New college graduates are finding that many entry-level jobs have disappeared or require a higher level of skill than used to be commonly needed. The high unemployment rate for people age 20–24—11.3 percent in July—reflects this environment. According to The Wall Street Journal, automation is a key factor contributing to this trend.
Automation has eliminated many entry-level jobs in several industries, such as finance and insurance. Credit analysts, loan officers, and especially insurance underwriters have seen demand tapering off. For example, employment of insurance underwriters has shrunk by 13% from 2003 to 2013. One finance industry insider estimates that it now takes 30 percent less staff time to complete valuation calculations, thanks to software that analyzes financial statements.
To be sure, automation has expanded entry-level jobs in other industries. For example, it is estimated that entry-level jobs for computer systems analysts have increased by 20 percent over the past decade. Automation also has created new occupations, such as social-media manager. This kind of work did not even exist 10 years ago, but now employs thousands of workers, especially young ones.
The onslaught of automation has happened for reasons beyond increases in computing power. The Great Recession has caused firms to seek ways to squeeze greater productivity from workers, especially new hires.
This trend has changed the nature of the work that recent graduates do in industries other than technology. Instead of crunching spreadsheets and preparing reports, entry-level workers may be expected to meet with clients, identify problems with entrenched procedures, or serve on teams for new product development. New hires therefore have greater need for skill at interpersonal relations, communication, and critical thinking.
Traditionally, college grads in entry-level jobs paid their dues in positions requiring technical skills commonly taught in the classroom. Only after some years at this level were these workers expected to have mastered the soft skills needed for more complex assignments. But now the model for career growth seems to be changing, and ironically this is happening just in time for the millennial generation, who are notorious for their impatience with the traditional model.
Young workers may be eager to take advantage of these new opportunities, but to succeed in this environment, they will need to have acquired skills that usually are not taught in the classroom. This is why internship is such an important adjunct to a college education these days. In effect, internship is the new entry-level job. And this implies that interns need to avoid placements in which they are locked away in a windowless room doing technical tasks. Their internships need to include experiences that will build their soft skills.
For more tips on getting a lot out of an internship, I recommend the guide developed by the University of Michigan, adapted from Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D.: Making the Most of Your Internship (PDF).