One of the great pleasures of my life is speaking to college and university students. My speeches are rarely political and mostly just the sharing of my experience, strength, and hope, to borrow a famous phrase. Lately I have been speaking a great deal about the economy, about which I know a bit, since I am an economist in real life as well as in movies and on TV. In my youth I also worked on economic policy matters in a small way at the White House.
As you might guess, the main issue today's students have in mind is what they can do in the currently difficult -- very difficult -- job market. What do I recommend to them to trump the problems so many young people are having getting started in the labor market?
Herewith, I offer a few suggestions. These are taken not just from my experience but from what my parents and their friends told me about graduating from college in the middle of the Great Depression, when unemployment was incomparably higher and times incomparably tougher than they are right now.
Learn a Genuinely Useful Skill
First, learn a genuinely useful skill. Abstract art and conceptual sculpture are great if your parents are wealthy. But if times are lean, as they are for most of us, learn to do what people need done: medical care of all kinds (the shortage of nurses gets more acute every week, and wages are skyrocketing), accounting, engineering that is used in defense, and any kind of work connected to the criminal justice system (crime is an ever-growing menace).
Second, and closely tied to the above, learn who is hiring. Right now, the main eager employers are in health care, education in urban and extremely rural schools, and above all, government. During the Depression, the main employer was government. Under the Obama administration, there will be immense new hires in most areas of federal government, but especially in the areas Mr. Obama has picked as his favorites: "green" power, education, and environmentalism.
Tailor your education and your skills to where the hiring is. You can always change your skill set and move to another area if you do not find government work or some other form of work appealing.
Never Enough of the Best People
Third, be the best at what you do. This is vital. My father often told me that, even in 1935, there was a shortage of top flight people in almost every field. "There are never enough of the best people," he used to say. If you are at the top of your class, you will have a vastly greater job vista than people in the middle or at the bottom.
I know some smart aleck will now say, "Well, Ben, we cannot all be at the top of our class." True enough. But you don't have to worry about the others. Just worry about yourself right now -- and have the best record you can have.
Learn great work skills. Learn to show up on time, to look neat and well-groomed, and to do whatever is asked of you with a willing attitude. Be up to date on all relevant computer skills and happy to learn new ones. Have a super positive attitude. Now is not the time for troublemakers and whiners. Your job is to produce some value for your employers greater than the cost of employing you. Make sure you do just that and do not create "negative utility," which means you destroy more value for your employers than you create -- by complaining, distracting workers, not getting your work done, and requiring a lot of supervision.
The Value of Thrift
Be thrifty. You will be far ahead of the game if you can live on much less than what you earn. Then you can have savings and build them up for the time when you move to a new city or a new job and require "starting-out money." It is just a great feeling to not be desperate.
Make every good connection you can. Almost all good jobs are gotten by who you know at least as much as by what you know. When people are hiring in both government and the private sector, a recommendation from a friend or colleague means more than test scores. Make and expand your web of friends and colleagues from the earliest possible moment, including high school. Your colleagues are a form of capital as real as money, even if not as liquid.
Imagine you are an employer looking at your whole college class. Would you hire you? If not, make yourself better. You can be a rebel later. For now, do what you need to do to get a job.