From the Classroom to the Office: Where Expectation Meets Reality

What Agencies and Marketers Can Learn from Young Professionals

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Every year around this time, college grads have settled into their new positions in agencies and corporate workplaces, but the process of adjusting to work life may take a bit longer.

Recently I had the opportunity to query some young professionals who are about a year into their careers, asking them about their perceptions and expectations as they approached graduation and after they entered the communications and marketing professions.

These young pros -- all now in agency settings, both big and small and from all regions of the country -- made some surprising comments about the transition from the classroom to the office. Their comments may be hiding some insight into the way that universities and employers can do a better job of preparing and onboarding these new professionals.

Overall, young pros didn't seem to fully understand what was waiting for them in the professional world -- work traits, managerial expectations and the actual type of work -- aspects of the job that those of us in the field for a few years or more take for granted. Their comments tended to center around three areas:

1. Pace of the job. Not surprisingly, the majority of the new pros remarked about how stressful the job is. Several students said they didn't expect the pace of the job to be so "incredibly fast," and how "you have to shift gears frequently and in different directions." One remarked, "We thought we worked hard when we were in college, but it's nothing compared to what we have to do in the real world." Another noted the difficulty in balancing multiple clients along with the need to constantly prioritize and re-prioritize.

2. Expectations of quality. Young pros said they weren't prepared for the level of quality required in an agency setting. "I've really learned the importance of the term 'client-ready.' For example, while you're in school, you can get a few things wrong and still get an A or a B, but at the agency, when you're going to present something to a client, every detail must be perfect." They also were surprised by the variety of writing styles required for different clients and different situations. "I thought I was a really good writer coming out of school, but I realize that my writing style was great for doing college assignments but not particularly well suited for the real world."

3. Transition from the classroom. New pros said what they were taught in the classroom was not necessarily what they found when they transitioned into the workplace -- the impression they had about agency life didn't match the reality. Some said they thought of their chosen profession in "flashy" terms -- events, campaigns and social media -- and were surprised by the more routine, day-to-day corporate communications work. They said basic principles are taught well in school, but they were unprepared for the soft skills required of a consultant -- skills that come with experience but that can be modeled with training or mentoring.

What lessons can we learn from these comments?

First, agencies, corporate communications departments and universities should consider closer partnerships. Together, we can work to bridge the divide between what students believe their future professional career holds and the hard and soft skills needed to succeed. For example, we know of one local agency that recently accepted a marketing professor as a summer intern, giving him current on-the-job experience to take back to the classroom.

Second, agencies and corporate departments should ensure their orientation programs focus not just on the skills of the profession, but also on how to juggle multiple clients, priorities and -- importantly -- personalities. Our agency, for example, takes on a pro bono project during each intern period, guiding interns through the account management process in a way that would not be possible with an ongoing account.

And finally, agencies and corporate departments should take another look at their intern programs, and see if there are ways to make them more valuable. Nearly every student agreed on the importance of at least one internship before getting a first job, but many said they found internships to be siloed, gaining experience in only one or two aspects of the business instead of a more rounded experience through exposure across the organization.

The maturity and drive to succeed of new grads entering the profession is encouraging. Now it's up to those of us in the workplace to guide their transition and growth.