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How to Get an Outstanding First Job as a Modern Liberal Arts Graduate

I read an article in the New York Times recently on how employers need to "reopen the doors to the young". As someone that has hired 50+ people under age of 25 in the past year and have had none of them fail in their new jobs, I felt compelled to comment on how out of touch this article is, and also lay out the steps below for how modern liberal arts graduates need to view the world and themselves to land truly outstanding first jobs. It's a complex problem, and - importantly -  I think the NYT article misrepresents the difficulty for both hiring managers and job seekers for entry-level jobs.

In that NYT article, I found one message  difficult to get past:

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Many liberal-arts graduates say they are eager to find an employer willing to train them in skills that don’t require a degree in engineering or computer science. They cite six-sigma analysis, supply-chain procedures, customer service, inventory control, quality assurance and Internet marketing. They want a chance to master one of those skills.

[...]

Rather than waiting for educational institutions or the government to bridge this generation gap, employers should consider accepting some responsibility for introducing young people into the work force. This could be the perfect time for companies to start pilot projects that enroll unskilled but promising people in corporate training programs.

While time and training do yield experience and with experience comes hard skills on resumes, this really misses the issue of the modern hiring process and current job market. The problem in hiring young stars is not one of age or skill specifically, but in finding people who can quickly yield value in a specific role and adapt and grow with an organization to hold more complex jobs. To that point, successful job-seekers don't promise "potential" and wait for companies award them with training and skills, they show potential pre-hire and take action on their potential before they even apply.

Unpacking why young liberal-arts majors have a hard time finding a job is tricky, therefore, because it's a multi-faceted problem. It's both a problem with job-seekers (candidates) and with hiring managers (companies), and both ends are complex. I want to break down both sides of the issue, and try to provide some frank advice to young job-seekers, particularly those with liberal-arts degrees that didn't come with the skills listed in job descriptions. That said, little of the below hinges on the 4-year college credential or any educational specifics.

Let's start with where hiring managers go wrong, so you can try to avoid them in your job hunt, because they are poison to your potential.

Avoid bad hiring managers who focus on "skills", not narratives

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Bad hiring managers are looking only at skills present on resumes and ignore the narrative of a person's life experience. Now, this is OK if they're just looking to fill a seat - and that's that - but extremely problematic if they're trying to grow a company or hire stars that can help an organization adapt over time (there's how the "potential" helps companies). I do believe that there are a lot of bad hiring managers at bad companies that think like this and can't see beyond acronyms on resumes. I've worked with them and even for them, and they are truly toxic.

But the existence of bad hiring managers and bad companies in no way implies that "potential" is the opposite of "skills". Totally false dichotomy there perpetuated by myopic management types and articles like the one in the Times. Painting skills vs. potential as a one-or-the-other scenario is a major issue because it allows bad hiring managers to continue to make bad hiring decisions that negatively affect their companies growth potential and job-seekers' employment changes. The reality is that the world is a big place, and it's possible to find both in the same person, and it's absoluitely not a one-or-the-other scenario. I'd even go as far as saying picking one without the other is usually a mistake - it can work, but it'd take a lot of luck to make the right bet with every hire.

Understand what potential + skill looks like, together, and seek hiring mangers who get it

In a reasonable candidate pool, a good hiring manager can find both potential and skill in the same person, if they keep an open mind. Think a tiny bit outside the gray cubicle box and it's not too hard:

  • ACum Laude Psychology major who also has a totally tricked out blog on their cat? They probably picked up some HTML/CSS along the way to make that blog and can learn new tech skills quickly.

  • A captain of a field hockey team who did Teach for America on math? That's a good promise of a future leader with ability to learn smoothly and work with all sorts of clients and situations.

  • A current Apple Store employee who also does some video editing for walking around money? That's a self-motivated learner who understands technology and can work with people. (Added bonus: Apple training is really strong.)

It's a combination of experiences that sets candidates who get jobs apart from those that don't, and it's got little to do with age. It has everything to do with hiring managers willing to take calculated risks and read through the lines resume to understand the narrative of a person's life. If that narrative's next chapter is your company and your open position, it's a good fit - and a better fit than someone who just has the right acronyms on a resume and can fill a seat today.

My advice to young candidates looking for a job? Set your sights on awesome jobs at interesting companies. Be prepared to assess your interviewers as much as they're assessing you, by asking them personal questions to understand their narrative. Then avoid bad hiring managers like the plague - remember that they're the people that a company is comfortable showing as its face to the world. Don't get involved with bad hiring managers with narrow views if you can at all avoid it. And if you find people you fall in love with, don't let them go if you can help it - people are worth far more than a paycheck early in your career.

So, what can you do when you fall in love with a job? Make sure you're a good candidate by taking action before you even apply.

Show your potential by taking action on it

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One notion the NYT articles nailed is that there are a lot of job-seekers, and many are looking for companies to teach them. 

This is most definitely true, but unfortunately many candidates don't have the "potential" they claim - even with an infinite amount of teaching, many candidates that look good on paper would never realize their full capability. So, then, why should a company teach you if you're not a sure bet?

The good news? It's possible to make yourself more of a sure bet. As of this writing it's 2014, and there are innumerable ways demonstrate, pre-interview, that you have potential. Programs like MIT's opencourseware, CodeCademy, and volunteer organizations all provide avenues to build "skill" - and taking advantage of them prior to applying for a job is what separates successful candidates from false promise failures.To make matters worse, it's really hard to tell the difference between a candidate who would or would not realize that potential just through interviewing or resume reading.

So if you are looking for a job, you you must (MUST) show your potential by taking action prior to applying, not just promising that you have "potential" during an interview process or in an "obective" section on your resume. Everyone can make promises, but not everyone can take action to show their potential, and again it's very challenging to accurately differentiate the two, leading hiring managers to simply not hire people who haven't already shown some potential through action. Sorry for the reality check - this is how competitive hiring processes work.

Take for example some bad examples of "potential":

  • A 3.8 GPA at an Ivy League school in abstract Math applying for a junior operations position. Why haven't you investigated operations on a small scale and started a tiny eBay adventure selling trinkets? Startup cost is <$100. You'd learn a lot about operations doing that and demonstrate your potential that way. GPAs and credentials are mostly uninteresting outside of academia, finance, and consulting unless they're truly, remarkably exceptional.

  • A Magna Cum Laude Spanish major interested in an entry level customer-facing position. Why haven't you pursued a TEFL certificate and worked abroad or in domestic institutions teaching English over a summer? Other candidates have, and if you haven't, you're not demonstrating value as much as others and are much less interesting to hiring managers.

  • A journalism major who managed their college paper. That's a step beyond the previous examples in leadership skills, which is great - but why don't you have a WordPress site with examples of your writing? Again, someone else has, and they're going to get a job before you because they took that one extra step to show their potential.

  • A college helpdesk student worker with a persistent 'interest" in technology. Again, a step beyond some other examples here, but how many colleges are there and how many helpdesk workers at those colleges? Lots. What makes you different? What have you done take that experience and really own it and turn it into demonstrated potential? A humble suggestion: nerd out on one portion of the job you loved by starting a blog about it or building a 128k ram module on a breadboard. No, your online gaming addiction isn't a great interview topic when asked about your most recent technology adventure.

There's a classically liberal arts message in all of these examples, too - show, don't tell. Read that one again - show, don't tell.

Personally, I interview about a dozen entry-level candidates a week, and no more than 25% have taken that mantra from their successful term papers and turned "potential" into action. Businesses care about action, and to make matters worse for those that don't take action or took years to do so, other candidates are beating you to the punch. Find that one extra step that 75% of your peers aren't doing, and do it. It doesn't need to take a ton of time, but it does need to happen, and you do need to care.

In my mind, action vs. inaction is the real competition. It's not skill or age, but action vs. inaction, and the ability to show your potential vs. promise it. Remeber: show, don't tell, your potential.

The 9 Steps to show your potential + skill, and get an outstanding entry-level job

Here are the steps I recommend to get an outstanding entry-level job. Note that this isn't "how to show potential through skill as a recent grad" - it's completely independent of age or experience whether you do this:

  1. Find a job you want. If you're planning on entering the job market 6 months from now, today is a good time to start at this. Cast your net wide looking for roles - check out the normal job aggregation sites, but also look at websites of companies you respect or have heard about. Haven't heard about any companies you like? Search something creative like "best places to work in _______" in Google and get a list.

  2. Identify the 4 critical elements for the job's profile. By reading job descriptions, looking at LinkedIn profiles of individuals already in that job, and generally snooping around the Internet, you should be able to build a profile in your mind that matches what the company is looking for pretty well. Yes, you'll have to Google-fu a little...but you will have to work much harder in any good job you get. Pick the top 4 skills that appear consistent in people already working the job you want, or similar ones.

  3. Critically rate yourself vs the job's 4 critical elements. Do you have any shred of a narrative in your resume for those skills? Be honest with yourself, and take feedback from people around you, people you respect, or even recruiters for the position if you can get an informational interview. In a classroom setting, you might call this a "gap analysis". Do it here, on yourself, critically. Rate yourself on a 1-4 scale for each of the 4 critical elements you identified in #2 above.

  4. For skills you haven't started exploring, start to connect the dots. There will be skills you lack for many jobs you want. But you can't just hope a company trusts your "potential" enough to take a risk on you. Figure out how you can start to acquire these skills on your own. You have a few months before you're formally applying for the job, right? Use that time to start that blog about your cat, expand your depth of experience through non-profit programs, or build your portfolio. This is all about growing your ability to show, not tell, during an interview.

  5. Pursue your side projects with passion. You're trying to make up ground - don't be a slouch. And you're working on skills you give a damn about, right? Make the best cat blog out there, or the best portfolio site, or take the non-profit post that challenges you the most personally. Invest yourself in these side projects and companies are more likely to recognize your commitment by investing hiring you.

  6. Revise your resume with your new projects that highlight your skills. Not only do your recent forays make you a more interesting person to hire, but they demonstrate your ability to take initiative and realize some of that "potential" you have. Unrealized potential is an uncashed check, and your goal here is to start to show companies that you can take action and put all that liberal arts, retail, or whatever experience to work for you. Don't oversell it on your resume, but if you really did make the best damn cat blog in the world, you probably learned a thing or two about marketing, cate vs doge, and web design.

  7. Apply and pitch the narrative of your potential + projects + skills within the context of the job. Take note that this wasn't the first step! Good candidates do their research and show up prepared - it shows hiring managers you can think, prepare, and work toward a goal. Turns out that's important in business. Some people call this drive, some might even frame it is slightly psychopathic; but it's effective work, and if you can do it outside of a job, you'll sure as hell do it once it pays your bills.

  8. Assess your interviewers with good questions. Don't be a jerk and ask passive-aggressive questions, but do try to get to know the people you're interviewing with and generate a discussion in the time you have. Trust me, interviews have time built in for this. Ask yourself: Can you learn from them? Do they seem like they're a good cultural fit for you? Do they value what you value in an organization? Sure, you've put in a lot of work up to this point but don't be afraid to pull out of the process if you feel like the people on the other side of the table aren't up to your expectations. You've got a good narrative now and you can take that on the road to new, similar jobs at new, better companies.

  9. Talk about money, but don't be a crazy negotiator. Good companies have a lot of leverage on you because they have lots of applicants for few positions. I've never turned down a candidate for negotiating, but you can tell when a new graduate's lawyer parents seeded a few carefully worded questions. The experience you get in an exceptional first job is worth far, far more than the $3k bump you're trying so hard to eek out of the company. Yes, there is a compound earnings argument at stake, but that doesn't really come into play for another 5-10 years as you've established yourself in the industry. Get in on a good note, get that experience, then negotiate your future compensation when you change companies.

Yes, this is work. So is, you know, working. For many people, it's not easy out there and because you don't have some of the on-paper skills that others have, you do have to put in more work in a competitive situation like job-hunting.

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All that said, I strongly believe that liberal arts majors and certain life experiences do prepare people better for entry-level positions. This is especially true for those individuals who want to have long, interesting careers for fast-growing, remarkable companies. Briefly below, I want to explore what I think liberal arts majors bring to the table to companies.

A particular consideration for liberal arts majors with top-tier educations

I spoke to a group of 50 extraordinarily bright and motivated students last week. Mostly from top-tier schools like Harvard, Cornell, Dartmouth, Tufts, etc. Mostly clueless as to how to get a outstanding first job at an interesting company, and also mostly not people that I could hire for my "entry-level" positions given their potential + skill balance, because there was almost no skill present even though everyone was well-spoken and energetic.

Below are the slides I presented, which includes hiring criteria for the entry-level position of HubSpot Support Engineer:

The primary takeaways were:
  1. Many new graduates over-estimate their value on the job market, especially liberal arts majors. You have to build that value piece by piece, step by step. The work you did in a classroom as a liberal arts major is far less useful than you even think it is.

  2. Luckily, liberal arts degrees give you training in how to solve hard problems...like getting a job. Getting a job is a problem to think through and solve just like the rest. As a liberal arts major you can think critically, communicate clearly, bullshit your way though tough issues, work well in different media, and apply frameworks to break down problems. Don't underestimate the ability of this training to help you through tough times like job-hunting, but also don't think it's enough to get you to exactly where you want to be out of the box.

  3. There exists a very interesting subset of new graduates out there who see that paths into finance and consulting aren't for them. They feel the pressure to move to those, see their peers doing it, but are irked by something. These young job-seekers are showing great intuition just by realizing there's a world out there beyond the track that is most clearly laid out for them. I love this.

  4. To get off that "track", it takes some work because companies need skills these graduates don't have. I elaborated on that above, and some of it is in these slides, too. Lots of people don't expect to have to put in that extra work, and end up under-optimizing their professional lives as a result. I really hope most of the really interesting people I met last week don't end up in crappy jobs just because it's "what you do" when you graduate from a top-tier school.

If this helps even one job-seeker, it was worth writing

I truly hope this helps at few people out there. And even if this post and content only helps one person to get their dream job, it's well worth it. The reality of today's job market is a complex and competitive one, but not an insurmountable one like articles in the New York Times would lead you to believe. It just takes work to differentiate yourself due to the number of candidates and lack of skills that academia awards most students.

For smart, motivated people that are willing to put in the time to understand the job market and a bit of "extra" work to differentiate themselves, the possibilities remain. And having seen lots of success and failure in entry-level job seekers, I felt an obligation to write down whatever guidance I can offer. Good luck out there.

Topics: hubspot support hiring liberal arts degrees