For the first time in my life, I’ve been fired. It was probably as easy an experience as it can ever be. I had known it was coming, since I had gone in the day before to check the coffee shop schedule, and found my name wasn’t on it.
I wasn’t fired for incompetence; the manager made that clear. I could do the work required as well as anyone. The trouble was that I’m not a very enthusiastic, outgoing, or bubbly kind of person, and I couldn’t pretend to be for six hours at a time. I’m not a “people person,” you see, and begging is not my style.
Only trouble was, no one else wanted me, either. Nine years ago, I went into college with only a vague notion of what I would do when I got out. I took a degree in English writing, since my intention was to eventually become a writer, although I knew I’d need some kind of suitable day job in the meantime. I figured that would just work out and that pretty much anything would do.
During college I considered and rejected pretty much every career option you can think of, from teaching to law enforcement, but never settled on anything definite. I ended up taking a job at an auto parts company upon graduation.
About a year ago, after leaving that job, I found myself looking for work. I had a college degree and almost four solid years of work experience under my belt. I am intelligent, dependable, and courteous, and I have a record of learning new duties quickly. Apparently, that qualified me to work in a coffee shop. Then I was courteously dismissed from it with no further prospects.
College Taught Me I Didn’t Need College
Weeks have now turned to months. I’ve sent application after application. About one time out of a hundred, I’ve been called in for an interview. Most of the time I receive nothing. As of this writing, I am still unemployed.
My experience is not unique. There are thousands of college graduates in my shoes today. In fact, I’m better off than most: thanks to my wonderful parents, I don’t have any student debt weighing me down. I was also fortunate that the school I went to included a Great Books program, which is where I first truly learned to think.
Having learned that particular skill, I’ve concluded it probably wasn’t a good idea for me to go to college. Oh, I’m grateful for many things—the aforementioned Great Books program, the friends I made, and so forth. But looking back, I can’t avoid the conclusion that if I had learned to think a little sooner I would have realized that I shouldn’t have gone to college at all when I did.
I would have been better off going into the military or getting a job right off the bat. That way I would have had the kind of skills necessary to find the kind of jobs I want. College, for me, was unnecessary. Many people have to go into debt to attend a school where, instead of teaching you to think logically, they teach you how much the world owes you. It’s a liability.
Very Likely, You Don’t Need a Degree
Your degree, unless it is in something very specific like marketing or accounting, or unless you are going into a specialized trade like medicine or law, will not help you find a job. Employers don’t care that you have a degree: practically everyone in the country does these days. A college degree is basically a very expensive participation trophy—it shows that you did at least the bare minimum to get by.
What matters more than the degree is experience. Employers want people with a certain level and kind of experience. Thus, each job you take is like a trough dug through your life: you can more easily go along the same route, but changing it is difficult. The experience required usually shuts out recent college graduates, who are relegated to the lowest, most unrewarding work until they can build up enough of a resume to qualify for more lucrative positions.
There’s nothing wrong with this. Hiring someone is so complicated and expensive that you can’t blame companies for wanting to make sure the people they hire are worth the money and time. Those of us with little or no experience in a field have to suffer through a period of apprenticeship.
That’s fair—except that we spent four years studying for a degree we thought would qualify us for something better, only to find out now that we’re only qualified for more or less the exact same jobs we could have gotten straight out of high school.
College Isn’t Necessarily a Shortcut to Higher Pay
If you have a heavy load of student debt on your back, you don’t want to be told that you should go and apprentice yourself for low pay in a field you don’t really have much interest in, so that about two or three years down the road you’ll finally qualify for a job that will allow you to start paying off that debt. You realize all that money bought you exactly nothing. It closed options instead of opening them, because now you owe the school $50,000, so you have no choice but to work at whatever you can get.
Whatever you can get means whatever you can get. You have to start at the bottom. You have no experience, and no one cares about your degree. All you can do is hit the streets with your resume and try to find someone, anyone who will hire you. But that’s another level of Hell altogether.
Searching for work is a potent cocktail of urgency, confusion, rage, and helplessness. You are keenly aware that you need a job, and you want to get one, but at the same time it feels as though it is completely out of your hands. All you can do is send out your applications, wait, do your follow-up calls, and wait again while whatever money you have saved dwindles and the gap in your resume grows.
That’s the worst part of looking for work: how utterly powerless one feels. You don’t get to set the terms. You don’t control if or when the other side will respond. You have to jump through the same tedious hoops over and over, laboriously entering the same information time and again, all the while knowing your only reward is likely to be a form letter stating they “have decided to go with a candidate who better fits our qualifications” and they “Wish you luck in your search.”
That’s if you’re lucky. Most of the time your application simply vanishes into the ether without leaving so much as a ripple. You are competing with untold thousands of others, leaving it highly unlikely that anyone will even see your application. But you’re forbidden from applying in any other way.
I’m a college graduate. I’m intelligent, creative, and have a lot of talent, besides being a fast learner with a history of picking up new skills. But because I didn’t go through the correct path in college, and because I went in with no clear idea of what I would do when I got out, I’m shut out of most jobs that would be a good fit for my skills and background. Because I’m also obligated to apply as a faceless online applicant rather than approaching companies directly, I can’t make a case for myself.
The bottom line is that no one cares about my college degree. It’s $35,000 worth of waste paper, and I’m starting the rat race several lengths behind because of it.
I Got Myself Into This; You Shouldn’t
Who is to blame for my situation? Well, there’s only one person who can be blamed. The person who chose to attend college without a clear plan, who failed to develop one during those four years, and who has accepted and gone along with the program presented him. That is, I am to blame. Where I am today is my fault.
Oh, others could be said to share some the blame: blame isn’t a pie where if one has all, everyone else has none. I could blame the schools I went through, which wasted their time endlessly trying to drill into my head that smoking, drugs, and racism are bad things rather than training me to make intelligent decisions for myself. I could blame the surrounding culture for presenting college as a necessity for everyone rather than an institution for specialized learning. I could blame government for setting it up so that companies have to force applicants to stand at arm’s length, reducing the avenues to employment.
But none of them forced anything on me; I was the one who decided to go to college. The system is rotten, but I’m the one who decided to go along with it. The way out isn’t to rail against the system; the way out is to take ownership of my own life.
I’ve made mistakes and I have a lot to regret: who hasn’t? I have a lot to be grateful for, also: I was spared the crushing hole of debt. I went to a school that taught me how to think instead of how to be a victim. I’m intelligent, talented, and know I could make a success at just about anything I took the time to learn.
If I believed that the system of college, unemployment, and being perpetually rejected were responsible for my present condition, I would be admitting defeat. I would be saying my life is completely out of my hands and that I am at the mercy of the system: that it was up to someone else to get me out of my rut.
But I don’t believe that, and I never have. It may be humiliating to admit that I have failed, but it is far more degrading to declare that I am helpless and at the mercy of disinterested strangers. Guilt and shame are the price one pays for having control over one’s own life.
How to Avoid Ending Up in My Situation
So what’s my point? My point is twofold. First, for any high school students or parents of high school students, I urge you to think twice before going to college. If you know what you’re going to do and can clearly see how a college degree will help you get there, then by all means, go to college.
But if you’re not sure yet what you want to do, then take time to decide before you spend $30,000, $50,000, or $100,000 you don’t have for something you don’t need. In the meantime, start working. You’ll probably only find low-paying, hard-working jobs at first, but guess what? If you go to college, you’ll be working those same jobs when you get out, only you’ll be four years older and fifty grand poorer.
The second is a declaration on behalf of myself and my fellow out-of-work college graduates: I’m not playing the game certain politicians want me to play. I am not a victim. I am not blaming anyone else for my choices. I’m not going to go crawling on my hands and knees to the government or anyone else, begging for help because my life has gotten into a tangle.
This is my life. I run it. I’ve made my mistakes, and I can live with them. However hard it is, I’m going to find a job eventually, and I’m going to make a success at it. Allow me to end by putting a bit of my English degree to use: “I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.”