The changing face of college graduates

May 13, 2005 | By Karen Rivedal

Civil engineering major Nate Haugen was juggling four attractive job offers as classes at UW-Madison finished up this spring, but in the end he chose the company that would let him start late.

About two years late.

Haugen, 23, of Aurora, Ill., will join the Peace Corps first, building water systems and sanitation improvements in Central or South America. He does have to work six months for his new employer, M.A. Mortensen Co. in Minneapolis, before leaving—but even that commitment, to start in July, will come after a monthlong trip to Europe he begins Wednesday.

“I am really deeply interested in international travel and service work and seeing the world,” Haugen said. “And it will be a lot easier to do it now than 10 years down the road, when I’m deep into a career.”

According to college career experts and people who study differences between generations, Haugen is on the leading edge of a trend among college graduates. More of them are putting off careers for a year or two in favor of travel, service or “pre-career jobs” that merely pay the bills until graduate school or their first serious job begins.

“It’s a small percentage compared to those who are looking for traditional jobs, but it’s a change,” said Sandy Arnn, director of engineering career services at UW-Madison. “We are seeing students who want to have some kind of experience like that.”

These graduates also view their parents as partners in the job search, experts said, and are more likely to have multiple college internships. That practical experience is increasingly attractive to employers, who may be more willing to be flexible about graduates’ desire for some time off in a job market that is the strongest it’s been in three years.

Haugen’s employer is requiring him to file monthly updates on his Peace Corps work for the company newsletter, as a way for him to stay in touch and share his experience with his future coworkers. The company may not have been so cooperative if the economy were a bit more wobbly.

“We’re going great guns,” said Karen Stauffacher, director of business career services at UW-Madison, noting 85 percent of spring business graduates have jobs or solid offers, up from 55 percent last year. “We’re seeing a rebound.”

Why some students are opting out for a while is tied to their upbringing, the generation experts said. Highly focused and tightly scheduled from a very young age by parents who were involved in virtually every aspect of their lives, these students—members of what’s known as Generation Y or the Millennial Generation—may just need a way to take a break while saving face with their parents.

“We’ve been going so full- force in school for so many years,” Haugen said. “(The break) is a side benefit, a positive thing to add to the situation. It will be a nice in- between phase.”

Born in 1982 or later, Millennial students bring their own baggage to college and the job search. Reported Gen Y hallmarks include a sense of entitlement born of enjoying a relatively sheltered life with parents who taught them to be confident and outspoken, said William Strauss, co-author of the book, “Millennials Rising.”

Some call them coddled.

But the resulting sense of empowerment felt by the Millennials also has made them eager to make a difference, said Luoluo Hong, UW-Madison’s dean of students. Their college applications are packed with hours of volunteerism, she said, and they often continue that work in college.

Their connection to their parents also persists, she said.

“That is an ongoing relationship, parents as mentors, as friends, as primary authority on life,” Hong said.

Elizabeth Krause, 22, a spring graduate in agricultural business management, worked hard in college, interning with the U.S. Department of Agriculture from her sophomore year on and full-time every summer. It’s paying off now, with a job offer from the USDA as a farm loan officer.

But Krause credited her father with giving her the push she needed to take the initial internship after she wasn’t sure she should.

“I talk to my parents about what my goals are and what I want to do and where I want to go,” said Krause. “I talk to them all the time and really look to them for advice.”

Similarly, Haugen said his focus on service work started with his father, who got him involved in Habitat for Humanity projects as a child. Haugen kept working with the group through college, and he will do a Habitat project in Romania during his trip to Europe.

“It’s so wonderful to see these students, who could be making some pretty hefty salaries, deciding to give back to the community first,” said Susan Piacenza, associate director of engineering career services at UW-Madison.

But Piacenza, who has two children in college herself, has concerns about the tight bond between Gen Y kids and their parents, especially on the college level. It makes some sense, she said, noting these students are more likely to have college-educated parents who may be more savvy about higher education.

But it also can go too far, she said, blurring the lines between what parents should decide and what students should discover for themselves.

“Even now my kids occasionally ask me what classes to take,” she said. “I’m the one who’s encouraging them to take a semester off, to look at internships, to find out what it is they really enjoy.”

Ann Groves Lloyd, career services director for the College of Letters and Science, recalled a career fair put on by a student group last month that went off seemingly without a hitch. Only afterward did Lloyd realize that the chief organizer’s mother had been there helping the whole time.

“Afterward she was going to take all the students out to dinner,” Lloyd said.

Career center staffers said some parents called them repeatedly to research information on majors and careers or to talk up their children’s skills, sometimes overdoing it, they said. Parents and even grandparents also call to ask if their students have come to the office to interview for jobs.

Staff members said federal privacy law limits the information they can release on students, even to relatives. And even if it were legal, they said, it might not be good.

“You have to keep a handle on it, and parents really need to step back a little bit,” Piacenza said. “As one myself, I’m very aware that’s hard to do.”