I wish someone had explained some things to me before I went to college.

I attended Lincoln Technical Institute in 1996, one year after I graduated from Emmaus High School. Things went pretty much as planned. I finished my Associate’s Degree in 14 short months, and before I had graduated, I had secured a job in a factory. I used much of what I had learned on a daily basis to maintain and troubleshoot automated chip bonding equipment. I was granted increasing levels of pay and responsibility. Eventually, I ended up in the Model Shop, which was part of R&D. We built prototypes of new product lines and did various types of mechanical and electrical testing. All of that came to an end in 2001 when the telecom boom crashed and the factory laid off most of its staff.

No problem, I said. I decided to go back to school, finish my Bachelor’s Degree, and use my elevated level of training to secure a new job at a higher level of pay. The way I understood it, that was how it worked. The more you learn, the more you earn. That didn’t work out as well as I thought it would. Upon completing my BS, I landed a job as a field service technician at a rate of pay comparable to my old job. After starting in that role, I soon learned that the majority of the technicians (there were 42 of us at the time) didn’t have college degrees. In fact, a couple hadn’t even finished high school. It slowly dawned on me that my degree wasn’t actually making me any more money.

A college degree doesn’t guarantee you anything.

Looking back on my end-of-college days, I can see that I basically approached the job market with my hand out. “I did my time,” I said. “Now give me a job. That was the deal. I held up my end; now you hold up yours.” But it doesn’t work that way. Getting a job is all about marketing. Marketing is all about creating perceived value. Perceived value is whatever the customer says it is. There apparently used to be a time when a college degree would predictably raise the perceived value of everybody who had one. Having never lived during that time, I can only speculate that employers must have had similar expectations. But that’s not the world we live in today.

I couldn’t possibly explain it better than Jack Welch did. Welch, the famed former CEO of General Electric, discusses in a short article what he believes to be the most important component of success: authenticity. “The most powerful thing you can do is, well, be real. As in not phony. As in grappling, sweating, laughing, and caring. As in authentic.” Unfortunately, college doesn’t teach authenticity. They teach how to memorize facts, follow instructions, and master certain arbitrarily-chosen skill sets. For example, I learned how to hand-draw a contour map in Geology 102. Authenticity cannot be learned through rote memorization and drills. It can only be learned by spending time around people. As far as I can tell, there is only one formula for learning to develop authenticity:

Learn how to sell.

That’s it, really. If there’s one universal skill that every student could learn that would guarantee a positive ROI on a college education, it’s the skill of learning to sell. If you can learn how to get people to write you a check (and deliver on what you sold), you can accomplish anything you want. That’s what I wish someone had explained to me in college. In order to sell, you have to learn to understand what people value. You have to learn to read between the lines. You have to learn all of the things that you will never read in a textbook.

I thought that it worked differently. I thought that if I accumulated enough information, my newly acquired knowledge would guarantee me a high income. But I’ve met people with Master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s who couldn’t find jobs—or who were working the same low-wage jobs as people with no degrees at all. What I’ve come to realize is that a degree—or a resume for that matter—is like a tri-fold brochure or a PowerPoint presentation. It’s a piece of sales collateral. It’s only a tool. A marketing tool is only effective when you select it strategically and use it skillfully.

If I had known back then what I know now, I would have approached college very differently. I’m not sure I would have gone at all. But if I did go to college, my goal would have been to build a network of strategic business relationships. I also would have been seeking more profitable employment from day one of my freshman year. I would have focused on increasing my income, little by little—even if only in 1% increments—and making sure that I kept the contact information of everyone I met. I also would have made sure to stay in touch and make sure they still remembered me.

If you’re in college, or about to start college, you have a huge opportunity. You have a chance to rethink the whole purpose of your college education. Why do you think you are in school? You might want to check out Seth Godin’s TED Talk, where he poses the question, “What is school for?” The neat thing about this question is that anyone has the opportunity to ask it. Personally, I think that there are four things that every school could benefit from teaching (and every student could benefit from seeking to learn):

  1. How to sell.
  2. How to negotiate a favorable deal.
  3. How to make sure you actually get paid.
  4. How to train your mind to look for opportunity in every situation.

If you’re in school, and your school doesn’t teach these things, don’t worry. You can still learn them. Knowledge—the useful kind—isn’t spoon-fed. It’s usually not on the test. Don’t complain if your school isn’t teaching you the right things. Instead, become a relentless seeker of truth and knowledge. Look for opportunities at your school to help you learn what will make you successful. Remember that your school already has their money, and they still get paid whether you land the job you want or not. No one has as much skin in the game as you do.

Don’t wait for someone to create a job for you. These days, you have to create your own job. You have to convince an employer that they can’t afford not to hire you. In fact, you have to convince them that they can’t afford to wait—they need to see that if they don’t move quickly and snap you up, someone else will. It’s not enough to have a 4.0 grade point average. In fact, no one is ever going to give a damn about your grades. Your next employer is only going to care about one thing: whether or not they will make more money as a result of adding you to their payroll. If you can convince the right person at the right time—you’ve got the job. It’s easier said than done, so you’d better get started practicing. Don’t wait until the last semester of your senior year and say, “I guess I’d better start thinking about a job.” Don’t even wait another day.

I believe that if every college student realized the importance of learning how to sell, the job market would look much healthier. The days of pre-made jobs are over. That doesn’t have to be a bad thing. All that it means is that the game has changed.

Photo credit: Clawed / Foter.com / CC BY-SA