When we talk about employment and unemployment, we can fail to acknowledge the difficulties and challenges young people face in the transition from education to employment. That transition is not always seamless, and it can lead to pretty intense hardships for young people.
Caitlin is a young person who went through that transition and experienced setbacks along the way. She sat down with YACSA to discuss her story, where she unpacks her experience finishing Uni, being rejected for positions, how she responded, and what lessons she learned.
At the end, she talks about the lessons she has for young people and, importantly, lessons for employers.
Chapter 1 - University
I WENT TO UNI BECAUSE, WELL, THAT’S WHAT YOU DO.
I was a strong academic performer at high school so Uni seemed the logical next step. I studied a double degree in Arts & Music. I grew up playing music and went to a special interest music high school, so for me, doing a Music degree was something I felt I should do rather than something I really truly wanted to do. The double degree structure meant that I could study things that I was interested in like politics, international relations, psychology, history – all the subjects I was good at when I was at high school.
I figured it would give me a well-rounded skill set in terms of critical thinking, analysis and writing, which it did.
But I didn’t go in [to Uni] knowing where I would end up. I knew I wanted to work in something related to humanities, social service or community work, but I didn’t have a specific career in mind.
AS I NEARED THE END OF MY DEGREE, I STARTED TO THINK ABOUT WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN NEXT…
I spent a month in Thailand doing some volunteer work, which I have very mixed feelings about, knowing what I know now about volun-tourism. But I do credit it with really opening my eyes up and actually helping to define the path I wanted to take.
After getting back from that trip, my focus on my Arts degree changed to development studies, and looking at poverty, international relations and humanitarian aid, that sort of thing.
So at that point, I knew community work, and specifically international aid work, was the direction I wanted to go in after completing my degree. But I soon found out that an undergraduate degree isn’t enough to get you into that. It’s a very competitive and tightly held sector and it’s difficult to get your foot in the door somewhere like Adelaide – there are no NGOs really based here. It would have required a postgraduate degree and interstate relocation.
BY THE END OF FIVE YEARS I WAS PRETTY EXHAUSTED STUDY-WISE.
When I first started Uni I thought I might do postgraduate study, but by the time I got to the end of five years I needed a break, and I was keen to get out into the workforce and earn some money, and start becoming independent.
At the end of the five years, I decided that was enough for me for now. During my last semester I did an exchange program and studied in Singapore. For me, that was a nice finale to my study.
Chapter 2 - REJECTION
I had a reality check.
The pathway that I intended to take, and that many of my friends intended to take as well, was to secure a graduate position in the public sector. Once I returned home from my exchange, I applied for a number of those programs and got further in some than others. Some I got knocked out right in first round, and there was one that I got through to the final round and got pipped right at the end.
It was a good wake up call for me. Applying for national programs really woke me up to the fact that you can have a good GPA and be a great performer, but so are tens of thousands of other young people around the country. I thought I would make it through the first few rounds without any hassles, but I was getting knocked out right at the start.
IT HIT MY SELF-CONFIDENCE A LITTLE BIT.
It made me realise a lot of other young people performed above and beyond anything I did at Uni, and that making yourself stand out in a pool of really smart, enthusiastic young people was a challenge.
I continued to keep my eye on the job market, but there weren’t many positions out there for young people straight out of Uni. Every job I looked at that I was interested in required a certain level of experience, but as a new graduate I didn’t have that experience.
You put your CV together as well as you can, really trying to sell up transferable skills, enthusiasm, the desire to learn, the ability to learn quickly, all that stuff, but if you don’t have experience it’s really difficult.
I was applying for basically any job that I could foreseeably do, whether I was interested in the work or not - and I was getting knocked back from those as well.
I WISH I HAD KNOWN THAT THE STRUGGLE WITH THE JOB SEARCH EXPERIENCE THAT I HAD WAS ACTUALLY VERY NORMAL.
I wasn’t surrounded by a lot of people who were going through the same thing at the same time. But in the years that have since passed, when I speak to people I hear this story a lot - of people who graduate and try to find work but just don’t have a lot of success.
It would have been comforting to know that the experience is actually really normal and something that a lot of other people go through. At the time that might have helped me not to feel as much of a failure as I did for a few of those months where I was thinking, ‘what have I done?’ and ‘what is going wrong?’
Chapter 3 - Getting the job
I was offered a lifeline.
My cousin lived in New York with her husband and two-year-old son. I think they knew that I was struggling and getting worn down by the job hunting process. They asked me if I wanted to spend the summer in New York with them, helping to babysit their son. They offered to pay for my flights and get me over there, and basically said “we’ll need you a couple days of week, but beyond that you can do what you like.”
Looking back on it now, that offer was a real saviour, because it allowed me to leave behind the frustrating process of looking for a job, and I was able to go and spend three months in New York, just walking and exploring.
The change of environment really helped me. I found that good for my mental health and wellbeing at the time.
And it was actually there that I saw a vacancy advertised at a Non-Government Organisation back home. I applied, got shortlisted and was asked to interview. I had to explain I was in New York. The recruitment manager was really flexible and offered to do my interview over Skype. It was a bit awkward with the time difference but we managed it. I was nervous, but by that point I was pretty well practised with interviews because I’d been going for so many jobs. The interview went well and I was asked to do a second interview with our State Manager, which I also did over Skype. I was then told that I was successful in getting the job, which was a huge relief for me.
So I got home, had one week to buy a car and get everything sorted out and then started my new job the next week.
NOW THAT I’M WORKING, THINGS HAVE REALLY CHANGED.
It’s been really, really good. I’ve been with the NGO for four years now. Deep down I knew I was always capable; it was convincing employers to take a chance on a new graduate with no experience.
Working has been great; I’ve gained so much. Being a new graduate, you go into your first job like a sponge, and you’re so keen to prove yourself. I felt so grateful that finally someone decided that I had the skills necessary.
IT WASN’T ALL EASY.
I know everyone has to start somewhere, so I did deal with a 2-2.5 hour return commute each day which was pretty painful, but I was not going to turn the job down because of that. I’m so glad that I took that job because it gave me experience working in a community that I had previously been totally unfamiliar with, and the learning that came out of working in that community I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.
I TOLD MYSELF - "I’M GOING TO DO THE VERY BEST I CAN TO BE A HIGH PERFORMER IN MY ROLE".
I really have to credit that hiring manager with taking a chance on me, because I’m sure there were a lot of other strong candidates for the role. After being given that chance, I really tried to give back to my organisation and prove to them that they made the right decision hiring me
Chapter 4 - Advice
YOU’RE NOT ALONE, AND THAT’S PROBABLY WHAT I WOULD HAVE LIKED TO HAVE KNOWN AT THE TIME.
I don’t have any pearls of wisdom on how to avoid the situation I was in, because I think it’s increasingly becoming the norm. It’s something that many young people are going through, and will continue to go through if unemployment rates stay as high as they are. I don’t think I can offer a life changing tip or strategy. The best advice I can give is to put yourself out there as much as you can. At the time, I didn’t realise the power of networks and relationships. When you’re young it can seem really intimidating, but I recommend researching organisations that you’re interested in and seeing if you can connect with someone who works there over coffee. Just having a chance to chat and find out more about their personal career journey and what it took to get into their organisation is incredibly helpful. Knowledge is power, so if you are proactive and get out and talk to as many people as possible, that can only help you. I’ve learnt that so much of getting jobs is about who you know.
So put yourself out there, volunteer, get out and help in your community, and connect with as many people as you can. This is my best advice for any job seeker.
TAKE YOUR OPPORTUNITIES, BECAUSE IT IS HARD.
I tried so hard to prove myself when I got my job. I felt that I needed to show people that I might be young and inexperienced, but I’m a go-getter and I do have the skills it takes to succeed. Once you’ve got your foot in the door, you can prove that, and you can build your reputation within your organisation which makes future steps a lot easier.
Job-specific skills can be taught. If somebody is a fast learner and willing to dive in and sink their teeth into a role, there’s no reason they can’t perform well.
THERE’S AN IMPORTANT LESSON IN THIS FOR EMPLOYERS.
New graduates are so eager to prove themselves and show that they are capable. That’s a quality that all new graduates bring to the workplace, and I don’t think that’s noticed or acknowledged enough. Young people really want to do a good job: they’re enthusiastic, and they just need someone to give them that chance.
**Special thanks to Caitlin - thanks for the awesome interview, and for sharing your story with others!**
If you have any thoughts, ideas or stories of your own, let us know in the comment box below.