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Today, Sisyphus’ boulder is student loan debt

How well do you remember your (probably brief) studies in Greek mythology?

Here’s a quick refresher. Sisyphus, the self-aggrandizing king of Ephyra (Corinth), was condemned to roll an immense boulder up a hill — only to see it roll back down, thus having to repeat this action — for eternity.

Through the ages, then, laborious and futile tasks have become known as Sisyphean. Like, say, paying off student loan debt.

A May 17 New York Times article, citing data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, reported that U.S. household debt in Q1 2017 rose to a record high: $12.7 trillion. That’s both encouraging and troubling, the upside being that more borrowing signals greater optimism, not to mention that many Americans have repaired their recession-damaged credit and can borrow again.

Enough of that; that’s economics. Out of my wheelhouse.

What riveted my attention was something I can discuss — and offer a practical suggestion. It’s not how much Americans borrow, it’s that we’re borrowing differently. Student loans in Q3 2008 were 5 percent of household debt. Now, they’re 10.6 percent, a staggering $1.35 trillion. Chew on that for a minute. That number would be the 12th largest GDP in the world!

Those gigantic numbers are incomprehensible, but here’s one we can grasp: 2016 graduates, says U.S. News & World Report, carry an average debt of $37,000, and 59 percent state they have no idea when they’ll pay it off.

I don’t intend to tell you how much debt you should be incurring; that’s your business. You know I’m a big believer in higher — and lifelong — education, so some level of financial commitment is a given.

What I will tell you is this: As a student, the more closely you work with your career development office — and the earlier you start — the more likely you will be to secure that critical internship after your junior year (perhaps even before it) and that great (and better-paying) job long before graduation and get a jump on getting out from under debt.

Today’s column, then, is focused, first and foremost, on this year’s high school seniors, those of you who will be entering four-year and two-year colleges or trade schools next year (3.5 million), your parents (estimated 6.5 million), the following year’s class (repeat those numbers) and everyone already into their course of study (I’m losing count, but we’re well into the tens of millions). So this is the right time of year for this topic — before you overlook it.

Here’s the message. No matter what field you study, no matter how much you borrow and no matter where you intend to spend your tuition dollars, most of you will graduate with debt. So don’t pick a major based on “best paying” lists or on the current emphasis on STEM careers if you’re really a liberal arts person at heart.

Instead, when picking schools to which to apply and asking about courses, student life, athletics and all that stuff, don’t stop there. Ask about their career development center and about how they integrate career services into their curricula.

Also, ask whether career services are available once you’re an alum. Don’t take this for granted. If there’s one thing that saddens me more than anything else as a career coach (last month marked 20 years), it’s seeing so many recent graduates floundering in the job market — most of them with two glaring commonalities: lack of contact with their career services office while in school and a mountain of debt.

Remember, job market success is contingent as much on career skills (how to get a job) as it is on job skills (how to do a job). The good news is that recent college graduates were more likely to visit their career centers (61 percent for 2010-2016 graduates compared to 55 percent for 2000-2009), but the bad news is that they’re less likely to view their interactions as “very helpful” — only 17 percent (Source: Gallup).

This is not all on the career office; students are equally culpable. In a strong two-partner relationship, both are responsible for success.

Graduates who visited career centers at least once were more likely to be employed full time than those who did not (67 percent versus 59 percent), and most schools’ career offices are ready, willing and able to help — and their directors all feel the same pain I do. So don’t overlook or downplay this.

Too many 35- and 40-year old Sisyphuses are out there, still pushing their boulders up the hill.

Career coach and corporate adviser Eli Amdur has been authoring his weekly “Career Coach” column since 2003 and is the author of his acclaimed career advice book,”It’s Not So Far From Here To There: The thinking person’s guide to well-managed career.” He also is an adjunct professor of two graduate-level leadership courses at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. Visit his website at www.amdurcoaching.com.

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