By ANNE KADET
Janine Guarino-McKown has every right to feel proud of her daughter Megan's resume. Compared with the clumsy work history presented by your typical recent college grad, it's a polished, professional and effective document: a crisp, beautifully formatted and compelling record of a star student's achievements and aspirations. And then there's the resume's authorship: Janine's the one who wrote it.
Back when Megan was finishing grad school in Dallas, the 25-year-old was busy studying for her boards and preparing for a medical rotation in the Australian outback. Janine, a retired health care administrator, had more free time, not to mention plenty of experience writing resumes for her friends -- why not do the same for her daughter? But she wasn't about to treat this as a pleasant little lark: To produce the two-page CV and cover letter template, Janine interviewed Megan closely over the phone, conducted a talent assessment and crafted a 147-word branding statement. Then she led her daughter through mock interviews and debriefed her after meetings with potential employers. And naturally, there was a little networking involved, as Janine introduced her daughter to a friend who knew the chief ER nurse at a local hospital.
In the end, the work paid off, with Megan landing a coveted job as a physician's assistant that pays more than $70,000 a year. And both mother and daughter say they're satisfied with the division of labor, which had Mom doing much of the legwork. "It wasn't my department," says Megan.
Perhaps it was inevitable, given the track record of the American boomer parent. After coaching their kids through junior hockey, supervising their science projects and cowriting their college applications, a growing number of enthusiastic moms and dads are moving to the next challenge, taking on the job of job hunting. Of course, parents have always played the role of over-the-phone cheerleader before job interviews, and generations of kids have gotten their first job through one of Dad's connections. But employers, job counselors and parents themselves say the help they're offering these days can become a full-blown tactical enterprise, one that includes everything from filling out job applications and combing the want ads to picking up the phone and hounding recruiters who haven't called back.
And yes, some parents even show up at their kid's job interview. Stuart Friedman, president of Chicago consulting firm Progressive Management Associates, will never forget the time he helped a financial-software client interview candidates for an entry-level position. In walked not one but three well-dressed hopefuls -- a fresh-faced college grad and his proud parents. Mom and Dad were on hand, the grad explained, to make sure he got "a fair opportunity to get this job." Friedman says he tried hard to stifle his befuddlement: "You can't sweat. You can't show any reaction."
Few parents take things this far, of course, and some family experts say they're actually pleased with the trend overall. After all, the idea that every child should cut family ties and forge his or her own career path is a relatively modern notion. Until the latter part of the 20th century, many kids entered the family occupation, whether that meant working the farm or taking an arranged apprenticeship. Parents were expected to provide contacts, training and a piece of the family business. If the parent is now reemerging as a career guide, perhaps this represents a return to sanity and normalcy, suggests Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development at the University of Texas at Austin. The 20th century, she says, "was weird."
But it's not nostalgia driving the new parental involvement -- it's the lousy economy. Kids who can't get jobs after college are returning home in droves, and their parents are desperate to get them working and out of the house. According to federal statistics, 14 percent of adults ages 20 to 24 are unemployed -- far higher than the national rate, which hovers near 8.5 percent. And even the well educated are having trouble, with just 53 percent of recent college grads landing full-time jobs, according to a Rutgers University report. That leaves Mom and Dad picking up their kids' tab for everything from cell phones to car loans -- and in the process, more than a quarter of those parents are taking on more debt to do so. The grown child, meanwhile, becomes more dependent in more walks of life, says Boulder, Colo., career coach Kathryn Marion. If a young adult hasn't learned to manage his or her time or balance a checkbook, she says, it's unlikely they'll have the life skills to land a serious job: "They're not ready to be in the deep end without a rope."
When the baby boomers launched their own careers, they didn't ask their parents for guidance -- why trust anyone over 30? And Gen Xers, those cynical latchkey kids, assumed they had no choice but to make their own way. But the millennials are different. Unusually close to their parents, they freely ask their folks for assistance, and their parents are eager to lend a hand. In studies involving more than a thousand families, Fingerman found that 69 percent of parents had provided practical assistance such as transportation or child care to their grown kids within the previous month -- more than double the share in the 1980s. Even the proportion who said they simply gave advice to adult children shot up from just under 50 percent in the 1980s to 90 percent today. Technology, meanwhile, is making it ever easier for parents to kibitz on the career front, whether it's by editing a resume via e-mail or by holding a hard-hitting mock job interview over Skype.
But as parents are discovering, it's difficult to draw the line between guiding the child's job search and doing the search yourself; it's even trickier to avoid overstepping bounds when it comes to an issue as personal as someone's career path. Frank Burgoyne, a San Francisco career coach who works with new college grads, says he sees the same scenario over and over: The student graduates, moves back home, decides she'd like a break and happily spends the summer watching TV -- breaking the tedium with the occasional peek at the online job boards. The parents, in typical boomer fashion, want to be open-minded and understanding. But deep down, they're terrified the kid will never leave -- and horrified by what looks to be the pathetic return on their $160,000 tuition bill. And so the nagging begins.
It's hard to avoid helicopter parenting when your grown kid lives under your roof, says Lesley Mitler, founder of Priority Candidates, a New York City coaching service for new grads. When her son graduated and moved back home for two months, she found herself behaving just like her clients' parents. When he woke at 10 a.m., she says, "I had already been angry for two hours." She found herself asking him over and over, "What did you do today? Who did you talk to?" It's a tough situation for any family, she says. The parents are frustrated, and a college grad having trouble finding work feels bad enough without the constant harassment and second-guessing.
Failure to Launch?
A grad's resistance to accept help can feel especially discouraging to the parent who can offer serious expertise. Minneapolis mom Lori Ruff is a sought-after social-networking consultant, but try telling that to her daughter Christine, a 27-year-old who works in a Lynchburg, Va., call center. Using her LinkedIn prowess, Lori found some promising biomedicine recruiters and e-mailed them an introduction to her daughter, who wants a research job. The recruiters responded, but Christine didn't follow up: "She wasn't ready," says Lori. Next, she put Christine in touch with a Silicon Valley connection, but it took repeated prodding before Christine would accept. The problem? "Everything I do is coming through the 'Mom filter,'" says Lori. (Christine sees it a bit differently, saying that some of Lori's tips involved work or locations that don't interest her. "It's not a matter of me not listening to Mom's advice," she says.) At least Lori can keep tabs on her daughter's progress by, yes, tracking her online. She checks Christine's LinkedIn profile twice a week to make sure she's been active.
But for every savvy parent, recruiters say they see a well-meaning boomer meddler whose input does more harm than good. Their generation isn't exactly on top of the latest trends when it comes to job hunting, after all. While older workers are less likely to be unemployed, boomers are taking an average of 57 weeks to find their next gig, compared with 35 weeks for the typical 20-something. The boomers face bigger challenges, of course, from ageism to higher salary standards, but there's also an extent to which many of them are out of step. Mitler says that often it's been a decade or more since the parent conducted a job hunt, and they don't realize how much things have changed.
In some cases, the parent has no idea how to craft a contemporary resume (Step 1: Drop the "job objective"); in other cases, parents see their grad spending hours on LinkedIn or Facebook and assume their child is wasting time socializing. Another common mistake: pushing a kid to seek old-fashioned job security when it's smarter to focus on companies that offer growth and training. Even guidance on questions as straightforward as what makes an appropriate interview outfit can get dated fast. Judy Davis, a Colorado mom, is an accomplished motivational speaker and savvy networker who has tipped off her daughter on key issues such as the importance of cross-interviewing an employer. But it has been 15 years since she last pounded the pavement. She was surprised, after encouraging her daughter Heather to adopt formal interview attire, to hear the report back from the front lines of a job fair: "Mom, no one's wearing a suit!"
No wonder, then, that a growing number of parents who botched their DIY coaching efforts are trying a new strategy: hiring a professional. A cottage industry has emerged in recent years, as career coaches eager to capitalize on parental anxiety have begun marketing their services to the families of recent grads. Some offer free introductory seminars aimed at the whole clan ("What Parents Can Do to Help Their Grads Find a Job -- Faster"). Others advertise in glossy magazines or partner with tutoring services to generate referrals. "We typically work with parents when they're in a very frustrated place," says Kathleen McDonald, CEO of Career Investments, an Indianapolis coaching firm that charges parents $175 an hour to work with their kids. "They come to us and say, 'It's not working.'"
When Kathleen McGinn's son Brian graduated from engineering school and moved back to her Milwaukee home, she knew he was motivated, but she worried about the long odds he faced getting a job in construction management. For a few weeks, she tried helping with his search but made little progress: "He's a 23-year-old man. And who wants their mother telling him what to do?" So she hired an expert to guide him through the process. Make that two experts. The first, a coach in Milwaukee, squired Brian to local networking events. The second, a high-profile consultant based in New York City, helped develop his resume and cover letter and prepped him for interviews. Within a month, Brian landed a job at a retail construction firm. The total tab? $4,500. But Kathleen says that these days, the expense may be unavoidable: "a built-in cost of an education."
Indeed, some parents are spending more on coaching than other moms and dads spend for a year's tuition at a state school. Frank Schroeder, an experienced executive recruiter, launched his Campus2Career service in 2009 after friends kept asking him to review their children's resumes. He targets the parents of Ivy League and liberal arts college grads in the swanky suburbs north of Chicago with ads in local lifestyle magazines, promising to help their children land jobs twice as fast as their peers: "Said another way, you can stop doling out an allowance in half the time." The service includes unlimited one-on-one, 24-7 coaching with the child, but Schroeder always includes parents in the initial session. After all, they're the ones paying the $8,500 tab. And after years of forking out for private-school tuition, SAT prep and tutors, they seldom blink at the cost: "Coaching and assistance is something they believe in," Schroeder says.
The full-family job hunt can stir up all sorts of issues at home, but as these ubercoached kids hit the pavement, employers are feeling the impact as well. Many say they're glad the millennials are being advised -- they can use all the help they can get. Marie Artim, VP of talent acquisition for Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the nation's largest employer of new college grads, says too many applicants have little sense of how to land a job. They use the same casual shorthand to e-mail a recruiter that you'd expect in a text message. They freeze in face-to-face conversations. And no one taught them standard interview etiquette. "We've had occasions where their phone not only rings, but they answer it," she says. So Artim is a fan of parental coaching when it takes place behind the scenes, and she and others are seeing positive results. More applicants are savvy enough to ask about 401(k) plans and health benefits, for example. Recruiters and coaches agree that opening one's professional network to your child is a great idea, as is passing along tips on writing a resume and crafting a proper thank-you note -- as long as the emphasis is on teaching a life skill rather than on helping the child land a particular job, says McDonald, the Indianapolis coach.
But too often, the parenting doesn't stop there. Artim says Enterprise recruiters get follow-up calls for updates after job interviews -- not from the applicants but from their parents. Artim recently got a call out of the blue from a resourceful dad who was researching potential employers for his son. Artim gently explained that the son needed to do this work himself. "I understand," the father replied. "But he's really busy." The kids may be grateful in the short term for the chance to watch Jersey Shore, but parents who take over the job search risk prolonging their kid's dependency, says Portsmouth, N.H., career coach J.T. O'Donnell. And grown children who don't take responsibility for their own career wind up feeling frustrated and depressed. "They're addicted to parental help and don't know how to quit," she says.
The ultimate irony, of course, is that all this parental oversight can backfire with potential employers. Amos Marvel, chief operating officer at Hollywood video game developer Hidden Variable Studios, says he once came out to the lobby to greet a job candidate and discovered the young hopeful was escorted by his mother, who spent five minutes raving about the child's wonderful qualities. "It's a huge turnoff," says Amos. He also says he's been chided by parents when their children didn't pass muster. "You have no idea how talented my son is," one mother scolded. "He's been playing since Nintendo 64!"
So what's next? Parents accompanying their kids to the company Christmas party? Dad representing Junior at the office brain-storming session? The nightmare vision of helicopter parenting on the job isn't so far-fetched, says Marvel. He once picked up the phone to get an earful from a new hire's mother: Her son was working too many hours, and she wasn't happy. Marvel did his best to placate her and still hasn't mentioned the call to his employee. "It's an uncomfortable situation," he says. "I just kept it to myself."