Better Life Lab

The Next Step to Diversifying the Workforce? Support First-Generation Professionals.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Thinkstock.

Sarah Rawlins grew up in Montana, where her dad worked in HVAC, and her mom cleaned houses in affluent neighborhoods. She put herself through college and, after landing an internship in D.C., moved away from her home state. After successfully completing her internship, Rawlins worked with a recruiter and started a temp job this summer after a short bout of unemployment. Once she got there, she quickly learned how much she didn’t know about succeeding in the professional world, and her first big shot became her first major blow. Though Rawlins had excelled as a first-generation college student, she was now a bit lost as a first-generation professional.

Universities today recognize the category of students who have no prior exposure or knowledge of navigating higher-ed institutions and may need additional resources as first-generation college students. But what happens to these same individuals after they graduate college and land their first jobs? Unlike their blue-collar or service-working parents, first-generation professionals work office jobs where work and the skills needed to do them well look different. Unlike their parents, they find themselves not only learning how to do a job but figuring out how to advance to the next one.

First-gen professional Ashlee Hoffman now works as an adviser for a local college access program and is struggling to figure out how to take the next step forward and become a district counselor. Her dad worked in fast food while she was growing up, and her mom did clerical work. This family history gave her few reference points for how to sell herself in professional contexts. When she was considering the job she’s in now, she was on vacation with her family when emails came in asking her what she expected to be paid. “I looked at my dad like, ‘I don’t know how to answer this question. They’ll probably pay me more than I’ve been making, so anything is fine.’ ” Now that she’s been on the job for three years, she says she’s “intimidated to go in and say ‘Can we have a conversation about it?’ I don’t even know if that’s how you ask.”

Even making small talk on the job can be difficult when you come from a background so different from many of your co-workers’. First-gen professional Jessica Spears grew up with her mom and dad working as line cooks. She not only graduated from college but got a Ph.D. and started working in biotechnology. She recalls being around peers and realizing they talked about internships or travel experiences they had that she hadn’t, opportunities that gave them more to talk about at work and in interviews. Spears says her parents, on the other hand, “have been on an airplane once in their whole lives.”

Having never had salaried work before, seven hours into her first day of her internship, Rawlins had to ask a co-worker about the basic structure of her new work schedule: “ ‘Is this 9-5? How does lunch work? Do I need to clock in?’ And she was like ‘No, show up at a reasonable hour, leave at a reasonable hour,’ ” Rawlins recalled. The internship ended, and so with it went many of these guides who were able to lead her through her new work life.

She was used to hearing back from service jobs fairly quickly, but in the professional world this was not the case. After facing months of unemployment, Rawlins found herself wishing she had started looking for a job earlier.

Rawlins, like an increasing number of professionals fresh out of college, turned to a recruiter for help. She was able to land a temp-to-hire position at a trade association in Washington. Soon after starting, she got nervous. She felt they weren’t giving her much work and didn’t give her feedback on the work she did do. Then the unexpected happened. The recruiter she’d worked with called her and told her she’d been fired. Rawlins was left confused. Was she given little work because she hadn’t done well from the start? Was she supposed to talk to someone at work to get guidance earlier on? Should she have asked for more work? Because she was hired through a recruiter, it was the recruiter, and not a direct supervisor, who told her the news.

Karen Hopkins is a researcher and professor at University of Maryland and part of a nationwide project seeking to help students and professionals facing struggles similar to Rawlins’. Hopkins focuses on people of color, and women in general, because she found these groups were greatly underrepresented in professional fields. Opportunities like working with real-world clients, résumé help, and mock interviews where individuals learn how to really talk about what they are doing are vital for all professionals, but especially those who didn’t get exposure to these things at home.

Hopkins feels that peer coaching is a major piece of the puzzle for first-generation professionals. “The peers help each other, talk about what they did in their agencies, and how they applied it to programs. Also, while they are being trained in this work the coaches are helping them figure out how to apply this in their organizations. The coaching has been a really important component. That is something we are trying to recommend to other programs trying to adopt this model,” Hopkins said.

In many ways, because of the success of supporting first-generation college students, there are many first generation professionals like Rawlins who simply need better support in the workforce. Their struggles can start on day one at a new job, with the the intimidation of the forms to be filled out, picking the right health insurance or 401(k) plan, not to mention learning the office lingo and politics. A study of first-generation students uncovers that “success in college is not simply a matter of students demonstrating academic ability. In addition, students must master the “college student” role in order to understand instructors’ expectations and apply their academic skills effectively to those expectations. Similarly, first-generation professionals express struggles in mastering the “professional adult” role, a task that takes as much social exposure and guidance as it does training and technical knowledge.

Today, more Americans than ever are college graduates, but low-wage work has expanded at the same time, making professional jobs more competitive and difficult to lock down. Recognizing the particular needs of first-generation professionals may be the key to bridging that gap between abundant education and sparse career opportunities many in the country face now. And with companies across the country asking for employees with more diverse backgrounds and a growing body of research showing this diversity enhances overall workplace performance, the time for buttressing these early-career workers is now.