For the past six years, I’ve led a nonprofit helping first-generation college grads to overcome underemployment through digital skills and peer connections. With almost 2,000 alumni in our community, we’ve learned some hard truths about the labor market—and we’ve turned these truths to our advantage.
Underemployment is widespread, but it’s usually experienced in isolation, cut off from peers in the exact same position. That’s a shame because peer relationships have immense economic power (even when both peers feel powerless). But networking alone is not the answer. You have to build your own career squad.
Recognize that you are not alone
There’s a powerful narrative in America: Go to college, beat the odds, earn a degree—that will be your ticket to economic independence, mobility, and prosperity.
This belief is so widely and deeply held that it’s essentially part of our social contract, something to bet on, invest in, and sacrifice for. When reality deviates from this narrative, it seems natural to conclude that the candidate (not the promise) is broken—especially if that candidate is you.
But you are not broken, and you are certainly not alone. Even before the pandemic ended ten years of uninterrupted economic growth, roughly half of college grads (ages 21-27) were unemployed or worked in jobs that don’t require a degree. Within this cohort, Black grads have higher rates of joblessness and 40% are underemployed, according to data from the Economic Policy Institute. And with each passing year, underemployment gets harder and harder to escape.
In other words, underemployment is endemic—a persistent scourge in America—and it afflicts some communities much more than others. Understanding these macro forces doesn’t diminish your individual agency. I just hope it tempers your self-criticism and channels that energy outward.
Realize that everyone needs help
Finding meaningful work is hard but with so many peers in your position, it doesn’t have to be lonely. In fact, careers cannot be lonely.
The formal job market is powered by informal relationships. According to LinkedIn, “applicants are nearly four times more likely to get a job at a company where they have connections.” Nationwide, 2017 data suggested that at least a third of jobs (and possibly twice that many) are filled through employee referrals.
On the surface, this seems like a neutral, maybe even positive phenomenon. One by one, referrals are usually well-intentioned and often well-deserved. But America’s referral networks are deeply segregated, just like our neighborhoods and our schools, and every referral injects some of that segregation into the professional sphere. LinkedIn has quantified this “network gap” in startling terms: “Where you grow up, where you go to school, and where you work can give you up to a 12x advantage in gaining access to opportunity.”
After hundreds of unanswered job applications, many of you feel this disadvantage in your bones. But it’s also an essential reminder that your most “successful” peers are getting an awful lot of help from their informal connections. They are not competing alone, and neither should you.
Don’t just network—mobilize
This is usually where someone like me would implore you to network. Ironically, that term usually describes an individual activity like locking yourself in a room and stalk people on LinkedIn or going to a mixer alone and hitting up a bunch of strangers.
That’s nonsense. If anything, networking is a collective action. It’s something you should do with a squad. When five people do it together, each reaps five times the reward.
Worse, though, we talk about networking as a “skill” that some people have (judging by their network strength) and others just don’t. That’s also nonsense. We are all born into existing networks, woven collectively over generations. People can’t network alone, and they definitely don’t start from scratch.
Networking also implies the pursuit of more experienced, more privileged “benefactors” to provide one-way favors. Of course, it helps to have the fifty-something white man in the corner office in your corner, too. But these people are often busy, unreachable, and aloof. And, at least where it matters most to you right now, they don’t actually have that much more power than the most junior employee.
That’s because the job market is not controlled top-down. Executives and vice presidents don’t meet in mahogany-lined conference rooms to decide on entry-level hires. In reality, there’s an overworked, stressed-out, deadline-driven recruiter desperately seeking referrals from other junior staff.
So, instead of networking, let’s call it mobilizing. In a democracy, that’s how the people win power and distribute wealth. Ultimately, isn’t that exactly what we’re doing in the job market, too?
Build your career squad
So here we are back at your task: to find and mobilize your own career squad. There’s no right or wrong way to do it. Your squad can be any size, engage in any activities, meet anywhere, and anytime. And you can certainly welcome older, more experienced mentors into the space from time to time.
What’s critical, though, is that your squad is made up of your peers, other young professionals striving but struggling to secure meaningful work.
Here’s what it might look like: your best friend, your cousin, that awesome project partner from college, and her brother. All five of you are underemployed, all five of you feel stuck—and all five of you deserve better.
Get together twice a week for a couple of hours (say, Mondays, and Wednesdays after dinner) to share your fears and frustrations, the job description that’s wrong for you but oh-so-right for them, set goals and deadlines, and hold each other accountable.
Take a free class as a class (with LinkedIn or Salesforce or Google or anywhere else), not because you are broken or insufficient, but because you’re curious (it’ll show) and your squad needs something hard and concrete to do together. That’s when the bonding happens.
And here’s the other critical piece: keep the squad going—even just for monthly happy hours—until all of you have overcome underemployment. Even when you mobilize, this business of finding (and keeping) good jobs never stops being hard. Each of you will secure offers at a different time, months, or even years apart. Stick together and pool your power.
Once you are on the inside, use that power. No matter how new or how junior you may be, you will have surprising influence over who gets interviewed, and therefore who gets hired. When positions open up, think hard about your squad and the candidates just like you and support the person who deserves that opportunity.
Kalani Leifer is the founder and CEO of COOP Careers (“ko-op”), a nonprofit overcoming underemployment through digital skills and peer connections.