The Labour Labyrinth

Generation Y career expert Lindsey Pollak recently posted an article on some changes that this newest generation of employees are likely to bring to the workplace. She makes three broad predictions: that the definition of “entry level” will be lengthened and expanded; that career paths will become more customizable; and that business communication will evolve to become more casual and digital-friendly.

It’s Lindsey’s first prediction that struck the loudest chord when I read the article. Without a doubt, one of the strangest and most difficult things about entering the workforce as a recent graduate is the current operational definition of “entry level” in the job market. Intuitively, one would assume that the phrase denotes a position that someone without experience could fill in order to gain said experience, and later use that experience to seek more advanced positions.

Anyone who’s had more than a passing glance at a job posting board will quickly tell you that this is not the case. Rather, “entry level” jobs appear to be those requiring applicants to have 1 or 2 years of experience within a field already. Enter the circle of discouragement, which goes something like this:

I’m looking to get a great entry level job.
This job posting looks good—but it says I need to have 1 or 2 years of related experience.
Okay, I need experience to get a job.
But I also need a job to get experience.
Apply to Starbucks.
Realize I don’t have any barista experience.

Lots of things have changed in the world of employment since our parents’ day, and I can’t wait for this to be one of them. In many ways we’re dealing with a workplace that is being run by generations who grew up in a completely different world. Here are just a few things that were different when baby boomers were applying for their first jobs:

    • Most people didn’t have a computer at home!
    • Workplace values were different—people were largely expected to stay within one career path, and company loyalty was the norm!
    • By age 25, people were expected to be off to a solid start within their chosen career.
    • Despite being far more affordable, university was something that a far smaller percentage of the population pursued, and so the value of a bachelor’s degree was different.

Of course, now everyone has a computer in their home, not to mention in their office, car and cellphone. We know that today people can expect to have anywhere from 6 to 10 careers in their lifetime, and that no one expects you to stay with one company for 10 years, let alone an entire career. By age 25, the most we can expect from the average person is that they’re at least thinking about moving out of their parents’ house. School costs way more now, and the financial payoff of a bachelor’s degree has never been more scrutinized.

It’s this split between the slowly shifting values of the workplace and the expectations of the average university graduate that is responsible for a lot of the dissonance, if not distress, that people experience when they strike out to find that first “career” job. It’s the reason that people in the career development field are advising students to set themselves apart as early as they can by building up a foundation of experience through volunteering, doing co-ops, working internships and more. As much as I love the work I do as a career advisor, sometimes it feels like I’m just teaching students clever tricks in order to navigate through an outdated, labyrinthine system of employment.

Companies spend untold amounts on recruitment in order to try to find the best employees. Job seekers similarly exhaust countless resources when looking for work in order to find a good fit. Doesn’t this seem like a waste? There’s got to be a better way—not that I know what that would look like.

Pollak offers a few suggestions:

“I believe we will see expanded internship programs (perhaps lasting several years beyond college), more alumni career resources being offered by universities (so there is less pressure to choose a career by age 21) and longer corporate rotational programs—perhaps moving from two years to three or four.”

It’s a good start, but what I’d really like to see is a wholesale restructuring of the way it’s done. A systemic change.

Then again, I happen to also think that homeless people should be given free transitional housing and that mental health treatment such as counselling and psychotropic medications should be 100% covered by “universal” health care—and I know that not everyone agrees with me.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. Or maybe I’m just a socialist. In any case, all we can do for now is learn to navigate the labyrinth as best we can. So be sure to learn the tricks!

One Response to “The Labour Labyrinth”

  1. Marion Tansey

    Instead of feeling alienated by the requirement of 1-2 years of experience, graduates could respond with ___ years of ‘combined’ experience, which would include volunteer work, job shadowing, studies (formal and informal), as well as on-the-job experience. When I hire, I want to see a demonstrated commitment to the field, evidence of knowing the language of the industry, and a knowledge of the network, agencies, associations, or organizations in the industry. Hope that helps.


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