Stay tough, stay employed

August 24, 2011: 9:14 AM ET

While the job market is certainly far from ideal for recent graduates, a new study sheds light on a few qualities that could keep recession-era entrants to the job market at work.

By Shelley DuBois, writer-reporter

FORTUNE -- Sure, today's job market might appear terrifying, especially for people who are about to enter it. Countless factors affect a person's ability to hold a job in such a turbulent market, but one in particular stands out. For lack of a technical term, it's toughness, according to a new study presented Monday at the American Sociological Association's annual meeting in Las Vegas.

A team of researchers from several universities tracked a group of students from Minnesota through the ups and downs of their careers starting in 1988, when the study's participants were in the 9th grade. For this paper, the research team -- from the University of Minnesota, Purdue University, and the University of Pennsylvania, respectively -- zeroed in on data collected in 2007, before the recession, then in 2009, after it hit. The team found that participants who maintained clear goals and felt like they controlled their employment situation throughout their careers fared better during the downturn. They were better able to keep the bad economy in perspective -- they were tough.

It may be difficult for young people entering the workforce today to develop that attitude, since recent jobs reports have been as disappointing as they have been and Americans have grown increasingly pessimistic about employment. According to a survey conducted by CNN in August, the U.S. population hasn't been this pessimistic about the future of jobs since the recession in 1982.

Many young jobseekers do face obstacles they can't control. But, the study suggests, the people who are best suited to weather the storm avoid getting swept up in the negativity. Fair enough.

But how do you prepare young people to develop the kind of career clarity that will see them through?

Fostering realistic expectations can help. Many of the students surveyed adjusted their career goals and went to vocational school instead of a four-year university, or earned an associate's degree instead of a bachelor's, says Jeylan Mortimer, a co-author of the study and professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. As long as they felt like they had some semblance of control over their career, many were able to land -- and keep -- good jobs.

So did students who had work experience as teenagers. In fact, the study identifies early work experience as one of the most essential tools people need to keep jobs during uncertain economic times.

Not to discount education. People who graduate from college generally fare better in the job market than those who don't, says Mortimer. But when you compare people at similar educational levels, experience in the workforce goes a long way.

By comparison, remember dating as a teenager? Every bump in the road feels like a huge, dramatic deal. It's hard to read signals, communicate well, or keep things in perspective. You mess up, you learn, and you eventually figure out what you want.

Now think about a hypothetical group of people entering the dating pool for the first time in their mid-thirties: they'd go through that same up-and-down process at a later age. That very phenomenon is happening now to many jobseekers. Since the 1950s, Americans have taken longer to make the transition between graduating from school and entering the workforce. For those who enter the workforce later in life, the study suggests, the transition can be more traumatic, especially during a downturn.

The study found that those who had bad work experiences early on were less likely to report similar experiences later on in life. People with work experience as teenagers seem to develop a better understanding of how to manage their time -- experience that they gained figuring out how to hang out with friends, go to volleyball practice, and work at the ice cream shop as kids. People who wait to enter the job market have a harder time building those skills, even if they are amassing degrees in the meantime.

Perhaps, then, boosting teen employment would help cultivate a tougher, more capable workforce. Unfortunately, teen employment has been decreasing since 2000, especially as senior citizens losing retirement benefits vie for jobs traditionally filled by younger employees. But to grow tough enough to survive a recession, America's teenagers need to get to work.

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About This Author
Shelley DuBois
Shelley DuBois
Writer - Reporter, Fortune

Shelley DuBois writes on management issues for Fortune.com. Before joining Fortune, she was a producer for National Public Radio's Science Friday and worked for Wired. Shelley has a graduate degree in science, health and environmental reporting from New York University. She lives in Brooklyn.

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