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To the class of 2023

I was scheduled to speak with around thirty 8th graders today about careers and preparing for the “real world”. The snow fall ended up canceling the opportunity but here they are anyways.

Workforce readiness strikes me as one of the most important issues of our time. Despite low unemployment, many people are struggling to get by. My concern is as these students grow up and move through the educational system, if their knowledge, skills and abilities don’t line up well enough with what jobs are available, they may be out of luck. One way this is playing out presently is 40% of college graduates end up in a job after school that doesn’t require a degree.

Perhaps though they want to be an entrepreneur or freelancer. The interest in this way-of-life is growing and should be explored as well if they are interested. But with the average college graduate carrying $30,000 in debt, a stubborn fact is research showing people who carry too much debt are less likely to start a company because of their loan obligations.

It’s important for me to state I made the assumption that a majority of the students I would have spoken with are planning on or will be steered to attend a four-year college. I did not present the above statistics to say I am anti-college but rather wanting to see students, their parents and institutions partner to ensure that in addition to providing a rich social and developmental experience, the student emerges prepared for the next chapter. When preparing for this talk, I was shocked to see that according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics the 3 jobs listed below have something in common

  • Accountants

  • Computer programmers

  • Sewing machine operators

All three are projected to shrink over the coming years due to technology and cheaper labor abroad.

[steps off soapbox]

Based on everything above, here is what I planned to share with students. I want to note this includes input from my good friend Yusuf Daneshyar of Climb So Ill, who I chatted with about this. When asking him what he’d share with students he said, “work ethic and holding yourself accountable are things people cannot take away from you. If you have integrity and work hard, even if one thing or another doesn’t work out, you’ll keep on going. You should also build the right systems and support network around yourself. You’ll mess up in ways big and small throughout life and will need people and processes in place to help you rebound. Only in recent years I’ve learned the power of regularly asking questions. Put yourself out there and speak up when you don’t understand something.”.

Skill development is also important and I can’t summarize it and how to think about it any better than Scott Adams,

“Become very good (top 25%) at two or more things… Everyone has at least a few areas in which they could be in the top 25% with some effort. In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare… I always advise young people to become good public speakers… If you add that talent to any other, suddenly you’re the boss of the people who have only one skill… Capitalism rewards things that are both rare and valuable. You make yourself rare by combining two or more “pretty goods” until no one else has your mix… at least one of the skills in your mixture should involve communication, either written or verbal.”

Think of your skills like a venn diagram. What overlap makes you unique and brings you joy? This is how you can up your appeal in a field like accounting or computer programming even if jobs are no longer booming. You’re not just an accountant. You’re an accountant who specializes in [insert field of interest here] and is a capable public speaker / writer so you can give talks / publish papers on the subject.

Beyond skills I would tell them to make sure they invest time in building and sustaining relationships. As someone who is currently between jobs - contract assignment coming soon! - I have been blown away by the power of the network I have built to deliver me ideas, introductions and support in ways I could never have done on my own. In Esquire I once read, “never underestimate how much people will do for someone they like and how little they’ll do for someone they don’t.” When you are with people be present, genuine and interested.

The power of travel cannot be understated. See different parts of our country and the world. The way you live is but one of countless ways people go about their lives. Understanding and embracing that people live and believe things different than you is invaluable to understand. Andrew Solomon said it this way, “Familiar landscapes cushion you from self-knowledge because the border between who you are and where you are is porous. But in a strange place, you become more fully evident: who you truly are is what persists at home and abroad."

When it comes to content, on occasion venture away from the NYT bestseller list, latest podcasts and what is trending on Netflix. For conversation with friends, colleagues and when you are interviewing for jobs, being able to bring something unique to the table is powerful. It’s hard to do that if you’re reading the same news stories, books and magazines as everyone else.

Volunteer in the community for two reasons: 1) It’s the right thing to do. Communities are built by people giving more away than you receive. 2) It’s the single most important way I have grown my network.

Good luck!

Go Forth Boldly

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