As a Millennial, you’ve probably been told that the only path to success, respect, financial reward, and job opportunity is a 4-year degree. In fact, you’ve probably heard it from your teachers, counselors, parents, neighbors, and almost every other adult in your life. You’re not alone. This is a pervasive message that has become a societal norm. As a student, rarely was I asked, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” but I was always asked “Where do you want to go to college?” College was the expectation. It didn’t matter what degree, I just needed a degree and success and fulfillment would follow.

This past May, 1.9 million students received their bachelor’s degree, ready to put it to use in the workforce…or so they thought. Almost 50% of graduates end up working in a job that doesn’t require the degree they received.  Nearly 25% end up working in a job that doesn’t require a college degree at all. On average, they also graduate with nearly $40,000 in student loan debt. Not only are many students getting a degree that they aren’t using, but they are faced with a heavy financial burden. Studies show that this combination is causing graduates to delay buying a home, getting married, buying a car, and saving for retirement because they simply can’t afford to. As a society, we have put too much focus on ensuring students obtain a “degree” instead of helping them discover their God-given talents, abilities, and interests. As a result, Millennials are hungering for purpose, they are searching for meaning in their work, and they are faced with immense financial decisions at a very young age.

If you are planning to go to college and are thinking: “I’ll figure out what I want to do when I get there…” STOP.

If you are in college and are thinking: “I wish I had chosen a different major” or “I am not sure what I really want to do…”  STOP.

If you are a graduate and are thinking: “I can’t find a job with my degree,” or “This job isn’t what I thought it would be…”  STOP.

Before you continue to invest the blessings you have been given of time, energy, talent, and finances, take a step back and ask yourself some simple questions to help refocus your career and start working towards understanding what gifts God has given you to use.

1. Why am I doing this?  

Why is where we should always start.  Why am I pursuing this degree? Why did I take this job?  Why do I want to go to college? Create a list of all the SPECIFIC reasons why.  If your answer to why you want to go to college is: “So I can get a degree and get a job” and you can’t answer:

  • What degree?
  • What type of job?
  • What talents you have/want to develop?
  • Has God planted a seed of interest in your heart for this work?

You may need to focus more on the next question.

What am I good at?

Paul tells us about the different “gifts,” “services,” and “workings” God has given us to use in 1 Corinthians 12.  The only way for us to find out what they are and understand how to use them is to explore as many different skills, trades, and jobs as possible. I don’t recommend paying $10,000 per year to do this at a university though many people are doing just that.

37% of graduates say they regret having spent the money to get a 4-year degree because it wasn’t what they wanted/needed and 49% believe they would have reached the same level of career progression had they not gone to college.

There are actually some simple, cost-effective ways that you can start discovering your talents.

  • Serve in your church.  Assist with a building project; shadow the treasurer, the webmaster, the AV team; help teach at VBS; or cook for Sunday lunch. Seek out any volunteer opportunity you can and shadow every position there is. I am not an AV professional, but I constantly have to set up and run AV equipment in my business (something most folks have to pay for). I learned how to run a sound system as a teenager helping with our Christmas church play.
  • Take classes at a community college. Community colleges are the best kept secret in education.  They offer several short-term classes for adult learners that only last a few weeks and are very affordable. Take every kind of skill class you can find; from carpentry to digital media to electrical wiring. You can learn some basic skills that will, at minimum, be useful to you in life while you find what best suits you. One of the best decisions I ever made was to pass up an honors course to take a masonry class. It cost me the chance to be valedictorian, but it introduced to me to work that I love and my current career as Executive Director of SkillsUSA North Carolina. It was the best decision I ever made (not to mention I saved a ton of money doing the brickwork on my home).
  • Job Shadow or Intern:  Want to know if the career you have dreamed of is all it’s cracked up to be? You can find out by shadowing individuals in a variety of positions in a variety of companies. This option typically doesn’t pay, but if you have some basic skills in that field, you may be able to get an internship that does. My first internship was as a marketing coordinator. I thought I would love the world of marketing. What I quickly found out is there are many sides to marketing. My position dealt with managing customer databases, making phone calls and updating customer information for 8 hours a day. Needless to say, I didn’t feel very fulfilled and I was very thankful it was only a 6-month internship.

Sometimes the most valuable lesson you can learn is what doesn’t work for you.

  • Work:  Some of the best lessons you can learn about your abilities come from simply getting a job.  Whether it’s retail, fast food, or the local pool, any experience you can get in a real work environment is monumental. It can also show you different occupations within those fields (management, service, sales, etc.) and puts money in your pocket to help sustain yourself while figuring it all out. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business. To this day, some of the most important lessons and business skills I’ve learned did not come from a college classroom; they came from working with my dad and helping him with his farming operation.
  • Once you find your talent, find careers that use it:  If math is your gift, you could be a teacher, a carpenter, an engineer, an accountant, a chef, or financial planner. All of these occupations require acute math skills, but you have to know if you are also able to work with your hands, communicate with others, understand financial markets, and more.

God can use one talent in so many ways, you just have to be open to exploring the options and building other talents.

RELATED: Why You Should Not Take a Job Right After Graduation

How do I get there?

 Once you have…

1) Identified your talents
2) Gained understanding of the interests God has placed in your heart
3) Discovered avenues to carry those interests and talents out in your life

You now have to find the best path to get you there.

One of the most important things to remember is: Don’t let a degree define you. No matter what career you pursue, know that a master craftsman is equivalent to someone with a master’s degree. Whether your talent comes with a 4-year degree, 2-year degree, a certificate, or on the job training, it doesn’t matter. Each one of those options is just as good and prestigious as the other. God doesn’t define you by a degree and neither should society.

If you take the time to ask yourself the questions above and focus on developing your talents as opposed to simply getting a degree, you will be making a stronger investment in yourself and those around you as you work towards utilizing God’s gifts.

Peyton Holland is the Executive Director of SkillsUSA North Carolina and has been involved in Career and Technical Education for over 18 years. He has devoted his career to helping create partnerships between education, industry and the community. He is a nationally sought-after speaker, trainer and facilitator.  For nearly 15 years he has worked in corporate, education, and non-profit sectors with a strong focus on workforce development, leadership development, personal growth, mentorship and teambuilding.