I took my niece on several college tours and to university open houses. We met student leaders who were passionate about their field of study and who were aggressively pursuing their career goals. I was excited about the opportunities available to her. When I asked how she felt after a recent tour, she replied, “This place sounds HORRIBLE.”
Upon further discussion, she explained that the students she met seemed intimidating, nerdy and absolutely crazy to be excited about staying up until 4:00 a.m. to work on club events and academic projects. She went on to suggest that the school should have “normal” students meeting prospects. Her reaction shocked me. Had we just visited the same school? I had felt the excitement and passion of these high-achieving students and assumed this would inspire her to work towards achieving her own career goals.
Her reaction and comments reminded me of discussions I’ve had with many students and employers. I often ask students about their dream jobs. They talk about exciting careers in fashion, entertainment, sports and travel public relations. I then ask them to create an action plan regarding how to work to achieve these dreams. It is at this point where there seems to be a serious disconnect between stated goals and the work required to achieve. The tired cliché of “paying your dues” is rarely mentioned by students, but frequently cited by employers. Employers I’ve talked with seem genuinely frustrated by students they’ve hired from big ten schools, Ivy leagues and small colleges alike.
In my conversations with corporate communication professionals and agency executives I consistently hear about students possessing a sense of entitlement, a poor work ethic and an inability to take initiative (I’ll save comments about writing skills for a future article). In my role as department internship coordinator, I recently met with an employer who runs a highly-competitive internship program for one of the world’s largest retail corporations. She told me they struggle to find candidates who have both intelligence and a strong work ethic. Her rigorous screening process generally results in hiring outstanding candidates. However, many times students slip through the doors who feel entitled to enjoy the perks of an internship, without being willing to do the work required to excel. She shared a recent call from a parent of a candidate asking about the “easiest way for her daughter to get in the door.” If parents instill values towards an “easy” path to success, how can employers ensure they hire candidates who want to actually earn achievement?
A group president at one of the world’s largest public relations firms identifies with the challenge of breaking bad habits and instilling a passionate work ethic. “Students need to understand that we are looking for students who are willing to take pride in their work, even when the work seems less than exciting,” he explains. “Young people often come in with expectations that they will immediately take exciting trips or meet celebrities. This can’t be their motivation. It has to be about doing great work,” he continues.
A public relations director at a major media company also complains that students don’t take pride in their work, that they don’t want to do more than necessary to succeed and that they just want the fun assignments. “I want students who understand the importance of putting a staple in the right place as well as a willingness to stand in the rain for several hours during an event.”
Do students really understand the hard and often humbling work that goes into succeeding in a competitive field? Is this generation of young people under the impression or illusion that work is always fun and exciting and that professional payoffs (and pay days) fall into place without long hours and frequent stress?
Why aren’t expectations of young people and employers in sync? And who holds the responsibility for better preparing the newest talent pool for professional success? Parents, teachers, employers? The students themselves? Can passion even be taught or is it innate?
It is unfair to categorize an entire generation of young people. I have dozens of high-achieving and hard working students in my classes who will succeed in public relations or related industries. Alumni often call and write to me about the rigors of the professional world and urge me to continue to be a tough professor who encourages a strong work ethic and PR passion in my undergrads.
My challenge to faculty-colleagues, employers and parents is to strive to motivate the overwhelming number of students who, like my niece, don’t or can’t comprehend that being smart is simply not enough. We are obliged to help light that proverbial fire in our young professionals, to show our passion, work-ethic, initiative and drive. Leading and motivating by example is not enough. Students must take responsibility for their own success. Yet, we must help them understand that fulfillment that comes with high achievement and success is well worth the sweat, grunt work, humility and drive it takes to get there.