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To the class of 2018: Make the most of your time

20 Aug 2018

Dear graduates, it’s what you do with your time that really counts, writes John Kennedy.

It’s been a long time since I could call myself a graduate and yet every time I hear of someone vaulting vigorously into the world with parchment in hand, I have mixed feelings. Those feelings are part envy for the fresh new sense of boundless possibility at the dawn of a career or myriad of careers, but also a slight trepidation for what lies ahead.

Is there ever a good time to be a graduate? Yes and no. Circumstances vary for most generations.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and a conversation with a younger colleague about graduates today led to the question: if you could do things over again differently, would you?

My truthful answer was that there is very little I would change. I have been lucky and unlucky, but mostly lucky. Would I change anything? Only that I wish I had more courage and less fear at times when it mattered.

This called to mind a commencement speech by the late Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple. “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And, most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

The point I am making is that, in the long run, the times you experience will no doubt shape you, but it is up to you to figure out how to make it through. You hold the cards, and circumstances are, well, circumstantial. Above all, try to live to your potential.

As one JK Rowling put it: “I hope that even if you remember not a single word of mine, you remember those of Seneca, another of those old Romans I met when I fled down the Classics corridor, in retreat from career ladders, in search of ancient wisdom: ‘As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.’”

My late dad’s advice was more succinct: “God only helps those who help themselves.”

Water always finds its level

Circumstances upon graduation play a big role, especially the economic cards you are dealt.

A graduate in Ireland in the early 1990s, unless they got a job in the civil service or a bank, would most likely have had to emigrate. But, midway through that decade, many would stay because the IDA’s jobs engine kicked into gear and thousands of roles beckoned in electronics, software, pharmaceuticals, financial services – you name it.

The skills shortage of 2018 is exactly like the IT skills shortage of 1999. But things could always change. Remember that.

Toward the end of 2002, I received a phone call from a very angry and upset mother of a young man who had just graduated from computer science but could not find a job in tech because the industry had imploded at the time. He studied tech because he had read all about how the IT jobs market was booming, but by the time he graduated it had gone into decline. I tried to explain to her that the tech industry is characterised by boom and bust cycles. Tech came back. Within weeks of the call, Google announced plans for jobs in Dublin and it is now the city’s biggest employer with more than 7,000 workers. I hope that he stuck at it and that he’s doing well now.

Similarly, between 2008 and 2011, the economic downturn caused by the financial crisis wreaked carnage on the hopes of graduates across Ireland.

This created a kind of ‘lost generation’ of graduates for whom the jobs they had trained for had disappeared, forcing many into other avenues of work or emigration.

I spoke recently with Dr Janice O’Connell, head of IT at Limerick IT and tech ambassador for the mid-west of Ireland, who is striving to bring optimal employment to the region. This means graduates, including mothers who had left the workforce but want to return, are gainfully employed using their knowledge, experience and skills.

“We talk about the numbers of unemployed falling but what we are not seeing is the numbers of people who are underemployed,” she said. “These are people who came out of college between 2008 and 2014 to a situation where there were no jobs and now they are trapped in jobs they are overqualified for.”

O’Connell has a point that is often sadly true about life. People often get trapped or take the safer option because of responsibilities such as keeping a roof over their heads and bringing up children. Circumstances beyond their control, such as an economic recession, can knock graduates off course or entrench them in jobs or careers they feel are safe. And who can blame them either?

It doesn’t always have to be this way. I also recently spoke with Andrew Lynch, one of the co-founders of the Huckletree co-working empire that has just opened offices in Dublin. In 2009, Lynch had earned a degree in quantity surveying at a time when the construction market had imploded. Not one for dwelling on setbacks, Lynch took himself to the UK where he undertook a master’s degree in real-estate investment and somehow ended up working in private equity and venture capital investment in London, which led him to pursue entrepreneurship.

Another core lesson to be gleaned from this is that graduates don’t necessarily need to be defined by the specific piece of paper or degree they have earned. In many ways, they should realise they could enjoy many different careers based on their ability, outlook and instinct.

I was thinking this while listening to Newstalk presenter Ciara Kelly recently and she pointed out that, like many students, she dutifully filled in her CAO form and, thanks to the points lottery, she ended up with a course she was vaguely interested in: commerce. After realising she was a square peg in a round hole, she dropped out. Kelly went on to study to be a doctor and enjoyed a happy medical career before ending up as the host of her own radio show.

“If you predicted I would have ended up as a broadcaster, I wouldn’t have believed you,” she said.

The point is that the parchment or initial profession you embark on could be just one career in a tapestry of interesting careers you could enjoy in your lifetime.

Listen and have empathy

You could argue that the class of 2018 – no matter where you are in the world – is entering into the best of worlds and the worst of worlds.

The best in the sense that there is a global skills shortage and job opportunities abound; an estimated 700,000 IT workers will be needed in Europe alone in the next few years.

But it is also potentially the worst of worlds because even if you land a well-paying job, can you afford the rent?

The property crisis and soaring rents in most cities have resulted in many young people struggling to find a place to live. In the past week, the average rent in Ireland surged past Celtic Tiger levels to more than €1,300 a month.

The share of young Americans living with their parents is the highest in 75 years. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 33pc of 25- to 29-year-olds live with their parents or grandparents. This is almost three times as many as in 1970.

And of course, Generation Z and millennials have also got the unfair label of being ‘snowflakes’, maligned by older generations for apparently spending their money on coffee and avocado toast so therefore it is no wonder they cannot buy a home. This is of course untrue and it is a deeply unfair and inaccurate generalisation.

Any of the millennials I’ve worked with are as industrious, zealous and ambitious as any other generation before them. Even more so. But many are actually paying the price for the stupid financial decisions of the generations that preceded them.

And, when it comes to career choices, not everything is necessarily regimented or defined.

Many of the jobs being created by the digital giants are in areas such as user experience (UX), for example – roles that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Design is the new mantra of tech.

I spoke recently with Ryan Shanks, client director at Accenture’s The Dock, which is helping global organisations to figure out digital transformation. I also spoke with Tríona Butler, the Tipperary-born UX designer of the Google Home smart speaker.

They both made the same point about success in digital: that listening and empathy are the key qualities needed if you are building and designing the products and experiences that people will pay for in the future.

So, listen. Have empathy.

Some of you will go on to enjoy a long career in your chosen field. Some of you may not. Some of you will enjoy many kinds of careers or ways to make a living. Some of you may not be so fortunate.

My advice? Have fun and try, above all, to live a good life. Long or short, no two lives are the same.

Believe in yourself. Have courage when it counts. Be original. Make the most of your time.

Or, as Robert Frost put it in his poem, The Road Not Taken:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.

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John Kennedy
By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years. His interests include all things technological, music, movies, reading, history, gaming and losing the occasional game of poker.

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