennials and Generation Z – i.e., those in college or graduating within the next 5-7 years.
Growing businesses, especially those with 500 or fewer employees, need access to quality entry-level talent in order to stay competitive. This need will continue to grow in the coming years. But companies in these industries need new strategies to recruit and retain the best young men and women for the job. Similarly, job seekers need to take a more proactive approach to identifying the roles that best align with their interests and skills, and then marketing their soft skills and non-professional work experience to prospective employers.
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