In First Jobs, Grads Sport Skills - and Attitude

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For many college students, graduation is the apex of life.

Why shouldn't it be? You've sweated through at least four years of exams and papers, and you've just been handed a certificate that says you're pretty smart.

But as twentysomethings enter the world of work, they're learning that it takes more than smarts and a new suit to succeed. Many managers and corporate recruiters say new hires - perhaps more than their predecessors - need an attitude adjustment to gain more patience and greater respect for authority.

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"There's a huge difference between twentysomethings today versus the twentysomethings 10 years ago," says Bob Wery, director of college recruiting for Sears, Roebuck & Co. "They very much have an air about them of self-confidence."

Every new generation of workers clashes somewhat with the generation in power. But a profound shift in the US eocnomy is exacerbating the tension between employers and the new generation of employees. In particular, analysts say, corporate downsizing and loss of job security have made today's new hires more intent on building their skills than on patiently climbing the career ladder at a single company.

When young workers are asked what it takes to be successful in a new job, many say the same things baby boomers said: Be prepared to start at the bottom, respect workers who have come before you, and don't be a know-it-all.

Yet Generation X'ers (often dubbed "busters") seem to have a different interpretation of what some of this means. For one, they tend to be less patient than boomers were when it comes to staying on the bottom rung.

"There is certainly an attitude among them that there is less patience for the pace of progress," says Mark Chain, national director of recruiting for accounting firm Deloitte & Touche LLP.

He didn't get a BA to fix the fax

Take Keith Kirkpatrick, a freelance writer and a 1995 graduate of Syracuse University in New York.

In his first job out of school, the magazine journalism major worked for a computer publication in New York - where his primary responsibilities included ordering lunch for colleagues and tracking invoices. "It was, 'Get this, do that, fix the fax,' " he says.

After eight months, Mr. Kirkpatrick decided to leave for another job that let him make better use of his writing skills.

The time to move on is "if you don't see the light at the end of the tunnel, or if you're not developing any more skills," he says. "That was my main complaint. It wasn't just the grunt work."

Part of the reason for the finger-tapping, young workers say, stems from a lack of job security. Many new college grads watched while parents or other working relatives lost long-held jobs during the corporate downsizing craze of the early 1990s.

If witnessing the plight of their elders impressed upon young people the need to keep their skills current, it also taught them not to become too attached to a single company.

"People today have seen their parents spill blood ... and for what? As soon as a [company] doesn't need you, you're gone," says Richard Fein, director of placement for the school of management at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. "Therefore, what's the point of subordinating yourself totally to a system?"

Many companies agree that today's new hires are less willing to conform to "the old system."

"I sense less of putting up with a lot of stuff over an intermediate period in hopes of getting some grander reward later," says Steven Kirn, vice president of human resources at Sears. "Instead, they are really renewing the psychological contract with you almost on a daily basis."

As a result, twentysomethings today expect a position that offers a steep learning curve.

"They want to be challenged every day," says Mr. Wery of Sears. "And they thrive on being recognized for their contributions - it's very important to them."

But the new generation's big expectations are not wholly unfounded. Students today get better job training in school, through internships and other work experiences. In fact, many have learned in college what graduates used to learn in entry-level positions.

"[Today's graduates] feel they have more of those skills and a broader education that prepares them to do more than what those before them have done - and there is some truth to that," says Mr. Chain of Deloitte & Touche.

Zip the lip

But the biggest lesson of all - and one that, if unlearned, could prove costly for people with college loans to pay - is when to say nothing. It may also be the most difficult challenge for Generation X'ers, who managers say tend to question their superiors' decisions more than baby boomers ever did.

"They continually ask questions. They want to know why, and they won't take things for granted," says Sears' Wery. "They aren't afraid to challenge the decisions of managers today."

That characteristic doesn't always score points with managers. "We would be kidding ourselves to say that it does not create tension," adds Mr. Kirn.

Even twentysomethings admit their peers are sometimes too cocky.

"There's this notion in my company that people who come out of college weren't responsible or didn't want to take on those menial tasks - and to a point they're right," says Adam Moroze, who worked at a Boston-area advertising firm after graduating from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, two years ago.

He watched rookies tell managers how to run the company.

"It definitely put a dent in their progression at the company," Mr. Moroze says, "and it ultimately will force them to find employment elsewhere."

Voices of Experience

Corporate recruiters, career counselors, and Generation X'ers themselves offer tips on how to succeed in first jobs.

'It's important to be humble. You've got to say, "I've got a lot to learn." Don't say, "Here I am. Aren't you glad?" '

- Richard Fein, a placement director at University of Massachusetts, Amherst

'The largest error is not asking for help because you don't want to show you don't know how to do everything.'

- Alan McNabb, director of career services, Indiana University, Bloomington

'From the beginning, sit down with your manager and ask, "What are your top eight expectations of me?" '

- Allison Bailey, sales associate, Procter & Gamble

'The biggest mistake somebody brand new in the workplace makes is trying to show how much they know. Instead of conveying lots of information, try to gather lots of information.'

- Bruce Tulgan, author of 'Managing Generation X,' himself an X'er

'There's a time and a place and a way to speak your mind.... Part of being a professional is exercising better judgment and realizing that some things are better left unsaid.'

- Adam Moroze, Class of 1995, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine

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