Your college journey begins. You’ve secured financial aid, bought books, set a class schedule and lined up reliable child care. Just when you think your course for success is set, there’s something else you need besides the degree — experience.
A college degree is supposed to lead to prosperity, right? Get out there, get an education and you can secure a good job.
Unfortunately, today’s students face an even greater challenge: steep competition.
Between the plummeting economy and current jobless rates, there is a sea of new graduates who are still searching for jobs in their fields. Often, the difference between scoring the gig and returning to the want ads rests in the applicant’s on-the-job experience.
But who has time to take classes, drive the kids to school, make dinner, do homework, hold a regular job and do volunteer work in a new field of study? It can be a tough road. But the benefits may be worth the bumpy journey.
Wes Jackson, a recent nursing graduate, had some initial challenges when he began his job search after graduation — lots of applicants in front of him and not enough experience behind him.
“The market is saturated with new graduates, and just having the degree, with no experience, isn’t enough to set you apart from everyone else,” he said. “If I’d been working even part time while I was in school, I’d at least be a familiar face to someone in my field.”
Traditional and nontraditional students attend classes while juggling many different scenarios at home. Some work full time, either in or out of their chosen field, while pursuing their degrees. Others, such as military spouses, often function as single parents due to frequent deployments. School sometimes is last on the list of priorities as the family struggles to pay bills.
With all this work and studying, there seems to be little time left to devote to anything else. Still, experts say doing the work is as important as classwork.
Cheri Butler, president of the National Career Development Association, said experience is an important component to a graduate’s marketability.
“Students need to find opportunities to do volunteer work to gain experience in their field,” she said.
Although she doesn’t discourage searching for full-time work, it can be difficult to be hired, particularly if you are switching careers.
“Employers aren’t necessarily looking for exact matches in experience, but they are looking for candidates who can demonstrate communication and leadership skills,” Butler said.
For military spouses, many of those sought-after leadership skills can be learned by volunteering on base. There are typically dozens of organizations in need of people to do everything from answering phones to organizing events. Spouse clubs regularly elect officers. And at Fort Meade, Md., spouses volunteer to spearhead the annual craft fair, one of the area’s largest fundraisers.
Because the communities on and around military bases experience such a rapid turnover of families, there are usually volunteer positions open. Scout groups, churches and schools are more great places to offer your services and earn experience that you can include on a resume.
When you do volunteer, be sure to check with your local command to see if there is a place to officially log your volunteer hours. Army families can log in with the Volunteer Management Information System. Many spouses and soldiers are eligible for local awards based on their logged volunteer work – another notch on a resume.
For students who are able to make their way to campus, Butler said student organizations, especially those linked with professional organizations, can be vital.
“These organizations give students the opportunity to meet and rub elbows with people in the profession they are studying,” she said.
Both involvement with the student organizations and local community groups give students a way to showcase their skills.
“Employers want to see candidates with not only a degree, but experience or work that shows they are truly invested in their professional development,” Butler said.