Montreal's Tom Smith is a writer in the creative department of a large advertising agency, and has been in the ad business for three years. Before that, he was a journalist for five years. Mr. Smith recognizes that it's tough out there, but he says there's hope for young job seekers. After reading about the 29-year-old job seeker earlier this month, he wrote The Globe and Mail's Rob Carrick this e-mail:
I took great interest in the letter from a 29-year-old job seeker. I'm a 29-year-old job-haver. I went through high water to get where I am, so I commiserate with the author. But I have an alternate perspective. I've had countless discussions with friends and family on the subject of Canadian Millennials' job prospects. My main critique is about expectations, and perceptions of the education system. I don't believe we are in a particularly difficult time for job seekers. We're just comparing to somewhat easy times – the 90s.
When my mother and father were a young couple in the 60s, they started from scratch. No money, no education, no support networks. It took them a decade before they got on stable footing, featuring a failed business, bankruptcy and tribulations that would make most members of my generation vomit. But that was par for the course at the time. No one in the working class of that generation expected a clearly-defined, stable path. That's why I've always considered myself staunchly working class and, by extension, had no sense of entitlement to a career. I strongly believe this attitude is why I currently have a good career.
First, I want to take on the way my generation perceives university. It may not be our fault that we drank the Kool Aid, but going to university right out of the gates of high school – before acquiring any real, lived understanding of the economy – is a mistake. Especially if you plan on using university as a place to build a future career. It's like getting married and planning on having kids on the first date.
Universities have economic incentives to court young students, and parents have antiquated emotional visions of what universities are, because in their days universities were places of prestige and access. (They still are, but only if you use them sagely and with keen intent). Young people shouldn't go to university until they're drop-dead certain why they're there. It's a huge investment and should be viewed with the risk analysis of any other investment.
Kids, by all means go to university. But not right after high school. University is an expensive and inefficient place to find yourself. It's a swimming pool. Jump into the ocean. I can't stress this enough. The ocean is free, and it has a lot of interesting animals in it. The pool is an expensive, small, curated approximation.
Next, I want to confront something in the letter that I hear from many friends. They're applying for hundreds of jobs, over the Internet, in a wide variety of fields. This is the shotgun approach, and it is a big mistake. When you're looking for a job you need two things. First, you need to know what you want to do – and pretty concisely at that. Second, you need to know who does it, who does it well, and what you like about their work. It's about them, not you. You need to be approaching companies saying, 'Hey you, I like your work and I want to be a part of it because I'm passionate about that work in the same way you are.'
Most jobs don't get posted, and most passionate people get jobs. So be passionate, do your homework, and don't wait for a posting. The last thing an employer wants to see is a CV that looks like it was already sent to 100 other companies. Pitch yourself. Be a salesperson for Product Me. Don't tell people why you're so great. Tell them why they're so great and how you fit into that.
Finally, I want to call out a bit of laziness. This is hard to swallow, but the people who will get their dream jobs are already doing their dream jobs before they get hired. You wanna be an accountant? Start doing your friends' taxes. You wanna work in an ad agency? Make spec ads for your friends' and family's small businesses. Wanna be a journalist? Start making YouTube videos. Mechanic? Fix some cars. Teacher? Tutor poor kids. Yeah, you gotta make money. So sling coffee. And be darn well passionate about it. Find a coffee shop you love and pitch yourself to them, so you can make a few bucks an hour to support your weekends of doing your dream job for free. That's how economies work. People do things. Real things in the real world with grease and sweat and moving parts and grit. Your credentials are theory. Familiarize yourself with the concept "necessary but not sufficient." The suit does not make the (wo)man.
I'm not an important person. I'm not a bigwig. I'm not a super star. I just bust my butt. I work a lot of 60-hour weeks, and make an okay salary at a reasonable approximation of my dream job. But you know what I spend my weekends doing? Spec work, volunteer work and any other kind of work I can drum up that's just a bit closer in description to my actual dream job. And I'm going to get there. It just might take me another decade of busting my butt.
This is what every single last one of my successful friends does. They put their nose to the grindstone, they set clear goals, and they pursue them doggedly. They make big compromises but they stay smiling. They don't rely on their credentials. They look for businesses doing what they want to do and humbly pitch themselves as solutions to problems those companies f ace. Or they bring companies into existence.
It's hard. It sucks. I had to sell all my stuff to pay rent a few times and I ate canned spaghetti sauce for five years. I got my degree as a mature student while working full time. No one paid my tuition. But I never complained and I never will. And if I wake up tomorrow and get fired, I'll do it again. Like my parents did when they went bankrupt at 30.