Michael Hicks: Advice for young people heading into the labor market

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Many of my columns have focused on labor market advice to young people heading to college.

Still, here in Indiana, a bit more than half of kids who turn 18 this year will choose not to attend college. As someone who studies labor markets, and who has led, commanded or hired thousands of folks in the 18-to-21-year-old crowd over the past 40 years, I have some advice.

I understand the choice to avoid college. I graduated high school in June 1980, sick of school. I was looking forward to a summer job clearing trails for the National Park Service. The idea of working in an office, wearing a suit and tie, scared me to death. Age and experience caused me to change careers and I guarantee you, too, will view the world very differently in five years.

Then, as now, a college degree offered several benefits. Jobs for college graduates are, on average, much better paying and less likely to face layoffs. College graduates typically experience wage growth over a lifetime, while workers with only a high school degree typically hit peak earnings in their thirties. All this adds up to college graduates doing less physically demanding work and earning about $1.2 million more over a lifetime.

None of that means that if you don’t go to college you cannot have a satisfying career and enter the ranks of the middle class, or even become fabulously wealthy. It just means that doing so takes more planning and work. I have four bits of advice on that front.

Most employers want to hire someone they can invest time and money developing into a good employee. Yes, they want work out of you, but every new face is an opportunity to bring someone into their organization to train and promote.

The No. 1 complaint about entry-level workers is work ethic. A strong work ethic really matters. No organization hires an 18-year-old expecting that they know the tasks the job will require, but they do expect an adult. They expect someone who can show up on time, ready to work; sober, clean, wearing the proper clothes and eager.

The fastest way to distinguish yourself is to respect the job and the workplace. In 40 years, I have only fired workers for two reasons: work ethic and substance abuse. But the goal of a job is to do it well and get promoted; not simply avoid getting fired.

Second, the new guy always gets assigned to tasks nobody else wants. This is true for every organization and serves as the first real moment to test effort and commitment. Sometimes these tasks will be dirty and unpleasant; other times just boring. But nobody promotes a subordinate who won’t do those tasks well.

Moreover, let me offer a lifetime secret. The new guy always gets the dirty jobs, whether it is an entry-level or advanced position. The junior member of the U.S. Supreme Court is the “note taker” for deliberations. If you cannot perform your assigned tasks well, no one will give you better ones.

Third, just because a job doesn’t require a college degree doesn’t mean that it is low skilled. Every occupation has extensive on-the-job training. The lower the formal educational requirement, the higher the level of on-the-job training.

Some of this can be very informal, learned by simply watching more seasoned workers. Much of it will be more formal, involving a very clearly specified lesson plan, with tests and quizzes aimed at evaluating your learning. Trust me, you cannot get away from tests.

There are a couple of things about this process you should understand. I recommend approaching the informal learning with a lot of humility. It is easy to breeze through the instructions for customer service or workplace safety. But everyone else in the organization depends on you mastering these tasks. There is no such thing as a “dumb question,” so don’t let your ego interfere with your learning.

It is also important to understand that, at the same time you are being taught, your immediate supervisor is being evaluated. As your immediate boss, or a more senior co-worker, he or she is being tested for their ability to train you and craft an effective team.

Another way to explain all these three major points comes right out of your high school experience. It is being a “coachable” employee. This is why extracurricular activities are prized by employers. Take those lessons from coaches, band directors and your teachers right into the workplace.

If you do these three things, you will have mastered the fundamental building blocks of a successful career. Mastering these workplace habits is necessary, yet not sufficient, for a stable, higher-paying career. That will require much more formal training.

All good businesses have programs to formally train new employees. These might range from tuition assistance for community and technical college to fully paid, formal training programs that lead to degrees, certifications or other credentials. This formal training will usually be recognized as valuable by everyone in your occupation and industry. Often, it will be recognized in all industries. If your employer doesn’t offer such programs, start looking for a different job.

Naturally, employers are only willing to pay for that type of training for employees who demonstrate a strong work ethic, do everything well and are willing to learn. Fail at any of these and your employer will be reluctant to invest in you. Fail at any of these and you are aiming for a dead-end job.

All of this sets up my final bit of advice. View every job as an opportunity to invest in yourself. Embrace learning new skills, from the mundane task of smiling at customers to complex safety protocols. Do that consistently and opportunities for better pay, more responsibility and a satisfying career are open to you, whether or not you go to college.

Michael J. Hicks is the director of the Center for Business and Economic Research and the George and Frances Ball Distinguished Professor of Economics in the Miller College of Business at Ball State University.