The Millennial Mindset: How Colleges Can Accelerate the Career Prep Process

Higher ed institutions can support and guide students toward career success after college

Barnes & Noble College and Why Millennials Matter recently partnered for a study that explored topics such as internships, career choice and influencers, the job search process, career expectations, and perceptions about what skills and experiences are desired by companies today. This web seminar, originally broadcast on July 17, 2015, shared insights on opportunities to help institutions achieve their goals in recruitment, retention and career placement, as well as presented strategies to bridge the gap between what students have and what employers want. The presenters also shared how these insights can be leveraged to create new opportunities to support and guide students through career planning. 

Vice President, Marketing & Operations
Barnes & Noble College

We are very excited to be talking about what is perhaps our favorite topic, which is what we can do to support and celebrate our students. That’s what our mission is at Barnes & Noble College—to be a complete support system for our students and for the universities that we serve, and to do everything we can to celebrate their social and academic aspirations. We do that by taking the time to deeply understand our customers and to deliver to them solutions that are customized and relevant to what they need. All of our success is driven by deep collaboration with our campus partners and by our combined passion to do everything we can to support the schools’ goals and missions. We recently conducted a survey with our college and university partners and learned that the top two concerns for them revolve around student recruitment and retention.

We all know that getting a good job after graduation is top of mind for students as they go through the research process to decide what would be the best college or university to attend. So we decided we wanted to dig deeper into this subject with millennials to see how we could help. The survey had two key objectives. One was to gauge the level of college students’ career prep and their perception of what skills and experiences are desired by companies looking to hire them, and the second was to uncover what millennials are looking for in their early work experiences, training and benefits.

More than 3,000 students from four-year and two-year programs and public and private institutions across 44 states completed the survey, sharing more than 17,000 open-ended responses. Our questions explored what ultimately influences students’ career choice decisions, asked them about their dream career, probed about their work and internship experiences, and asked about the time and effort they are putting into career prep. They shared their plans for after graduation, and unveiled the anxieties and pressures they face related to achieving their goals post—college.

Consumer & New Media Marketing Manager
Barnes & Noble College

Everything we do reflects our mission to be students’ academic ally throughout their college years. By being that ally, we build a strong and long-lasting relationship with them through graduation and beyond. The only way we can build these relationships is through programs and initiatives that tap into the needs of our customers throughout college. That’s why everything we do is grounded in research and is built around the voice of our customers. Millennials are much more focused on values than on dollars—and we saw that in their career aspirations. They are extremely empowered and dedicated to creating change in their communities. They are passionate about causes and issues, which is why Barnes & Noble College wants to provide them opportunities and an outlet to create change through our own student employee initiatives as well as initiatives that enable students to give back to the causes they care most about.

President & Founder
Why Millennials Matter

We want to start by dispelling two myths about millennials and their career aspirations. The first myth is that millennials lack focus about their future career. A lot of media headlines talk about millennials changing their mind every five seconds. But the takeaway from our study revealed the opposite—that students do have a clear vision for their future. The responses and the open-ended comments we received were focused and decisive when it came to their future careers. Almost all students in every group, including freshmen, identified their desired field—95.8 percent of juniors and seniors, 95 percent of second-year students, and almost 93 percent of freshmen. Not only had they chosen their field, but they put a lot of thought into it.

This myth of millennials being so haphazard about their career focus also reflects misconceptions about what are commonly called “gap years.” These are years after graduation in which students take time off to travel or to volunteer overseas, which some view as avoiding or deferring adulthood. What we found is that students actually are pursuing a job during these gap years. Ninety-six percent of them do plan on traveling and volunteering, but almost exclusively as an addition to finding their desired job or to continuing school, not as a replacement. This could be considered a smart strategy to avoid underemployment by developing unique experiences and positioning themselves for better—suited professional opportunities. The second myth is that millennials expect to be CEO tomorrow, that they are driven by money, power and fame. That myth could not be more inaccurate for the millennials in our survey.

One of our biggest takeaways is that personal fulfillment in a career trumps money and status with millennials. It was the top indicator of success to those who responded. Fulfillment was also the second most common source of concern, apart from actually finding a job. In fact, students were primarily worried about finding a job that gives them personal fulfillment. The other goals—such as meeting financial goals, achieving titles and public recognition—were all much lower on the list of how students defined success. External goals like these were much less likely to be valued. Millennial students also felt that the potential impact on society and community was the top factor that influenced their field of choice. What draws them to a particular field of study or career is making a difference. Four-year students are doing a ton of volunteering. Seventy percent of freshmen and 79 percent of juniors and seniors reported that volunteering while in college was extremely important to them. Ninety-two percent of juniors and seniors ranked personal fulfillment equally or more important to their definition of success than meeting financial goals. But, we also uncovered a huge obstacle. Students are way too casual about their career prep strategy. While they have direction, relatively few of them are taking action to maximize all the available resources that we provide.

This is where we see a huge opportunity for all of us to work together to help students. Only 36.7 percent of juniors and seniors we surveyed had participated in an internship, and 42.5 percent had not even applied to one. We believe that this may be because they are following the traditional career pathway process. What often happens on campuses across the country is that students prepare themselves for a successful interview, not necessarily to be successful on the job. Our research found that 80 percent of college juniors and seniors have created resumes, almost 52 percent have researched employers, and another 52 percent have spoken with professors about potential pathways. And then there is a halt. Only 14 percent of the students said that they actually took a career inventory. Only 19 percent attended an employer information session. And only one in four juniors and seniors responded that they were working within their career center. Employers are focused on real experience in real businesses, so it is important for students to move the emphasis from securing the interview to job readiness.

As a result, colleges have an opportunity to accelerate this connection between students and employers by introducing students to career preparation services as early as their freshmen year. A first step would be to help students avoid their delay in internships and to encourage them to seek and gain real-world experience early and often.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to:

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