The rise of the self-reliant young worker

Millennials at work at Rally Software Development.
BOULDER, CO - MAY 6: 27-year-old Alex Riegelman, a user experience designer, is part of the workforce at Rally Software Development in Boulder, which reflects the growth of jobs for the Millennial generation in Colorado on Tuesday, May 6, 2014. (Denver Post Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon)
Photograph by Cyrus McCrimmon — Denver Post via Getty Images

Had Matt Neckes received his college diploma a few generations ago, chances are he would have wound up in a new-employee training academy, with courses stretching over several years, as his company aimed to mold him for a long, steady career under its roof.

Any bright, young fellow would have demanded no less. The main message to that newly minted grad of yesteryear: “He will find security, happiness, and perpetual advancement if he chooses Ajax,” Fortune’s William Whyte explained in his 1956 classic The Organization Man. “But he is apt to remain visibly unimpressed unless the recruiter can back up the promise with a training program—and a formal, highly organized one too.”

The workplace has changed a lot since Whyte wrote those words. When The Organization Man was published, the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 4.1%, compared with 5.5% now, giving twenty-somethings back then a lot more leverage in the labor market. (“With more job vacancies than there are graduates,” Whyte noted of the post-World War II boom, “the attractive senior will have some eight or nine offers to choose from.”)

Meanwhile, loyalty has become a lost virtue. Most young people these days have no intention of staying at any one company for more than a year or two, and businesses have no qualms about gutting payroll to hit their quarterly numbers. U.S. corporations spend some $60 billion a year on training, but they aren’t inclined to invest in the kind of elaborate programs set up during America’s Golden Age. Besides, many executives feel there isn’t enough time to “fashion a certain type” of employee, as Whyte put it, when job demands are shifting so quickly.

“Employers have a different expectation today,” says Rosemary Haefner, chief human resources officer at CareerBuilder. “Entry-level roles are more complex and data-driven. Technology is changing rapidly. Companies expect candidates to come in with hands-on experience instead of coming in as a blank slate.”

The question is, where can jobseekers find that experience?

Last week, CareerBuilder released a survey showing that 21% of employers believe academic institutions are failing to adequately prepare students for work. Almost half of that group said the problem is due to a lack of “real-world learning” on college campuses.

All of which brings us back to Neckes, who last spring received a degree in rhetoric from Bates College.

Like many Millennials, Neckes was passionate about making a difference when he got out of school, perhaps by taking on a social cause or an environmental issue. But he didn’t have much of a sense of what job that would translate into. “I thought I would do nonprofit work,” says Neckes, who had spent one summer interning at a sports marketing firm and another leading camping trips around New England—nothing that showed him a clear path.

Through Bates, he connected after graduation with Koru, one of several companies that have sprung up in recent years to give the uninitiated an immersion in business. (Other leaders in the field include Fullbridge and General Assembly.)

If you get in—only one in four applicants is accepted—Koru will show you over three-and-a-half weeks how to use Excel, read a basic profit-and-loss statement, and so forth, as well as give you practice in “soft skills,” such as how to communicate cogently with your boss and your colleagues. It costs $2,750 (with scholarships available to those in need).

“If you studied rhetoric at Bates, it’s very hard to figure out how to get a job at a software company,” says Kristen Hamilton, Koru’s CEO and co-founder. “These are people who have never been in an office—and we expect them to perform somehow.”

Hamilton is a fan of a liberal arts education, with its emphasis on critical thinking and persuasive writing. But while such an education may provide “the right skills for the long term, they’re not always the right skills for the short term,” she says. Bates is one of two dozen colleges that Koru counts as partners.

As part of his training, Neckes was immediately thrown in with three peers on a special project for Amazon, one of about 50 companies affiliated with Koru in Seattle, San Francisco, and Boston. They were tasked with helping Amazon better target a particular customer segment.

“This was the first time that I was put into a high-pressure environment like that,” Neckes says. He learned to cull and analyze data, and then present a case to managers at Amazon. Doing this “was really, really uncomfortable at first,” Neckes says. With Koru’s coaching, he says he eventually got the hang of it.

Neckes also learned to network. At a Koru event, he was introduced to executives from Smartsheet, a fast-growing company based in Bellevue, Wash., that makes an online project-management tool. He landed a job there within two weeks of finishing at Koru. The 23-year-old is now an account representative at Smartsheet, earning about $70,000 annually (with the exact amount depending on commissions).

It’s a far cry from the kind of work he imagined he’d be doing, and Neckes says he can’t see being at Smartsheet forever. But he admires the company’s values and says he has found purpose in helping others be more effective through the product he sells.

This year, about 1,000 students will attend Koru. Of all its graduates, about 85% have been placed in jobs, often where they did their special projects. Whenever someone who has gone through the program obtains a permanent position with a company in Koru’s orbit, Koru collects a fee from the employer tied to the graduate’s starting salary. In fact, Koru considers the employer—not the student—its primary customer.

When he got to Smartsheet, Neckes says, “there was not a lot of formal onboarding.” So he drew on a couple of the competencies that Koru had stressed: grit and a so-called ownership mindset. “I owned that I needed to learn certain things,” says Neckes, who took it upon himself to arrange to shadow various co-workers.

More and more, this is what entering the workforce after college is going to look like: Those who find success will need plenty of gumption along with a little shaping—but probably not by the organization that ended up hiring them.

Rick Wartzman is the executive director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate University. The author or editor of five books, he is currently writing a narrative history of how the social contract between employer and employee in America has changed since the end of World War II.

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