I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I graduated from college, lo these many years ago, but at one point I thought the foreign service sounded fun – lots of travel and excitement and probably meaningful work negotiating treaties and saving the world, etc. I passed the difficult written exam and traveled to Kansas City for the in-person interview phase, conducted by three former (all male) diplomats. I prepped hard, studying up on American foreign policy and politics.
The first question this esteemed panel asked me was “What’s your favorite recipe?”
Since at that time I didn’t cook, in a mild panic I recited a recipe for “tuna frenchies” which was my favorite takeout sandwich in college – basically tuna fish on white bread dunked in a deep fryer.
My diplomatic career was short-lived.
I share this anecdote to illustrate a phenomenon common then as well as now – young people graduating from college with no real clue about the job they want or how to get it. Or as Brandon Busteed puts it, “they haven’t figured out what they’re best at.”
Busteed is executive director of Gallup Education, the education research arm of the Gallup organization most of us know for its national polling. The World Affairs Council of Montana brought Busteed to Missoula recently to talk about how to better educate students to be global citizens.
Gallup Education’s research has found about half of recent college graduates have jobs that they don’t especially enjoy. And that mismatch hurts their employers’ bottom line.
“It turns out that employee engagement, and customer engagement, are leading indicators of how well an organization is doing,” Busteed said.
The measures Gallup used to gauge employee satisfaction were simple and specific.
“That you like what you do each day,” said Busteed. “That at work you have the chance to do what you’re best at every day. That you have a supervisor who cares about your development; that in the last week, you’ve received recognition for the work that you’ve done.”
Using these measurements, Gallup found that recent college graduates are the least emotionally engaged in their work of anyone. Busteed concludes that colleges are not doing a good enough job helping students find the right job for them.
“Fifty percent of recent college graduates ... are in jobs that don’t require a college degree,” said Busteed. “So we have an awful lot of Americans who got a college degree and are now in a job for which they are ... overqualified.”
The survey also found a lot of grads who followed what Busteed calls “the achiever path.”
“The idea that a lot of people ... do everything they’re told, they get good grades all the way through college, they achieve on everybody’s else’s definition of success in life, at the cost of figuring out what was right for them.“
The Gallup survey spanned all kinds of colleges, private and public, and Busteed is quick to point out the criticism is not an indictment of one particular kind of college. The problem is systemic.
“There is a misalignment very clearly in this country between the degrees conferred by colleges and universities, and the jobs available,” said Busteed. “So we need to do a far better job collaborating ... between institutions of higher education, and the people who are employers ... whether they’re businesses, nonprofits or government agencies – to have a much clearer understanding of the jobs (and skills) that are needed.”
Busteed thinks colleges can also get better at helping students figure out what they like to do and what they’re best at – and says that effort should go well beyond administering aptitude tests. He’d like to see more experience-based education i.e. more internships and more mentoring from faculty who have experience beyond the ivy walls of academia.
“How many faculty have recently had an experience of working in a workplace outside of academia? Or have they ever?” asked Busteed. “To understand what’s happening in the modern workplace?”
And finally Busteed suggests that students become deeply, not superficially, engaged in areas that interest them.
“What we see is a lot of people advocating young people to get involved in a whole bunch of things,” said Busteed, “at the cost of getting involved in one or two of them in a very meaningful way.”
Busteed doesn’t argue any of this is easy but he does have the facts to back up the conclusion that too many people getting a great education are ending up in jobs they don’t like and aren’t suited for. That obviously lowers their quality of life – and it’s not good for employers either.
I still wonder what knowing how to cook had to do with being a diplomat. Hopefully these days, not much.
Sally Mauk is news director at KUFM, Montana Public Radio, at the University of Montana in Missoula. She writes a biweekly column for the Missoulian.