FORTUNE – Graduation speeches tend to be a mix of advice and calls to responsibility. Most tend to cover a broad patch of issues. Given the difficult job market high school and college graduates are entering today, perhaps a speech that advises and cajoles responsible actions to navigate the labor market is called for.
Here’s my career advice and call to action
Congratulations! You have heeded your parent’s advice to work hard in school and get the best education possible, with the implied promise that by doing so you will do well when you graduate. You held up your part of the bargain but unfortunately the economy you are entering is not holding up its part.
You are entering a troubled labor market that doesn’t have enough jobs to go around for all new high school or college graduates. Some of you will do very well indeed, especially those of you who have gained some work experience while in school and especially those of you who were fortunate enough to work in summer or co-op jobs and are now invited to join that organization on a full-time basis working in a career that uses your education and skills. Others with highly marketable technical or so-called STEM (science technical, engineering, and math) majors also face somewhat better prospects than those of you who followed your dreams to study literature, history or the arts.
Many of you, perhaps one-third or more of you, will not find jobs that put your education to work. You will be what some called “underemployed” in part-time, temporary or low wage service jobs. Beware of the liability of these gigs. They not only pay little now; if you stay in them and can’t bridge to a relevant career you are likely to experience long-term limits on your income and career advancement goals. So the advice here is take these jobs if necessary. However, view them as stop-gaps on a continuing effort to get the skills employers are looking for.
Be aggressive and creative in putting your skills to work. If you write well, put out a blog or send commentaries on current issues to whatever media you favor; if you are working part-time or even full-time, find volunteer opportunities that put your skills, particularly your leadership skills, to work to bolster your resume in something related to your career interests.
Keep learning. If you graduated from music school but want to eventually get an MBA, you can find a good community college and take the courses you avoided before to broaden your knowledge/skill base. Look for those programs that are well linked to employers, or even better, programs that provide internships or apprenticeships with combined classrooms with on-the-job work.
Whatever entry-level job you manage to find, negotiate with your boss and the bosses’ boss for assignments that go beyond your formal job description and that could help you learn about how the business or non-profit organization actually works. Surprise them by doing your homework; learn how the business works and how it stacks up against competitors, and propose ideas for improving its position or operating processes. Don’t passively accept the job as it is defined for you—expand it and see if you can really use it as a learning and growth opportunity. If your boss or bosses’ boss don’t like you doing this—leave quickly and find a temporary or other low-wage job with bosses who will appreciate and maybe even reward your initiative.
Finally, don’t think you are done with your education. Even if you have highly marketable skills today, they will depreciate quickly unless you continuously refresh them. So ask about and put to use any educational benefits offered by your employer; look at where technology in your profession is going and find educational and/or task assignments that help you learn what you will need to master what’s coming next. Enter and stay in the realm of “life-long-learning.” It will pay life-long dividends!
So much for the personal advice part. Now for the call for responsibility. Recognize you can’t solve your labor market challenges alone; you are not alone.
Nearly all your fellow graduates around the country this year and for the past decade have and are facing the same challenges. So start to mobilize and network with your peers. Use all the social media tools at your disposal (and invent new ones) to organize your generation to fight for better jobs, more opportunities to learn on the job or via further full-time education.
Get employers in your community to be responsible citizens by listening to your ideas—develop a young workers’ app that shares information on the good employers who are open to listening and acting on your ideas and providing opportunities for advancement and the dullard bosses/employers who just want your sweat and labor and tell you to leave your brains at the employees’ entrance. You have nothing to lose since the dullards are not going to help you in any way and the good ones will.
Seek out the various community groups and labor organizations that are working to improve jobs, particularly the ones you are stuck with at the beginning. In a whole range of cities and states from Seattle to Boston, there currently are coalitions pushing for increases in the minimum wage; there are Worker Centers in over 200 cities that help advise immigrants and others how to avoid and/or cope with the kinds of wage theft you might experience (failure to pay overtime, minimum wages, paid lunch or rest breaks, etc.).
Seek them out, learn your rights, educate your fellow workers to their rights, and work in solidarity to enforce them. Again, if you have a dullard employer who fires you, carry that discharge as a badge of honor and use all the social media at your disposal to tell your peers to avoid working there or being their customer!
Thomas A. Kochan is a professor of industrial relations, work, and employment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management. He is author of the book, Restoring the American Dream: A Working Families’ Agenda for America. More from Thomas Kochan: