Helping College Grads Transition to Work

Cultivate ‘psychological capital’ to help college grads transition to work.

By Kathryn Tyler May 1, 2014
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Rachel Larson, Ph.D.

For millions of eager young college students, May means graduation; for Rachel Klemme Larson, Ph.D., it’s time to get to work. Larson is assistant director of career services at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Business Administration. She has been helping college students find jobs and adjust to the workforce for the past nine years. When several alumni told her that the workplace was not what they expected, she probed further to see why some graduates transition well and others do not. Her research—which is discussed in “Newcomer Adjustment Among Recent College Graduates: An Integrative Literature Review,” an article co-written by Larson and published in the September 2013 Human Resource Development Review—revealed that successful new grads have a higher level of something called “psychological capital.”​

What is psychological capital?

It is a positive psychological state with four components: self-efficacy, optimism, hope and resiliency. Self-efficacy means having confidence in oneself to complete goals. Optimism is more than just being positive; it is purposely and positively reframing external negative experiences. Hope is about persevering toward goals, redirecting yourself when faced with a setback. And resiliency refers to one’s ability to bounce back from adversity. Together they are greater than the sum of their parts.

What prevents some new graduates from successfully adjusting to the workplace?

Their own expectations. They go into the workforce ready to save the world and then get an entry-level position. They expect to be welcomed with open arms like they were when they went to college, and they aren’t getting that.

Many new grads have done internships and had access to upper-level executives. When they begin working, it’s hard for them to understand that they are at the bottom of the totem pole.

They also lack an ability to adapt to the work environment. At the same time, they are experiencing multiple life transitions—moving away from family and friends and becoming financially independent—and [the stresses of] these transitions seep into the workplace.

Is this adjustment unique to the Millennial generation?

No. Newcomer adjustment and socialization has been researched since the 1960s, so it has been documented as a problem for a long time, although there are nuances among different generations. Previous generations used to stick with a job long term; that commitment has slid over the years. People job-hop a lot more now. Millennials may be more likely to separate from an employer, so they go through the newcomer adjustment process more often than their predecessors did.

What is the impact of the failure to adjust?

It affects job performance and satisfaction. It can influence turnover, too—voluntary and involuntary. Recruiting takes time and money, and when people separate from an organization, HR has to start over again. In addition, newcomers who struggle can have long-term challenges with decision-making, self-confidence, and career identity and trajectory.

How can HR professionals develop psychological capital in employees?

Help newcomers set goals associated with their jobs. Then work with them to create plans to achieve these goals, anticipate obstacles and setbacks, and identify assets and resources for success.

Our research found that, in addition to psychological capital, two behaviors were associated with positive job transitions: socializing and information-seeking. If you offer more formal and informal socializing opportunities, you’ll ensure a more successful transition. Newcomers who network and build relationships are more willing to ask questions to learn more about their jobs and the organization and ask for feedback.

Consider making the orientation process longer—over a full 12 months—and matching newcomers with mentors.

Is this catering too much to new graduates?

No. In an ideal world, new graduates would realize that they are no longer the consumers, as they were in college. But rather than pop a new grad’s balloon suddenly, HR professionals and managers should let the air out slowly.

Have a little compassion and take a more developmental approach. Instead of firing an employee, identify what is not working and what might be adjusted. Understand that some people struggle with the transition, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be top performers later.

How can HR find the most promising prospective employees?

Ask interview questions that will help you identify not only skills, fit and experiences, but also components of psychological capital and proactive behaviors. To get a sense of a candidate’s resiliency, ask questions such as “Tell me about a time when you experienced a challenge. How did you respond and bounce back?”

At the same time, it’s important to understand that newcomer adjustment is a process that every employee goes through. To encourage successful transitions, it is more important to help newcomers develop psychological capital than it is to try to hire people who already have it.

Kathryn Tyler is a freelance writer and former HR generalist and trainer in Wixom, Mich.

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