I have a Bachelor’s degree in engineering and I’m having trouble finding a job. Part of my problem is pandemic-related for sure; it’s tough for anyone looking for work right now [November 2020]. In my case, I also took a couple years off after graduating to ‘find myself,’ which probably doesn’t help. Basically, I spent the time traveling and working jobs unrelated to my major (like bartending). I guess I needed a break, and wanted to do some things I might not be able to once I settle into my career. Now I’m ready though, and motivated to work.
My more immediate problem, however, appears to be my lack of on-the-job experience. I find this sooo frustrating! I’m applying for ENTRY-LEVEL positions, and employers STILL want to see some prior experience – in most cases, 3+ years. How does this even make sense?? I’ve already done an internship (my program required it) and I’d really prefer not to do another. But it’s been about 9 months since I started looking, and I’m getting desperate. I have a degree in a high demand field, and I feel marketable. I even hired a headhunter. What more can I do?? – Name withheld
You’ve hit upon what is, in my opinion, one of the more confounding realities of the modern job market.
Increasingly, employers seem unwilling to train their new hires for the work they’ll be tasked to do. Better to recruit someone with experience, and be done with it.
It wasn’t always this way.
Back in the day, a career began with an apprenticeship, often for a guild. In exchange for the appropriate training, workers would stay on for an agreed upon period of time once a certain level of competence had been achieved. The practice still exists, but it is by no means common. It’s estimated that only about 0.3% of U.S. labor force receive their training in this way.
More recently, a college education would have been enough to secure gainful employment in the working world. In The Organization Man (1956), William Whyte observes that the typical graduate might have 8 or 9 job offers from which to choose. The expectation was that on-the-job training would be provided by the employer:
“What [the new graduate] wants, above all, is the guarantee of a training program.”
Needless to say, things are a bit different now.
Consider your own experience: You’ve recently spent tens of thousands of dollars (possibly more) on the education necessary to secure a high skill, high demand, 21st Century job. And if you’re like most new graduates, you’ve gone into considerable debt to do so.
Now, however, you’re finding out this is not enough. Not only must you possess a general knowledge of the field you are about to enter, prospective employers also expect you to have somehow acquired the specific experiences unique to the position for which you’re applying. Yet, as you say, you have absolutely no way of meeting this criteria. It would appear these positions aren’t really entry-level at all. Perhaps ‘Experienced, But Willing to Start Over at the Bottom of the Ladder’-level would be more accurate.
So what can you do?
You mentioned you’ve hired a recruiter/headhunter, so I won’t bore you with what they’re likely to suggest (ie. tidying up your resume, polishing your interview skills, etc.). And I probably don’t need to tell you to keep applying. If you’re like most human beings, and need to work for a living, you really don’t have much choice.
There are a couple of other things to keep in mind as you forge ahead, however:
(1) Don’t sell yourself short on experience
By my count, you actually do have three(ish) years of experience under your belt: One year in your field (your internship), and two or so in an unrelated, yet nevertheless professional environment (service industry). I get why you might not want to tell prospective employers about your bartending gigs, but keep in mind that experience will serve you well in the future. Undoubtedly you worked with a diverse group of people with a variety of educational and cultural backgrounds. You also probably learned a thing or two about navigating a hierarchy. Both are invaluable.
(2) Spin your “time off” as a positive
Most graduates go straight from college to their career, almost as if they’re on autopilot. That’s not necessarily good for them, or their employers. They may wish they’d taken a moment to explore some pent-up interests as you did, and their doubts (or regrets) at not having done so may linger for years, potentially impacting their motivation levels. You, on the other hand, have satisfied your curiosities, it could be argued. Your career choice is therefore more deliberate, thoughtful, and informed than it might otherwise have been. Prospective employers may appreciate this if you frame it appropriately. Some recruiters may even be jealous of your meanderings.
(3) The fact that you worked in sales is to your advantage
The capacity to deal with customers—and therefore people—will prove useful to you no matter where your career leads. Take it from someone who’s worked in the sciences for years. Many of your future, technically-minded colleagues will almost certainly lack this competency, and furthermore may never come to acquire it. That’s to your advantage. It sets you apart – so work it. And if you ever do decide to become a manager, I suspect you’ll find this experience very, very helpful. Increasingly, businesses are waking up to the fact that the best managers treat their employees as customers, not ‘subordinates’.
(4) Hiring is a pain for employers too
Having done some hiring myself, I can assure you that this whole interview/hiring dance is no fun for employers either. Yes – recruiters are looking for reasons not to hire you. They’re likely swamped with resumes, and anything they can do to whittle down that pile makes their job easier. Asking for previous job experience is an easy filter to apply, and not likely to be questioned. Companies still need to hire someone, however, and the sooner they do, the sooner the ordeal is over for everybody. So do your best to give employers an excuse to hire you. Maybe it’s talking up your non-work experiences?
(5) Be creative in your job search
My last idea is perhaps the lamest, but I’ll put it out there anyway. Please feel free to send me your name and credentials, as well as a brief description of the sort of job you’re looking for. I’d be happy to post it here.
Maybe your future employer will find you that way?
Best of luck, hang in there, and keep me posted.
Update 8/9/2021: NW has since found a full-time, salaried position in his degree field of engineering. His only complaint: Taking a significant pay cut relative to his bartending days. Otherwise he reports being happily employed. Congratulations!
 Krupnick, Matt. “US Works to Expand Apprenticeships to Fill White Collar Jobs.” Hechinger Report. Teacher College at Columbia University. September 27, 2016. [https://hechingerreport.org/u-s-quitely-works-to-expan-apprenticeships-to-fill-white-collar-jobs/. Retrieved February 18, 2021.]
 Whyte, W. The Organization Man. 1956. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, p. 109.
 According to the Federal Reserve, in 2016 the average student loan debt in the US was $32,731. [https://www.federalreserve.gov/publications/2017-economic-well-being-of-us-households-in-2016-education-debt-loans.htm. Retrieved Feb 19, 2021.