College Grads Must Work Even Harder For Jobs In Tough Times

Gregory Karp, MCT

ALLENTOWN, Pa. _ College students graduating in December and May are likely to be the first in a generation to enter a job market featuring double-digit unemployment. That has colleges and universities across America scrambling this fall to revamp their career-placement offerings to help new grads land jobs.

Autumn is one of the crucial recruiting seasons, especially for students who want to find employment at Fortune 500 companies.

But the outlook for coming college graduates is decidedly grim. On top of a 22 percent decline in college-grad hiring last year, employers expect to chop those entry-level hires by an additional 7 percent this year, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

“What we’re seeing is they’re really being cautious,” said NACE spokeswoman Andrea Koncz.

That dismal hiring forecast is even worse than hiring plans following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when hiring came to a virtual standstill. Average starting salaries for 2009 grads dropped 1.2 percent from the year before, to $48,633.

Those facts are why career counselors across the Lehigh Valley have worked to shift the mind-set of soon-to-be grads entering the work force. The basic message: You’ll have to bust your butt to land a job in this lousy job market.

“What students did years ago isn’t enough today,” said Amy Saul, director of career development at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pa. For example, today’s students are encouraged not only to participate in an internship program, but in two or three to boost their chances of being hired.

“Competition is much more fierce than it has been in the past for entry-level candidates,” she said.

And the tough economy has created a distressing paradox. Just as students most need career-placement services, many colleges are cutting budgets in their career centers as part of their own belt-tightening.

About 55 percent of college career centers nationwide are cutting their 2009-10 spending plans, according to preliminary results of a survey being conducted by NACE. Lehigh Valley college career centers haven’t made sharp cuts, but some are running leaner.

Worse yet, career-services departments are now catering to more than just current students. Recent grads who haven’t found work or were laid off are returning for help. In fact, some alumni are returning decades after graduation to use job-placement services.

For Kate Hunter, director of career services and internships at DeSales University, that meant she had to brush up on techniques to help people land mid-career jobs. “Sometimes, we’re combing through 20 years of experience on an old resume to find skills that are transferrable to the current job market,” Hunter said.

To cope with the bad job market _ unemployment is 9.8 percent nationally _ local colleges are launching new programs, revamping old ones and tapping alumni for help.

At Lehigh University in Bethlehem, job postings dropped off a cliff in the spring. The career center started e-mailing alumni who might help. That doesn’t sound extraordinary, except that for the first time it e-mailed every single living alumnus it had an address for _ an estimated 10,000, said Donna Goldfeder, director of career services. Goldfeder corresponded personally with every alum who offered a job lead. The result? Some 300 job opportunities for Lehigh grads, she said.

“We broadened our net with employer outreach too, but to be honest, that didn’t have nearly the effect of reaching out to the alums did,” Goldfeder said. By the spring semester, the career center plans to have a new online database to help students contact alumni directly.

A sampling of new efforts:

Moravian started a pilot program this fall called Career Connections. It matches students with advisers based on their interests and targeted professions. It also has “Lunch and Learn” events, including recent and upcoming ones with recruiters from Major League Baseball and Mars Inc., maker of M&Ms and Juicy Fruit.

Lafayette College in Easton, Pa., is tapping more than 600 volunteer alumni and parents to participate in mock interviews over the phone and in person. Students are using InterviewStream, an interviewing practice tool that allows students to record mock interviews using a webcam for later critique.

Northampton Community College has launched a job club that will offer advice on such topics as resumes and job fairs, networking and interviewing techniques.

Muhlenberg College plans a new program on effectively using the online professional networking site LinkedIn, said Cailin Pachter, career center director. Muhlenberg ramped up efforts to help students apply for jobs with the federal government, a notoriously arduous process. The Allentown college also puts together an electronic book for employers and alumni that contains seniors’ resumes. Usually assembled in the spring, it is being assembled now.

DeSales adjusted its one-year-old Senior Success Series, which contains eight programs. Changes included starting job searches earlier and incorporating a strong networking component, Hunter said.

While new efforts and programs are more newsworthy, many colleges are re-emphasizing tried-and-true job-search techniques: writing resumes and cover letters, making contacts and developing a firm handshake.

“It’s career searching 101,” Goldfeder said.

Using such high-tech resources as LinkedIn and online job postings are important, but they don’t replace old-fashioned face-to-face networking, career counselors say. That has college students throughout the Valley practicing their elevator pitches _ describing their value in the time it takes to ride an elevator.

Muhlenberg even hosts “speed networking” events to practice those 30-second spiels, followed by an alumni networking reception where they use those networking skills for real.

“It’s not about going online and looking for jobs anymore,” said Hunter of DeSales. “It’s about getting your face out there and getting your resume into the right hands. It’s going to take a lot more legwork.”

While some strategies can be taught in groups, there is increased demand for individualized advice, counselors say. Lehigh University dramatically expanded the number of hours it offered for one-on-one career counseling, Goldfeder said.

Sometimes, part of that counseling is adjusting expectations. The reality: Some students might not get the ideal job in the ideal location right now. “We’re telling them there are opportunities out there, but you might have to reshape what you’re thinking,” Saul said.

With the rough job market, Muhlenberg has seen an increase in student interest for non-traditional jobs, such as the Peace Corps and Teach for America. And, of course, a dearth of jobs always makes graduate school more attractive.

For those with time before graduation, internships are among the best foot-in-the-door tactics to land work. In 2009, 23 percent of students who interned had a job in hand at graduation. For those without internship experience, just 14 percent left college with a signed-sealed-and-delivered job, according to NACE.

But in 2009, employers cut college internship positions by 21 percent, NACE says.

Career counselors say today’s college students understand what they’re up against, and they’re generally willing to work harder-to-land employment.

“I do sense an anxiety,” Pachter said. A recent program at Muhlenberg, Job Search for Seniors, had twice as many students attend as last year. “Our students understand how tough it is going to be this year, and they’re trying to get an early start.”

While on-campus recruiting has waned, the number of job postings recently has come back toward normal levels, counselors say.

“I take that to be a very good sign _ that we’ve gotten over the worst of it,” Goldfeder said. “We had a tough spring, but I think we’re back in the game. I’m very optimistic, actually.”

(c) 2009, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
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