College students home for the holidays will be bouncing between family get-togethers, catching up with friends, and bracing for the inevitable squabbles with parents over cars and curfews.
But high on the Yuletide to-do list this season will be hunting for jobs and internships. With the economy limping and college debt piling up like snow, the heat is on students — and parents who help foot their bills — to spend time over winter break polishing resumes, buttonholing contacts, and hustling to line up stimulating (and, ideally, paying) work for next summer.
“The pressure has ratcheted up so much,” said Carleton Kendrick, a family therapist from Millis who says the job scramble often comes up during his therapy sessions with parents. “It’s the big subject at family gatherings over Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.”
Kendrick said the pressure can trigger new intergenerational flashpoints. “It’s absolutely driven by the financial anxiety of parents who see college tuition going up every year while their own income is stagnant,” he said. “People are up to their eyeballs in loans.”
Parental angst aside, the sense of urgency about getting ready for the summer is not unreasonable. Over the past few years, summer jobs have been tough to come by. In July, the national teen unemployment rate hit 23.7 percent, essentially unchanged from the year before.
And while prospects for recent college graduates have been gradually improving since 2009, when the jobless rate for that group hit 17.6 percent, the market is still relatively tight. Job counselors agree that internships offer new grads a clear edge in the competition for a first job.
With so much potentially at stake, for many the concept of holiday downtime can seem as old-fashioned as roasted chestnuts and mistletoe. Some parents say preparation eases the task and lessens the anxiety.
“We set the expectations up front,” said Newton community volunteer Shawna Giggey-Mashal, recalling she and her husband laid out ground rules for their children. “We’re of the philosophy that when you return for Thanksgiving you’ve already started to line something up.” Her son, a senior at the University of Wisconsin, came home with two job offers dangling.
Even students who would just as soon kick back and chill out with friends over the holidays can’t ignore the looming summer questions. Economic uncertainty and a Darwinian job market have spawned a generation of students whose sights are firmly trained on career prospects.
“We’re all very focused on what we want to do in the future, even if it’s changing every week,” said Emily Baer, a Boston University junior from South Orange, N.J., who has already secured a paid internship next summer at a Boston public relations agency. “My parents place a lot of emphasis on making sure I have an income. They’re helping to pay for my college. They tell me that to do what I want to do I have to make money.”
Rebecca Lee, a Boston College senior who wants to work in broadcast journalism, accepted an unpaid internship last summer with the investigative reporting unit of a New York news station. “I did it to have experience in a newsroom,” said Lee, who lived at her family’s home in Queens during the internship. When she returns home for Christmas vacation this year, she plans to stop by the station, renew acquaintances, and ask about job opportunities.
“The willingness of students to do these internships when they’re not getting paid shows how important it is for our future,” said Lee, who is also thinking of applying to graduate school. “It’s a way to network outside of school. Our school has a lot of events where they invite alums to speak about how to land an internship and how it will help in applying for jobs.”
Even before winter break, many students found themselves on the receiving end of advice — solicited or otherwise — from alumni, career planners and, of course, parents.
Emily Dahlgaard, who parlayed her own internship into a job as public-affairs coordinator for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, is now collaborating with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston on a website that matches applicants with posted internships. The site, Internhub.com, already lists more than 800 jobs for 2014 from Boston area employers.
“A lot of big employers are already looking to hire students for the summer,” Dahlgaard said. “So now is the time for students to start looking.’’
When meeting with students seeking advice, Larry Carpman, a partner at Boston communications firm Northwind Strategies who teaches a course at BU, recommends that they seek “informational interviews” with professionals in their chosen fields. Such meetings tend to be relaxed because there is no expectation they’ll lead to jobs — though they sometimes do.
“It’s serendipity,” Carpman said. “When you’re in someone’s office, the 35 minutes you spend there will click somehow. They’ll often say, ‘You know, I just got this e-mail from someone who’s looking to fill an entry-level position next summer.’ ”
Perhaps the most fraught encounters over the holidays are between students and their parents. The students are often torn between reconnecting with far-flung friends and networking with potential employers, while the parents are trying to gauge how involved they should be — and how much involvement their children will tolerate — in the search for summer work.
Cathy Thorn, a retired financial analyst in Boston, said she asked a friend who works in a management position to conduct a mock interview with her daughter, a senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, but was otherwise hands-off.
“The one thing I didn’t want to do is call up my friends and contacts,” Thorn said. “This is a skill they’re going to have to learn. My girls would feel much prouder of themselves if they got it on their own. But I’d say, ‘Did you think about Fidelity?’ I was the idea bank.”
When his daughter embarked on a search for summer internships several years ago, Richard Goren, a Newton lawyer, said he took his cues from her. “She was motivated on her own,” he recalled. “But when she asked, I stuck my nose under that tent. I helped her with letters, looking over her resume, and tailoring the particular letter to the target.” His daughter, now a lawyer herself, got a paid internship in the legal department of a consulting firm.
But pressure to land a job or internship — whether internal or from prodding parents — can exact a toll, warned Amy Nobile, a New York writer and specialist in family dynamics, and author of the book “I Was a Really Good Mom Before I Had Kids.”
“Where does it stop?” Nobile asked rhetorically. “There’s mounting pressure on kids to get the grades, get into good schools, and get the right internships. We need to let them breathe. And if they miss out on a few things, they’ll figure it out. If we say, ‘This kid’s good at math and would make a good accountant and I happen to know someone at Morgan Stanley that could give them an internship,’ it [overlooks] the question of what the kids want to do with their lives.”
Some parents have learned that students are intent on tackling the challenge of job-hunting themselves — but only when they’re ready. Carpman, who lives in Marshfield, broached the subject over Thanksgiving with his son, a senior at the University of Rhode Island, while visiting him in Spain, where he’s studying this year. “He said, ‘Dad, I just want to have some time with friends over the holidays, and we’ll talk about it in January,’” Carpman recounted.
Discussions between students and their parents don’t always lead to agreement. Kathy Bridge, a Westborough wellness coach, said her daughter, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, worked as an intern with the nonprofit organization GlobeMed last summer setting up health programs in Uganda — and has decided to return there next summer.
“I’m not too sure we’re happy with her choice because we don’t know if it’s going to lead to a job,” said Bridge, who encouraged her daughter to talk to global health care groups about US-based jobs. “We don’t want her in Africa. Given the economy and the job market, we’re not sure where this leads.’’
Bridge admitted feeling conflicted, however, saying students can be overwhelmed by the stress of job-hunting. “I’d like her to have an internship because I’d like her to have a job,” she said. “But in my heart of hearts, I also feel they should have a summer.”
For their part, many students say they can ill afford long afternoons sunning themselves on the beach. “I like to have things planned out,” said Baer, the BU student who lined up her internship last month. “You have to know where you’re going to be next summer.”Robert Weisman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.