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Student Loan Debt and No Job? What Now?
I get some variation on the above email all the time. In fact, I could probably include some variation on this question in every single reader mailbag (yes, I filter the questions a bit as to not get too repetitive).
The story is usually the same. A person went to college, often majoring in a field that doesn’t have enormous job possibilities after earning one’s first degree. Usually, they racked up a significant amount of student loan debt. They finished and left college in 2009 or 2010. They discovered that the job market was atrocious. They’re jobless, out of college, and trying to figure out what comes next.
My advice to people in this situation varies a bit depending on their specifics, but I usually end up offering a very similar set of suggestions to each of them.
Get a job, even if it’s beneath you
First, if you don’t have a job, get one, even if it’s beneath you. Check the ego at the door. Here in the post-college real world, we don’t spend seven years holding out for management positions. Yes, this means that you and your college degree might be working at Burger King or at the gas station. That’s fine. Just turn your thinking off when you get to work and save your mental energy for later. For a lot of employers, a willingness to work anywhere shows that you have some initiative, which is always a net positive.
Defer student loans
Second, if you can’t find employment, make sure your student loans are being deferred. Most student loan programs will defer your payments if you’re under economic hardship, which you are if you’re fresh out of college and jobless. Take advantage of this option.
Move back in with parents
Third, if you’re living on your own, move back in with Mom and Dad if at all possible. This purely minimizes expenses; it keeps you from going into further debt just to keep the lights on while you struggle to find work. Don’t go it alone. If you can’t move back in with your parents, find someone you can cohabitate with. The key is to get your living expenses as low as possible until you’re on your feet. If you don’t want to move back in, try to see if you can get back on their health insurance — the Affordable Care Act now allows children to be on their parents’ insurance until they’re 26.
Fourth, engage with the professional community in your area or online. Look for someone – anyone – who is involved with your field near where you live. Reach out to them. Get involved with any organizations that might have anything to do with your career path. Participate on Twitter and LinkedIn with regards to discussions about your chosen profession. The more you get your name out there in regards to your field, the more likely it is you’ll make that connection that you need to find a job.
Fifth, live as lean as you can. If you go out, go out to free activities. Hang out at other people’s houses, doing things that don’t require much additional cost. However, don’t spend your time goofing off…
Sixth, spend your spare time working on professionally-related projects. Whatever it is that you’re doing, there’s likely some way you can be honing your skills in your spare time. Build an interesting web app. Write some short stories. Do some volunteer work. Find things you can do even without employment to bolster your resume and your skill set.
Seven, spend additional spare time working on transferable skills. Get involved with public speaking opportunities. Take on seemingly menial tasks for civic organizations that help you build skills you can always use, like filing paperwork or managing a calendar or managing a website. If you find any sort of leadership position, jump on board. Again, even if these aren’t skills that you’ll directly use in your career path, they’re still noteworthy and bolster your resume and skill set.
Eight, look seriously into continuing your education. In some careers, there’s a benefit to earning a masters. In others, it mostly just boils down to prolonging the college years. If there is real benefit in continuing your education, you’re probably in the best possible position to do just that.
Nine, don’t just rely on headhunting sites for job searches. So many people come to me saying that they searched for jobs on a few headhunting sites (like Monster) and gave up when nothing just fell into their lap. A good job search involves such sites as only one small component of a much bigger picture. Tap every social network you’re involved in to see if you can find any leads. Directly ask people you know in that professional community if they know of any entry-level positions.
Finally, keep your nose clean. Don’t spend your time doing anything that will cause you to lose the eventual opportunity when it comes along. Don’t waste your time using substances that will make you have a poor first impression on potential employers. Don’t engage in behaviors that will even have a slight chance of causing you to have a criminal record. It’s not worth the risk. It’s pretty easy to just not hire someone because they have a criminal record or because they smell like some drug or they come off as being drunk or stoned. That’s not a sign of a reliable potential employee.
These steps will make the path from where you’re at now to a healthy career and financial future as smooth as possible. Good luck.