Dear Students, Don’t Be a Commodity

Dear Students, Don’t Be a Commodity
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A recent report from the Census Bureau found that one in three Americans ages 25 and older holds at least a bachelor’s degree. While producing more college graduates than ever before seems like good news, it reveals a growing challenge for young people entering the labor market: the commodification of the college diploma.

A commodity is a product or good, usually a raw material or agricultural item, which can be bought or sold. One of the defining characteristics of a commodity is that it doesn’t have quality differentiation in the market. If I take my bushel of wheat to market, it will sell for the same price as your bushel of wheat. There is no difference between the two products, so neither of us can command a better price.

The commodity model works just the same with people. With so many students graduating from college, holding a degree is no longer the differentiator it once was. It has become the bare minimum.

Commodification is a big part of why we see such high underemployment among recent college graduates. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports that 44 percent of recent college graduates – people ages 22 to 27 with a bachelor’s degree or higher — are working in jobs that typically do not require a college degree.

Instead of being a commodity – one of tens of millions of potential employees with a college degree for which there may not be a demand – students should aim to be a specialty product. A specialty product stands out from the masses by possessing features and skills others don’t offer, and in doing so commands a higher price.

How Companies Identify Specialty Employees

Google is one of a host of technology companies known for putting job applicants on the spot with unexpected interview questions. While this tactic helps bolster Google’s reputation as an unconventional company, there’s a deeper purpose. The company is looking for creativity and analytical skills that separate a commodity employee from a specialty employee.

I recently interviewed Adam Swindler, a product marketing manager at Google, for my latest book. He told me Google is looking for “smart creatives” who “show an aptitude to pick up a new area quickly, to think creatively about different approaches, especially different ways that technology could solve that particular problem.”

We didn’t even talk about the baseline qualifications, such as coding skills, that you’d expect Google to look for. Those skills are assumed. They’re looking for the individuals who stand out from an overcrowded field of technically qualified candidates.

Entrepreneurs vs. Intrapreneurs

When I listen to people like Adam talk about what sets specialty employees apart from commodity applicants, I hear a need for “intrapreneruial leadership.”

With the stunning careers of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the entrepreneur has come to define the new economy. But not everyone has the desire or the ability to start their own business—and that’s okay.

While the economy needs outward-focused entrepreneurs to create new companies, products and services, it also needs intrapreneuers who can help established companies grow and adapt. An intrapreneuer is someone with the ability to identify opportunities for innovation or improvement within a company and organize a team to find a solution.

That’s what I heard Adam say when he spoke about “smart creatives.” The challenges facing any one company are more than any single person can solve, which is why it’s the person who can successfully lead a team from problem identification to solution who would be extremely valuable at any company.

How Commodity Students Become Intrapreneurial Employees

A college student may not be able to take a course on “Intraprenuerial Leadership,” but he or she can take advantage of courses and experiences that add specialty expertise to the core competencies of their major.

A math major, for example, could take business courses, which should stress team building and collaboration. A computer engineering student might enroll in communications courses to develop skills that are sorely lacking among many of her competitors in the job market.

College is a student’s time to invest in their future. They can’t be a passive participant, simply crossing off the requirements for their degree and thinking that they’re now ready to enter the workforce. All that sets them up to do is the bare minimum and puts them on the path to becoming a commodity.

To stand out from the crowd, students must progress through their college years with a firm goal in mind: differentiating themselves.

Vince Bertram is president and CEO of Project Lead The Way, a New York Times bestselling author, and the author of the new New York Times bestselling book, “Dream Differently: Candid Advice for America’s Students.”

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