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How companies try to make work more like college — and why that's a bad thing

My first year out of school was really hard and painful. As it should be.

A bike on the Google campus in Mountain View, California.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

During her senior year at Vassar, Heather Kobayashi attended a campus recruitment event for Epic, a health record software company based near Madison, Wisconsin.

“I just went for the free pizza, but then I heard them saying, ‘You don’t need experience in health care; we’re looking for people who are eager to learn,’” she said.

When Kobayashi started working at Epic the following summer, she joined the company at the same time as hundreds of other first-year graduates. Moving to Madison, she hardly knew anyone, and immediately befriended the people in her class. Three years later, most of her friends are people who started working at Epic when she did.

“Anyone at Epic can say, ‘I’m going to form a board game group or a book club,’” said Kobayashi. “You can stay on campus after office hours and there will always be a lot of Epic people there.”

Epic is just one of many companies that essentially give graduates the option to stay in college after graduation. Corporations that aggressively recruit large numbers of recent grads from elite colleges — mostly tech companies and consulting firms — understand how much the employees miss their undergraduate experience. To ease the transition, they offer extracurricular activities, designated mentors, report cards, and, most importantly, a large “class” of 22-year-old co-workers who all undergo the transition together.

I understand why this kind of workplace appeals to so many recent graduates. When I left college in 2014, I developed a new appreciation for school. My entire life I’d been surrounded by a group of people my own age, relying on teachers, parents, and administrators to help me make friends, solve problems, and find direction. For 17 years, I’d been part of a large, supportive community — a womb of sorts — that was actively invested in me reaching my full potential.

And then, suddenly, I wasn’t. I left that community to live with eight strangers and write a book alone in a coffee shop for eight hours a day. It was the most difficult transition I’d ever made.

As hard as it was, though, I’m glad I went through it. The transition out of school is an important rite of passage. I learned to how to be lonely, face uncertainty, and confront failure. I grew up.

Even though it’s tempting to take a job at a college-like company, graduating seniors should consider what they might miss by choosing that path. Eventually, the lessons learned during a typical first year out of college might turn out to be even more valuable than a job at a place like Google.

“All of your daily life things are taken care of so that you can focus on your work and not have to worry about anything else”

More and more graduates are opting to ease, or skip, the transition to the “real world.” Instead of learning to construct their own community, they move from one tight-knit, well-organized community to the next.

On its website, Bain, a leading consulting firm, tells potential recruits that as associate consultants, the firm’s entry-level consulting role, they will be “working alongside the warmest, brightest, and most supportive peer group.” First-year employees are pictured in groups, hanging out outside of work: on a ski trip, at a baseball game, playing volleyball. Every “class” has an appointed social chair, responsible for planning class-wide, Bain-sponsored social events.

“We’ve found that one big driver of people’s satisfaction, as well as personal development and growth, is being able to form really close-knit relationships within the office — relationships that will span years,” said Kate Bennett, associate consultant program manager at Bain’s Boston office, in an online video.

At Google, employees can choose from hundreds of interest groups like juggling clubs and a cappella groups, Google’s version of college extracurricular activities.

Many companies also offer structured, formal mentorship to young employees, similar to what they received from academic advisers in college and college counselors in high school. Oliver Wyman, another large consulting firm, assigns new employees a “career adviser” when they start work. That adviser reads all of the advisees’ performance reviews, and regularly engages them in discussions about their progress and goals. The performance review is a five-page rubric that provides detailed feedback on every aspect of the employee’s work, much like a school report card.

High schools and colleges often provide an array of resources and facilities to make life easier for students. Now companies are doing the same thing. At Google, employees have access to dry-cleaning services, massage treatments, gyms, coffee shops, hair salons, cafeterias, health clinics — all heavily discounted or free of charge. These facilities are scattered around Google’s offices in Mountain View, California, which employees aptly call a “campus.”

“At Google, all of your daily life things are taken care of so that you can focus on your work and not have to worry about anything else,” said a Google employee and 2015 college graduate.

Why companies are trying to recreate the college experience at work

This phenomenon — companies recruiting heavily from college campuses and providing a college-like work environment — is relatively new. In an interview, Cynthia Mathieu, a professor of clinical psychology at the Université du Québec à Trois-Rivière, said that in recent years, large companies have started to recruit more and more new employees directly from college campuses.

According to Mathieu, companies want to recruit college seniors for a couple of reasons: first, they are rapidly expanding and regularly need a large crop of fresh hires, and second, they want first dibs on new talent.

“For companies to be competitive worldwide, they need to be attracting the best candidates,” she said. “By recruiting at colleges and getting a huge pool of applicants, they can choose the best ones. They don’t have to wait for a good candidate to find their organization.”

To attract the best young candidates, companies need to make themselves appealing to college seniors. Brad Gilbreath, a professor who specializes in work environment at Colorado State University, says that Google, in particular, has created an extremely attractive workplace. After Google’s college-like atmosphere was covered extensively, other companies have adopted the approach.

“Companies think: If we want these people to come work for this, then we need to start shaping our organization to create what they like,” said Gilbreath. “Google has gotten so much press on its workplace environment, so of course that publicity has a big effect.”

My first year out of school was really hard and painful. As it should be.

I spent the year after graduation following four women who graduated with me in 2014, and writing about their first year out of college. None of them joined one of these college-like companies, and all of them struggled with the same things I did. We were all completely unsure of the decisions we were making about our futures, and separated from the people who used to point us in the right direction.

For most of us, the hardest part of leaving college was losing our community. One of the women, Alex, moved to Redmond, a suburb of Seattle, to work from home with her brother. She didn’t know anyone in the area, and spent most of her free time Skyping with her girlfriend on the East Coast. Most days, the only people she spoke to in person were her brother and his wife. She had a countdown app installed on her phone, counting down the days until she flew back East. She was miserable.

But three months into Alex’s first year out of college, she started making some changes. She moved out of Redmond and into downtown Seattle, renting an apartment in a neighborhood known as a hub for 20-somethings. She actively sought out interesting events and activities, and made a new group of friends. A few months later, she broke up with her girlfriend, created an OKCupid profile, and began dating in Seattle. Less than a year after graduation, she had learned to create a community of her own.

This pattern was the same for me and every woman I interviewed: We struggled through a few months of loneliness, took risks, made a couple of friends, and then, finally, started to settle into a new place. One of the women started attending a new church; another created her own band. I bought a pizza maker and invited everyone I could think of to my house for pizza parties. While we didn’t have professors or career advisers, we found other people we felt comfortable going to for advice: bosses, family members, older friends from church.

Other parts of the school experience — report cards, catered meals — we couldn’t just go out and find. So we learned to live without them, and that was a valuable experience too.

Some graduates who immediately start working at companies like Bain and Google push themselves to get outside of the company bubble — to leave the “school” community. When Kobayashi first moved to Madison, she prioritized getting to know people outside of Epic, signing up for a variety of meetups she found online.

“In the beginning, I didn't know that I'd develop such a close-knit group of friends from my hire group, so I tried a couple of ways to get out there and make friends. Now I don't do it so much, but I think it's good to put myself in situations where I'm forced to talk about something other than work,” said Kobayashi.

But as Kobayashi experienced, the communities these companies provide can be hard to resist.

One 2015 graduate at a major consulting firm told me that he looks at some of the older employees at company and worries. For many of them, work subsumes life. At work, they are comfortable and cared for. They don’t feel like their lives need to change, and as a result, they still live like college students at age 30. And he’s not sure whether that’s a good thing.

Caroline Kitchener is the author of the new book Post Grad: Five Women and Their First Year Out of College.

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