Generation “X”

Apr 11, 1994

While waiting to catch a plane from Philadelphia to Boston the other day, I stood in line for what seemed like the longest time with a group of college students heading home for the Easter weekend. I then ended up sitting next to them in the departure lounge. The experience was both interesting and irritating. I could not help overhearing a conversation between one good-looking, young fellow and an equally attractive, young woman. Both were about 21 and they obviously knew each other. They were talking about career choices, something I have always been interested in. The young man told the young woman he had his career all mapped out. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m going into civil engineering because doctors don’t really make that much.” I thought to myself, “Only about $135,000 per year compared with $60,000 for an equally experienced civil engineer.” “I’m going to work on the Central Artery project for four years, then get my MBA,” he continued. “I’ll never have to do any engineering from that point forward.” Right then, I felt like stepping in and telling this kid that it was pretty unlikely, even if he had his MBA, that he would be able to get completely out of engineering with only four years of experience. But before I could say anything, the conversation continued. The young woman said: “I’m not really, like, sure what I want to, like, do yet. I thought, like, about accounting, but I’m not really, like, sure.” Listening to her talk was like hearing the proverbial chalk screech on the blackboard. “Where in the world do all of those “likes” come from?” I wondered to myself. It was painful listening to her. Then came the lad’s response to all this: “Yeah,” he said. “Accounting is okay, except for the fact that the first three years all you do is make 150 phone calls a day.” What is this guy talking about?” I thought to myself. “150 phone calls a day— in accounting? He must have an entry-level accountant confused with a stockbroker trainee.” Finally, after 150 more “likes” from the girl, and another half-dozen career misconceptions from the guy, I got on my plane. Fortunately, I was upgraded to first class courtesy of U.S. Air, so I didn’t hear any more of their chatter. But after reflecting on it for a few days, some thoughts came to me: A/E/P and environmental firms should hire co-op students and interns for entry-level positions instead of hiring new graduates who have never set foot inside a firm in this industry. The career guidance young people get must be terrible if the kind of misconceptions I overheard the other day are in any way typical. Misconceptions lead to disappointment. Disappointment leads to a search for a new job. Co-ops and interns are much more likely to stay with you over the long haul because they know what to expect. (Studies performed by national co-op associations show that people who co-oped are likely to stay in their first job as much as twice as long as those who didn’t). We really have to work hard to make sure expectations for our younger employees are realistic. For example, if someone says that once he has an MBA he doesn’t plan to do any more real work, we need to tell him the truth. Very few people get out of technical work only four years into their career (in the A/E/P and environmental consulting business), MBA or not. And if that did happen, it would probably be terrible for them in the long-term. But if that is their expectation, is it any wonder these people usually only last a couple of years on the job? They are bound to quit when things don’t go the way they expect. Let’s be straight with them. There is a crying need for training in communications skills, especially for young people. Weaned on Nintendo, many of the “Generation X’ers” I know never read a book unless they have to. Their speech mannerisms come straight out of “Wayne’s World” and MTV. I would be totally embarrassed if we had a twenty-something employee who inserted “like” into every sentence and that person ever came into contact with one of our clients. Yet, these people must be getting jobs somewhere! Originally published 4/11/1994

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