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Monday, 22-May-2017 15:22:23 ET

Graduating from college? The sky is the limit
by David Silverstein

Attention college seniors: I am the voice of your not-so-distant future. I was once where you are now, sweating and worrying about my future, forced to answer the never-ending question from family and friends: "What are you going to do when you graduate?"

The Onset of Panic

I can relate. But you do not want sympathy; you want advice. The best advice I can give you is to relax. You do not have to figure out the rest of your life in the next six months. You have a lifetime to sketch out those dreaded career goals. In the meantime, take a job you can enjoy: teach in an under-served school system, try your luck in Hollywood, work your way across the world, or do as I did, and take to the skies -- become a flight attendant.

Peace Corps Volunteer or Flight Attendant?

I joined the "real world" just over a year ago, after four unfocused years of college. The flexibility of my psychology major allowed me to explore my many interests, from Latin-American music to the social constructions of health. I studied abroad for a year, wrote for the college newspaper and conducted HIV education programs. By senior year, I was confused. I did not know what to do following graduation -- which of those diverse paths to pursue. My senior year I took the minimum course load (12 hours in the Fall and an awesome 8 hours in the Spring) in order to devote most of my time and energy to the job search. I spent most of those days in the library, glued to a computer screen, combing through every imaginable online job listing. There were jobs I wanted that I never could have gotten and jobs I could have gotten but never wanted. Graduation day loomed, and I was freaking out.

All was not lost, though. I had two very real possibilities. The Peace Corps was a definite interest. I could experience some far-away place and contribute to the betterment of the world. The other idea emerged from my closet obsession with air travel, which I finally managed to do something about. Along with the Peace Corps, I applied for a flight attendant position. I know…it seems strange to mention being a Peace Corps volunteer and a flight attendant in the same breath. But both captured my overwhelming love of travel. It was not an easy decision, but in the end, I decided to put the Peace Corps on hold and take the job as a flight attendant. It was time to have some fun and fulfill an old dream.

Is It Right For Me?

You would not be reading this article if you weren’t at least mildly interested in an airline career. But how do you know if it is right for you? I have friends who often get frustrated with their 9 to 5 office jobs and toss around the idea of joining me. After we get past the benefits (which are fantastic) and get into the actual work, their interest sometimes waivers. It is a demanding job, and it takes more than a "people person" to solve crises - both large and small - in such tight quarters and with very limited resources. You must possess good self-esteem and the sense not to take everything to heart cranky passengers and crewmembers throw at you. You have to be able to work strange hours, including nights, weekends and holidays. But of course, there are many advantages: you do not have to go to work every weekday from 9 to 5, you typically get more time off than at a typical job, and you very rarely see any kind of a supervisor or boss. Plus, working holidays may mean having a hotel room in Times Square on New Year’s Eve!

Landing A Flight Attendant Job Is Difficult

Landing a job at one of the major airlines is very tricky since the number of applicants far outweighs the number of positions. There is good news though: most airlines are growing and hiring more flight attendants than ever. And a college degree does carry weight. While no carrier I know of requires an applicant to have a degree, many of the flight attendants I know have undergraduate degrees. A few have even pursued advanced degrees while continuing to fly.

Some airlines actually recruit on campus, though many conduct open interview sessions around the country. Consider applying if you’ve harbored that steward/ess dream since your first plane ride, or if the job sounds fun and you do not know what else you’d like to do. If you are headed to grad school but want a break or need to save some money, think about deferring. Airlines do not require minimum commitments; you can fly for a month, a year, or 30 years. If you only want to fly temporarily or decide it is not for you, no problem. You are not locked in. JFK-based JetBlue even designed a limited one-year program with recent grads in mind.

As I mentioned earlier, competition for these jobs is intense, and I recommend checking out AirlineCareer.com's online resource (forgive me for sounding like an advertisement). This will give you the best opportunity to get hired. Of course, you could just wing it, but I can almost guarantee you won't get hired without some assistance.

Why It's All Worth It

The benefits that come with an airline job cannot be beat, especially for those of us just starting to make our way in the world. Considering the work involved, the pay is decent. But it is the free travel that lures many into the industry. No matter how long you’ve worked for an airline, it is undeniably cool to be able to hop on a plane and go anywhere on a day off. This past year alone, I spent Thanksgiving in London and New Year’s in Frankfurt. For fun, I vacationed in Thailand. "What are you going to do when you graduate?"

David Silverstein, a recent graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, is a first-year flight attendant with a major airline.

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