The Career Community as a College Strategic Asset

Why do students go to college? Most academics would be horrified to discover that the top reason is not to get a great education and become an educated citizen of the world. Today’s students still want high quality academics, but they take the educational benefits of college for granted. What students now expect from college is to get a leg up in life.

 

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The Big Disconnect Between College and Career

Students and parents want a college education to lead to a better job. Recent surveys from Inside Higher Ed and Gallup suggest that almost all college presidents and senior academic officers agree with them.

Sadly, however, there is a big disconnect between the perception of higher education and the perception of employers when it comes to the employability of new college grads. Colleges and universities think they’re already doing a good job of preparing students for the job search. Fewer than a third of employers concur.

And, according to a 2012 survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, only 16% of employers considered applicants to be “very prepared” with the knowledge and skills they would need for the job.

How could colleges and universities think they are preparing students well, while employers pan their efforts? What could be the cause for this disconnect?

Why is there a disconnect between college and career?

  • First, many academic leaders—particularly in institutions with a broad focus on the liberal arts—fear that paying more attention to the career needs of students will be the first step on a slippery slope to “vocationalism” and a less academic approach to education.
  • Second, most of those who are currently in senior academic leadership positions graduated at a time when the rules governing how to find a job were much clearer—and stresses of loan repayment less onerous. They may not know what it takes to be successful in the modern job search or for what they can hold a Career Services office accountable.
  • Third, few colleges and universities are aware of new integrated models of career preparation, which use a “Career Community” concept to broaden opportunities and advising. These models encourage students to reflect and build on their learning in and outside the classroom from the first year on. They also ensure the involvement of alumni, parents and employers, helping students connect the dots between their talents, interests and opportunities.

Engaging Career Centers in institutional plans for career preparation

Possibly the biggest reason for the disconnect between career preparation rhetoric and reality was revealed in a recent session on career preparation at the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ annual conference. Not once during the presentation was there any mention of university career services offices.

In fact, career center leaders and senior administrators rarely, if ever, come together to strategize about how an institution can create a comprehensive plan to improve career preparation and graduate career outcomes. Rare is the institution like Augustana College (Rock Island, IL), that views the enhancement of career and graduate school success as a key institutional priority, and engaged all interested Augustana faculty and staff in its planning process.

At many colleges and universities, the Career Center is perceived as nothing more than the place where students go to get their resumes and cover letters critiqued. While many career services offices are excellent, it is true that others have changed little in the past few decades, employing a more operational than strategic approach to their work.

But things are changing in the careers world: A new breed of career director is emerging who understands both the work world and the academic world, and is committed to bringing the two together for the benefit of students.

Higher education should be able to trust Career Centers to orchestrate institutional career initiatives, and accept accountability for results.

Impact of the recession on institutional responsibility for career preparation

At the beginning of the most recent recession, few realized the employment impact would last as long as it has: For the past five years, the unemployment rate for 20-24 year old bachelor’s degree graduates has decreased by only a percentage point—from just over 9% to 8%. At the same time, over a third of young college grads are believed to be mal-employed—employed either part-time or in jobs that do not require a college degree.

Parents worry about their sons and daughters not getting jobs commensurate with their college education. They also worry about the rising cost of higher education. It now costs an average of almost $40,000 a year to attend a private college—a rate that has risen 2.3% a year above the rate of inflation for the past decade.

Given unemployment rates and the cost of college, there is no reason to believe college students and their families will cease their concerns about employment prospects any time soon, and every reason to believe that the college that does nothing will lose good potential applicants.

Instituting an integrated approach

Students clearly need help transitioning from college to career. Our current system is not working, and senior administrators in colleges and universities must play a much greater role in ensuring that students are prepared.

But, career preparation is not something that happens overnight, or in a senior year counseling session at the Career Center. It is part of a process that begins with exploration in the first year, and ends after the student has found success in her bid for a job, fellowship, or a place on a post-graduate course.

And, responsibility for improving career preparation cannot be solely the responsibility of either the academic side of the house, or the Career Center. It requires all those with a stake in student success to work together.

What we need is an integrated approach to helping students develop the skills, characteristics and knowledge that will change employers’ minds about the potential of our students, and make graduates job ready on day one. This doesn’t mean changing the nature of education; it just means being more intentional about connecting the dots for students between college and career.

Now is the time for organizations like AAC&U, NASPA and NACE to step up to the plate and lead a national conversation with higher education leaders and Career Centers about their roles and responsibilities in preparing students for the next stage of their lives.

We owe it to our students and graduates.

Aligning Employer Needs with Student Learning in College

In President Obama’s 2014 speech at Knox College, he called the “undisciplined system where costs just keep on going up and up and up” in colleges and universities unsustainable, and said he would lay out an aggressive strategy to shake up higher education. A better approach would be for higher education to take the lead and accelerate the pace at which it re-invents itself, while making more effective use of institutional funds.

Re-thinking College to Career

A key place for higher education to start is in re-thinking how students can be better prepared to find work. Most colleges would agree that the perception of job success after graduation from a particular institution is a key driver of matriculation, and that more successful graduates eventually lead to greater philanthropy. But too much of the attention paid to the goal of career preparation is simply lip service, with the blame going to Career Services offices when results are poor. Career Services certainly need to be part of the re-invention process, and take a much more data-driven approach to their work. But they can’t solve their students’ career problems without broad institutional support on the front end.

What Employers Want

All the career assistance in the world is not going to help the student who isn’t qualified. Yet how many of our institutions have any sense of what employers are expecting of students and graduates when they hire them for internships and full time work? According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) Job Outlook 2013 Spring Update, employers rank the most desired skills and characteristics as follows:

#1 Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization
#2 Ability to make decisions and solve problems
#3 Ability to obtain and process information
#4 Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work
#5 Ability to analyze quantitative data
#6 Technical knowledge related to the job
#7 Proficiency with computer software programs
#8 Ability to create and/or edit written reports
#9 Ability to sell or influence others

Mapping how students can acquire the necessary skills

During the time a student is in college, he or she typically has four ways through which to develop the skills required by employers: The classroom; co-curricular or extracurricular activities; internships or other experiential education; and, the Career Center. The easiest way to become competent in any of these areas is through internships. But that doesn’t mean we can’t significantly boost many the student’s skill sets and desired characteristics while they are on campus.The following chart illustrates the opportunities:

2013 Skills Employers Seek NACE, AACU

The graduate skills deficit

As the above chart indicates, there are multiple ways during the time students are in college to help them acquire practical skills. But cross referencing the NACE employer data with data from the Hart Research Associates’ survey of employers conducted for the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) illustrates that there is much work still to be done. Of the nine top skill sets identified as important in the NACE survey, six were highlighted in the AACU survey as areas to which higher education should pay more attention.

The three top areas in which employers found students deficient were:
1) verbal communications
2) written communications
3) problem solving and decision making

What can colleges and universities do?

What stands out from a review of employer needs and college graduate deficits is that a new way of preparation from college to career is required. If we want students to acquire the skills sought by employers, we must be clear how, where and why they need to develop them. We can’t just say “go to the Career Center and go there early”. The fact is, skills required by employers take time to develop. Staff in the Career Center don’t have that time, or even, perhaps, the expertise. They are better positioned to concentrate on teaching students the job search strategies and skills they need to be successful in their applications for employment.

One argument against building skill development into classes is that it will somehow diminish the quality of the education. But, integrating such skills into a course is totally consistent with a highly rigorous education–even a liberal arts education. There are plenty of ways, for example, that opportunities to do oral presentations can be built into humanities classes, or white papers required in classes on pressing social issues. Even statistics classes can require students to develop problem solving skills using real world examples, like analyzing baseball scores.

The key is to help students understand what they need to learn, advise them how to learn it, and help them reflect on how to practice and enhance skills in and out of the classroom. There are roles for faculty, administrators, alumni, coaches and career professionals to play. When the entire institution is involved in preparing students for post-graduation success in a very targeted way, we have a much greater chance of making that success happen.

Brighter Employment Prospects for Young Grads

An unemployment rate of 7.3% may not seem particularly good. But for millions of the country’s college seniors, 2014 data recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics represent the first sign that the major upturn in the employment market for bachelor’s degree grads that started in 2012, was not an anomaly.The last year students faced an unemployment rate below 7% was 2008. The following five years proved more challenging to those looking for work than any period in decades. Between 2009 and 2013, the percentage of bachelor’s degree graduates aged 20-24 who were unemployed hovered between 8% and 9%, thwarting well-considered plans for careers, and—for many—putting marriages and mortgages on hold.

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table 10 (unpublished)

Before the Class of 2015 breathes a collective sigh of relief and drinks to their greater fortune, consider this: employed graduates from recent years may also be on the look out for new opportunity. They have jobs, and that’s good. But, in a 2014 survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 46% of recent grads said their jobs do not require a college degree—a 20-year high. You can bet these under-employed grads are already snapping up higher-paying jobs as the economy improves.

Here’s the bottom line: despite better employment prospects, it will still be difficult for new college grads to find the kind of work they want at the salaries they expect, unless they major in engineering, computer science, or certain areas of business. The 2013-2014 Recruiting Trends survey conducted by Michigan State University shows that, of the top twelve majors requested by employers, six of them were related to technology.

In an improving employment environment, today’s college seniors—particularly those majoring in a subject that doesn’t lead to a particular career—need to be clear on what they want to do, and the value they bring to an employer. But most of all, they need to identify what sets them apart from the competition. The employer still has the upper hand in this market, and plenty of choice in candidates. But at least, for the Class of 2015, there may be an opportunity to get a foot in the door.

 

A Reality Check for Law School Students

Law school represents a significant commitment of time and money. For decades, the perceived benefits have outweighed the costs, but in the second decade of the 21st century, the answer to the question “should I go to law school” is less clear.

Not so long ago, law school was the career of choice for a large number of liberal arts grads. The field favored those with strong critical thinking skills, and acquiring legal skills was deemed an advantage for any graduate—regardless of whether the law student ever intended to become a lawyer.

But rising costs, sky-rocketing debt, a changing legal field, and continued economic challenges, have changed the ROI equation.

For students with top grades, excellent LSAT scores, and a passion for becoming a lawyer, going to law school can still be an great choice. These are likely the students who will go to top twenty schools, or be awarded full merit scholarships. But, without the guarantee of a highly-paid law job at the end of three years of law school, most prospective law students need to carefully weigh whether the investment is worthwhile.

Reality check #1: How much debt will you have?

Borrowing for law school was high, but relatively stable, for many years. In 2004, according to a recent New America Policy Brief , the typical indebted law student owed $88,634 at graduation (expressed in 2012 dollars). But, thanks to a 2006 federal government decision that now allows borrowing up to the full amount of attendance, the median debt load of law students in 2012 soared to over $140,000—a 58% increase.

Reality check #2: How much do you have to earn, to be able to afford a median debt of $140,616?

Most students will expect pay off their debt over 15 years. Using the median debt, that means a payment of $1,248 a month, according to calculators on the website FinAid.org. FinAid! estimates you will need a salary of almost $150,000 a year to afford this level of monthly payment. Depending on your loan, there may be “extended” or “graduated” repayment options, but for many this feels like getting a mortgage without building equity.

Reality check #3: How likely is it that you will get a job paying more than $150K?

Nine metro markets have mean wages for lawyers above $150,000; the highest—in Silicon Valley—has a mean salary of $192,000, according to the American Bar Association Journal. In fact, six of the nine most lucrative legal markets are in California, which also doubles as one of the most expensive places to live. To even come close to the $150K salary, most graduates will need to find a job in large law firms, so-called “biglaw”—those employing over 100 lawyers in major metropolitan areas. An excellent article on “biglaw”, and its culture can be found at Top-Law-Schools.com.

Reality check #4: Can you find a job in “biglaw” from any law school?

If you are in the top 10% of your class, on Law Review at any good law school, and geographically mobile, you may have an excellent chance of finding a well-paid position as an associate in a large law firm. Your chances increase substantially if you can bring business to a firm, or if you have additional experience prior to law school that is of interest to the firm. But, the lower the ranking of the law school, the more likely your job will pay under 100K. Lower pay is also likely if you accept a job where a law degree may be an advantage, but which does not require you to pass the Bar.

If a law school has a US News ranking over 50 for example, you may find that fewer than 20% of the graduates are employed full-time in law firms with over 100 lawyers within 9 months of graduation. American Bar Association rules nowe require disclosure of career outcomes on law school websites, so search the school’s site under terms “employment statistics” or “required ABA disclosures”.

Another excellent source of comparative information can be found at Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. On this site, you can not only compare the career outcomes and rankings of different law schools, you can also check the Above the Law rankings, which compare schools solely based on the number of graduates employed full-time, long term, in positions requiring Bar passage. Above the Law excludes School-funded positions–an increasingly popular way for law schools to help students find employment (usually for up to a year) while simultaneously increasing their standing in US News rankings.

The decision whether to go to law school is very different for the student without debt than it is for someone who will be paying back large loans for over a decade. Similarly, a student who intends to pursue a legal career in public service and apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program may view law school as an excellent investment.

Regardless of individual circumstances, all prospective law students owe it to themselves to do due diligence and research before signing on the dotted line of a loan agreement. Given current debt to potential income ratios, your future may depend on it.

New Grads Left Behind in Jobs Recovery of 2013

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released its annual unemployment statistics for 2013, there was good news for every major cohort except one: Bachelor’s degree grads aged 20-24.

Since the peak unemployment years of 2009/2010. College grads over 25 experienced a 24% decrease (blue bar). But the unemployment rate for young college grads only declined by 13%–from a high of 9.2% to a 2013 average of 8% (red bar).

Despite the high expectations of employers for increased hiring of new college grads, the unemployment rate of this group between 2012 and 2013 completely stalled.

Typically, young grads have had an easier time finding work than the general population. Not so in 2013. While the overall unemployment rate for everyone in the civilian population over the age of 16 was 7.35%, 8% of college grads aged 20-24 were unable to find any employment—let alone employment that was full time and required a college degree.

This has clearly been a frustrating time for new college grads. Faced with the daunting prospect of trying to find work commensurate with their college education, many have settled for employment they could have secured without a college degree. And that has almost certainly negatively impacted their ability to repay college loans.

Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, estimates that the number of recent grads who have taken lower level positions has jumped from around 27% in 2007 to 37% in 2013–a poor return on the student’s tuition investment.

Why have young grads not benefitted from general improvements in the economy and a soaring stock market? No one knows for sure, but there may be a clue in the study released in October 2013 by Chegg, the Student Hub and Harris Interactive, that identified a big gap in the skills graduates thought they possessed, and the skills employers want.

If young graduates are not ready for the workforce, employers may reject them in favor of their older, more experienced peers.

Given the cost of education, and the increasing demand for a return on the tuition investment, it is in everyone’s best interest to address the problems associated with young graduate unemployment and underemployment.

No longer can colleges and universities sit on the sidelines and wait for the economy to improve. The economy has improved, but new grads have still been left behind.

This situation has repercussions for higher education: Unemployed and mal-employed college grads are, for example, less likely than those who are employed to recommend their college to prospective students, or to contribute to its coffers.

The smart colleges and universities will be those that recognize they can gain a strategic advantage by investing in the career preparation of their students, and giving them a greater helping hand in finding their initial positions.

Career Deceptions

We can all recite the message: Do well at school, load up on extra-curriculars, go to a good college, graduate, get a well-paying job. It sounds easy. Well worth the tuition investment and the second mortgage. Sadly, as any investment prospectus will tell you, past performance should not be seen as an indicator of futureperformance. Nowhere is that more true than in the careers world, where unemployment rates for young grads have been at historic highs for several years. Our students are floundering, but many careers offices are ill-equipped, and insufficiently resourced to provide the kind of help they need. And, students haven’t been told that success requires their active involvement. It’s time for a new message. It’s time for a new model of Career Services.

On January 7, 2014, from 11:30-12:30pm EST, Sheila Curran will present the opening keynote address for the InternBridge Career Services Online Conference: Career Deceptions: How We Are Failing Our College Grads, and What We Must Do About It. Use code word Curran for a 10% discount through the link www.internbridgecsc.com The brief presentation will be followed by an extensive discussion with the online audience.

Re-thinking Career Services in Times of Employment Uncertainty

In the spring, all eyes are on new college graduates and their future plans. Current indications are that the employment situation is easing, but bachelor’s graduates aged 20-24 still face plenty of challenges. Average annual unemployment rates for this cohort have remained stubbornly around 9%, and underemployment is rampant. So who has been helping these students and grads get a leg up, especially if they don’t have well-connected parents or a stellar GPA?

This monumental task has, in the eyes of parents and the public at least, been assigned to College Career Services offices. But few have held higher education accountable for making this service work. And, if parents are expecting any kind of personal attention for their sons and daughters, they will frequently be sorely disappointed.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2012 survey of over 800 colleges and universities, there is an average of one careers professional for every 1645 students served. Staffing ratios are substantially worse at large public institutions and correspondingly better at small liberal arts colleges. Some colleges—even relatively small ones—spend as little as $50 per student per year on career-related services. Over the past three, economically challenging, years, the budget situation for careers offices has actually deteriorated. NACE data shows that nationwide, the median operating budget for careers offices shrank 8% between 2010 and 2012, from $34,000 to $31,000.

At a time when we should be expecting colleges to enhance their career services to students, many have taken a defeatist approach, lacking confidence to believe that anything they do could make their graduates more attractive to employers. To many in higher education, careers offices are cost centers that deserve to receive the same reductions as every other administrative office. And, career leaders have too often been complicit in their own marginalization, unwilling to challenge the status quo on behalf of students.

Connecting College to Career in 2012

In the midst of this bleak picture, a recent conference at Wake Forest University, titled Re-thinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century offers a glimmer of hope. The Conference drew a crowd of over 200 presidents, faculty, high-ranking college administrators, and career directors for an inaugural three-day discussion.

The brainchild of President Nathan Hatch, and Vice President for Personal and Professional Development, Andy Chan, Re-thinking Success brought together leaders from academia, industry, the media, and careers, in a forum designed to start a national conversation about how students can best navigate from college to career.

The Conference provided plenty of compelling reasons why colleges—particularly those where student majors don’t automatically equate to specific careers—need to provide a better ROI for families. And, schools like Wake Forest, the University of Chicago and Washington University, provided eloquent testimony on the potential impact of careers offices, when they have institutional support.

But there’s the rub. Despite the evidence that successful career initiatives can encourage matriculation, enhance alumni engagement, and even contribute to fundraising goals, the majority of colleges and universities are stuck in an old paradigm, oblivious to the opportunity for institutional differentiation through graduate success. Sadly, most career leaders have been unsuccessful at conveying the potential value of their initiatives.

Leading from Below

The Re-thinking Success Conference illustrated the importance of senior leadership in enhancing career outcomes. High visibility, large budgets, internship funding, and presidential support send a strong message that work experience and career preparation are an important part of an institution’s enduring value to students. But when budgets are tight, and there are multiple pressing problems to address, elevating graduate success to the top of the agenda is difficult. The careers message can often get lost, obscured by more immediate issues relating to faculty, admissions, and fundraising.

The answer is to lead from below. Career directors have often shied away from greater visibility and accountability. But if change is going to happen, and the marginalization of careers offices stopped, those closest to the career success of graduates will need to take responsibility for moving the agenda.

Key Strategies for Moving the Careers Agenda: A Plan for Career Directors

  • Know what results you intend to achieve, craft a compelling story, and become visible. Getting other people excited about your vision for graduate career success is critical.
  • Don’t ask for money—at least, not yet. Show what you can do by a critical review of your operations in light of your new vision. Get data to identify what services, functions and programs create the best results. When you’re not getting real value for money, cut the activity.
  • Redistribute your discretionary money, for example, corporate donations or career fair fees. Use the money to get some quick, high-impact, wins. Try a few pilot programs to show what you can do with limited funds.
  • Partner with faculty. Educate them about what their graduates are doing and encourage them to share career stories that were influenced by the student’s choice of academic study. Support their desire to attract more students to their major. And, if the Romance Language faculty plan to offer a seminar on careers using languages, offer to co-sponsor and promote the program.
  • Build systems to capture and nurture contacts who can be helpful in advising students on their careers or promoting their career success. Faculty and administrators will be happy to provide you with names when they trust the information will be wisely used.
  • Identify how career outcomes and your new initiatives can help other departments achieve their goals. Admissions offices need career success stories. Alumni Relations professionals appreciate the opportunity to partner on successful programs involving alumni. And, plenty of schools have discovered that careers professionals can help pave the way for discussions with donors on multiple institutional fundraising priorities.
  • Build a career community of alumni, parents and friends, all of whom have a vested interest in the career success of students and graduates.
  • Engage students, early and often, and make them partners in their own success. One reason why students are often disappointed with Career Services is that they don’t understand their own roles and responsibilities. Students typically don’t listen to adults, but their parents listen to university messages, and students do listen to each other. Make sure students play a leadership role within the careers office as peer advisors and program directors. When students have ownership of initiatives, they are much more likely to encourage the involvement of their peers than when they are simply “consumers” of career services.
  • Find opportunities to talk to senior leaders and trustees. Be the resident expert on careers. These meetings are wasted if you simply talk about what services and programs you offer. Instead, paint the national picture, using data and anecdotes. Then relate what’s going on outside the academy to what is happening to your students. Finally, explain what you have been able to accomplish with your current budget and the impact additional resources would have on your students’ potential for success.

When senior leaders have no experience with careers, getting them to ease up on the purse strings is a challenge. But, your energy, excitement and vision can go a long way to convincing them that a new approach to careers can be as good for the institution as it will undoubtedly be for students, especially when your success is backed up by verifiable metrics.

Unemployment of Recent College Grads a Key Threat to Higher Education

With the skyrocketing cost of education, families increasingly make matriculation decisions based on the perception that a particular college’s students get good jobs. Until recently, the ability to verify those perceptions has been limited. But now, there is a push for greater transparency, as illustrated by the introduction of the College Scorecard.

Are colleges ready and prepared to provide the information families need? And, how will prospective students react to comprehensive data on the real career outcomes of recent college grads? Colleges and universities need to embrace the new transparency, and where they identify unsatisfactory results, take measures to enhance career preparation.

The national situation for recent college grads

In February, unemployment statistics hit a milestone. The 7.7% overall unemployment rate, as measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics was the lowest in four years. This unemployment rate covers everyone in the civilian population, regardless of educational attainment. Sadly, not all populations have been affected equally by the good unemployment news. Bachelor’s degree graduates under the age of 25 were among those groups hardest hit by the Great Recession; and, even as the economy recovers, 8.3% of this cohort who want work have been unable to find anything at all.

Career outcomes affect matriculation

The poor job prospects of a large number of new graduates has become a key threat to success for many colleges, impacting them where it hurts most: the decision whether or not to matriculate at a particular school.

Today’s students look at college in a very different way than their parents. In 1976, two thirds of incoming freshmen claimed that getting a better job was a prime reason for getting a college education. At that time, there was an unquestioned assumption that a college education was a leg up on the career ladder.

The Higher Education Research Institute’s 2012 survey of college freshmen shows how much has changed in the past few decades: now, almost 88% of students select their college because they perceive its graduates get good jobs. Students know college costs have risen dramatically, particularly in the past ten years, and they and their parents want to know whether the investment is worth the price.

Until now, the decision to matriculate has often been made based on blind faith that the chosen college or university will lead to a good job. Few prospective families evaluate the strength of the career preparation provided, or the resources devoted to helping students gain access to job and internship opportunities. Higher education should be concerned that when the bill-payers start to scrutinize career outcomes the way they would an investment in stocks or a new house, they will be not be impressed.

College Scorecard encourages investigation of career outcomes

The College Scorecard, introduced by the Department of Education in February 2013 is intended to make it much easier for families to get the answers they need about individual colleges and universities, and compare costs, student debt, and employment prospects for the school’s graduates.

Once students and their parents become used to comparing information about the colleges in which they are interested, they will be more likely to demand detailed statistics on employment. At present, the College Scorecard has not started to post employment information. Instead, it advises families to contact the relevant college or university for more information on how many students get jobs, what kinds of jobs they get and how much those graduates typically earn.
Higher education is not ready for the kind of scrutiny on career outcomes that the College Scorecard recommends.

Career outcomes data hard to find, and even harder to interpret

Most families who ask colleges about careers ask very generic questions, for example “how many Fortune 500 companies recruit on campus”, or “how many students get into law school or medical school”. Since the majority of parents have little knowledge about what it takes for new graduates to successfully find employment in the 21st century, they are blissfully unaware of the kinds of questions they should be asking. Most are simply reassured by answers that imply that a college’s graduates do very well—no matter that there is no comprehensive data to back up the claims.

When parents try to find career information on college websites or in Viewbooks, they are often thwarted in their efforts. An electronic search on career outcomes or career statistics at a particular college often generates no results, or results that are misleading. Sometimes the response rate–if even mentioned–is less than 25%; salary information is hard to find; and there is no indication of what steps graduates took to secure their success. There are, however, a number of institutions that can serve as models: A prime example of a school that is serious about data collection is the University of Pennsylvania. U Penn received a survey response rate of 71% from the Class of 2011, and provides a full picture of each graduating class’ career outcomes that is easily accessible to both internal and external audiences.

Later this year, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) is expected to produce guidelines for data collection on career outcomes, so that schools can standardize their procedures and facilitate comparisons. However, standardization is only part of the problem. Schools will need to change their cultures so that students are expected and even incentivized to provide career-related information. They will also need to devote time and personnel to analyzing data and using it to guide services and initiatives.

Career outcomes information may not paint a positive picture

An important consideration for colleges and universities, as they commit to greater transparency about career outcomes, is that the results may not be as good as their rhetoric. According to a 2013 report titled “Why Are Recent College Graduates Underemployed” conducted by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, almost half of all employed U.S. college graduates are in jobs that the Bureau of Labor Statistics classifies as not requiring a four-year education.

Given the impact of the recession and the difficulty in finding any job, the situation for recent graduates is undoubtedly much worse than for their older peers. When a bachelor’s degree from a particular college is not perceived to lead to more money and a better position, families will increasingly question the value of that institution.

Taking action based on data

It is likely that private institutions will have some breathing room before being required to provide employment and salary information on their graduates. The pressure from families, however, may be sufficient to prod institutions towards transparency long before the advent of regulations. If colleges and universities truly want to make careers an institutional advantage that encourages matriculation, they need to think about obtaining good baseline data starting with the Class of 2013. Only then can they see where an investment in career preparation or the enhancement of opportunities can pay the greatest dividends.

Essential Data on Colleges and Careers

Information gathered by Sheila J. Curran, March, 2009, revised July, 2012

Across the country, colleges and universities are re-thinking goals and aspirations in light of diminishing revenues and falling endowments. At the same time, prospective students and their families increasingly seek an economic value for their tuition investment.  These realities conflict when it comes to providing exceptional career assistance to students and alumni. The following data support the assertion that colleges and universities need to focus not only on student learning outcomes, but also on ensuring the success of their graduates.

DATA ON COLLEGE GRADUATES  (Bachelor’s degree and above)

Source: Chart A-4, Employment status of the college-educated civilian population 25 years and over, Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • Unemployment rate 4.6% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2012)
  • Unemployment rate 5% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2011)
  • Unemployment rate 5.1% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2010)
  • Unemployment rate 5.5% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2009)
  • Unemployment rate 2.5% for college graduates over age 25 (June, 2008)
  • 100% increase in unemployment over 4 years (June, 2008 – June, 2012)
  • Highest unemployment rate among college graduates over 25: 5.9% in February, 2010; Lowest unemployment rate among college graduates over 25: 1.4% in December 2000

Source: BLS Table Ten (unpublished), Employment status of college and high school graduates under the age of 25, Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • Unemployment rate for bachelors’ degree college graduates under the age of 25 was 9.9% in July, 2012 vs. 12% in July, 2011 vs. 10.9% in July, 2010 vs. 10.8% in July, 2009 vs. 6.5% in July, 2008, a 52% increase over the past four years.
  • 30,000 more bachelor’s degree grads under 25 are currently unemployed than at this time last year (July, 2012 vs. July, 2011).
  • 197,000 more bachelor’s degree grads under 25 are currently employed than at this time last year (April, 2012 vs. April, 2011).
  • 
Unemployment rates for high school graduates with no college were 18.4% in July, 2012 vs. 18.2% in July, 2011, vs. 20.7% in July, 2010 vs 19.3% in July, 2009 vs. 12.9% in July, 2008. This represents a 42.6% increase over the last four years.

Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers, National Association of Colleges and Employers, November 2010 information from Job Outlook 2011. Data was collected from 172 companies.

  • Employers intend to increase entry-level hiring of college graduates by 13.5% in 2011, after a 5.3% increase in 2010, and a 22% decrease in 2008
  • 
19.7% of college graduates who applied for a job in 2009, actually have one by graduation. (News release, May 6, 2009, from NACE 2009 Student Survey.) This figure compares to 26% in the Class of 2008 and 51% of the Class of 2007
  • 27% of the Class of 2009 planned to go on to further education (NACE 2009 Student Survey)

Sheila Curran prediction for the Class of 2009, made January, 2009: 70% of those students who wanted jobs would not have one lined up by graduation, and 30% of the Class of 2009 who wanted jobs would still be looking for appropriate work when the Class of 2010 graduates.  These estimates are based on NACE statistics, statistics from Michigan State, observation of student behavior and career center informal reports from across the country.

Source: Unemployment at Highest Rate in over 25 years, Economic Policy Institute, March 6, 2009

“…more than one in seven workers in this country—an estimated 23.1 million people—was either unemployed or underemployed in February [2009]. Since the start of the recession, the number of involuntary part-time workers has increased by 4 million, from 4.6 million to 8.6 million.

Long-term unemployment—the share of the unemployed who have been without a job for more than six months—also remained high at 23.1%, which is unsurprising given that there are currently over 4 unemployed workers per job opening last month. In this labor market, unemployed workers are seeing their chances of finding a job grow ever dimmer”

Source: Almanac Issue, 2010-2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Degrees conferred in FY ’08

  • 1,563,075 students graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 2008
  • 626,397 students graduated with a master’s degree in 2008 and
  • 84,960 students graduated with a PhD in 2008
  • 
155,625 of the students graduating with a master’s degree studied Business, Management or Marketing
  • 32,387 graduated with a J.D.
  • 13,025 graduated with an M.D.

Student Employment

In FY ’08, 43% of students enrolled full-time in 4-year colleges also worked. Over a quarter of all students enrolled full-time in 4-year colleges worked more 20 hours per week.

DATA ON PROSPECTIVE STUDENT/PARENTAL EXPECTATIONS

Source: Key Drivers of Educational Value: The Emergence of Educational ROI, Eduventures, December 2006, 6000+ respondents

Leading drivers of educational value among freshmen are

  • professional preparation (72%)
  • strength of the academic program (62%), and
  • affordability (47%)

Source: Messaging the Attributes of Academic Reputation, Eduventures, 2007
, 240 prospective students, question about expectations of their selected college, Scale of 1-7, with an answer of 7 meaning that it is most likely a selected college would lead to this result

  • Ability to develop a career in which I will enjoy working:  6.3
  • 
Ability to find a job quickly after graduation:  6.2
  • Ability to get into graduate or professional school of my choice:  6.0
  • Ability to develop a career that will provide a good salary:  6.0
  • Ability to repay student loans:  5.7

Source: The American Freshman: National Norms for Fall, 2009, University of California, Los Angeles Higher Education Research Institute

Reasons noted as very important in selecting college attended (2008 figures in parentheses:

  • This college’s graduates get good jobs: 56.5% (54.8%)
  • The cost of attending this college: 41.6% (39.9%)
  • 
A visit to campus: 41.4% (41.4%)
  • I wanted to go to a school about the size of this college: 39.8% (38.5%)
  • 
This college’s graduates gain admission to top graduate/professional schools: 34.6% (35.1%)

THE COST OF HIGHER EDUCATION AND THE ECONOMIC VALUE OF A COLLEGE DEGREE

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, (Sheila Curran analysis on the five-year period between 2004 and 2008)

  • The median average salary for a college graduate (bachelor’s degree only) rose from $19474 to $22033
  • 
The average annual percentage increase in salary between 2004 and 2008 for a college graduate was 2.6%
  • The average increase in inflation between 2004 and 2008 was 3.2%

Source: Almanac Issue, 2010-2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education

Number of non-profit 4-year Colleges/Universities in US:  2204

Costs, including tuition, fees, accommodation, transportation, books

(FY ’09 data in parentheses)

  • Average cost of private 4-year college: $39,028 ($37,390); 4.38% increase
  • Average cost of public 4-year colleges (out-of-state): 30,916 ($29,193); 5.9% increase
  • Average cost of public 4-year colleges (in-state): $19,388 ($18,326); 5.79% increase

Source: Trends in Higher Education Series, 2007, Table 3a, College Board

“The average annual rate of increase [college tuition] during this period [1997-98 to 2007-08] was 5.6%–2.9% after adjusting for inflation.”

Source: Up, Up, and Away, Boston.com

October 5, 2008“For the first time in history,…the price of a year at these schools [Boston College, Boston University] and many others has surpassed the median US household income of $50,233”

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS

Last modified  March 29, 2011, from BLS Table 10 data for December, 2008 and December, 2010.

Unemployment Rate in December 2010, vs. Unemployment Rate in December, 2008

Data is from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and is for graduates over the age of 25.

Bachelor’s degree, 2010: 5.3% (2008: 3.6%); 2010 under 25: 9.6%

Associate degree, 2010: 6.3% (2008: 4.3%); 2010 under 25: 7.9%

High school graduate, 2010: 10% (2008: 7.9%); 2010 under 25: 19%

Less than a high school diploma, 2010: 16.2% (2008: 12.1%); 2010 under 25: 25.8%

Annual Earnings in 2010 vs. 2008, based on December data from CPS

Bachelor’s degree: $53,976 in 2010 vs. $52,624 in 2008, a 2.5% increase

Associate degree:$38,168 in 2010 vs. $37, 544 in 2008, a 1.6% increase

High school graduate: $32,552 in 2010 vs. $32,136 in 2008, a 1.3% increase

Less than a high school diploma: $23,088 in 2010 vs. 23,556 in 2008, a 1.9% decrease

CAREER SERVICES

Source: Research, 2006-2007, National Association of Colleges and Universities (NACE),

512 institutions responded and NACE 2011 Career Services Benchmark Survey, 750 colleges and universities responded.

# of Careers Offices reporting to Student Affairs: 67.1% in FY07; 63.6% in FY11

# of Careers Offices reporting to Academic Affairs: 17.7% in FY07; 24% in FY11

35% more careers offices are reporting to Academic Affairs in FY11 than did so in FY07

Source: NACE Research Job Outlook 2011: From the section titled What Employers Want: Candidate Skills and Qualities.

  1. Communication skills (verbal)
  2. Strong work ethic
  3. Teamwork skills
  4. Analytical skills
  5. Initiative
  6. Problem solving skills
  7. 
Communication skills (written)
  8. Interpersonal skills
  9. 
Computer skills
  10. Flexibility/adaptability

The biggest gaps between skill sets required and skill sets demonstrated by new graduates (as perceived by employers) are:

1. Interpersonal skills

2. Strong work ethic

3. Flexibility/adaptability

4. Verbal communication skills
5. Initiative
Students’ computer skills are most in line with employer requirements.

In choosing between two candidates with equivalent skills, the following factors come into play:

1. Relevant work experience

2. Experience in a leadership capacity

3. Major

4. High GPA

5. Involvement in extra-curricular activities
6. School attended
7. Volunteer involvement

Source: Doing More with Less, Development Learning Collaborative Roundtable, Eduventures, February 20, 2009. 33 respondents. Polling question on “What services is your institution increasing for alumni in response to the economy”.

• Online/Social Networking:   76%

• Alumni Networking Events:  64%

• Career counseling/advising: 48%

CAREER OUTCOMES FOR THE COLLEGE GRAD

Source: Five Year Out Alumni Survey, Class of 2001Duke University, March, 2007 (commissioned by Sheila Curran)

75% of those who wanted jobs found jobs within six months of graduation

27% have remained with the same company

43% are in a different career field than the one they entered immediately after graduation

44% are still not sure they are in the right career field
They have held an average of 2.79 jobs each

50% of the time, they found jobs through personal connections

60% of the time, their career choices were influenced somewhat or a great deal by their parents

The most useful skills gained through their college education were

• Writing

• Teamwork

• Organizational leadership

• Research

Source: 70% of Gen Y Leave First Job within Two Years, Experience, Inc., September, 2008

70% of recent graduates left their job within two years of their joining

43% are not in the career they expected to be in after college

60% are currently looking for another job or career

57% report being happy in their current job

74% of recent graduates are in a career that aligns with their college major.

From College to Career in 2012: No Bright Light at the End of the Tunnel

In July, 2011, newly minted young college grads faced an unwelcome pinnacle: at 13.1%, the unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree graduates under the age of 25 was the highest on record.

Since the past summer, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data show several months of relative improvement in the job outlook for young grads. But, statistics from 2007-2011 provide plenty of reasons why optimism should be tempered with caution.

Average unemployment rates

The average unemployment figures for the past four years paint a gloomy picture. Rates started inching up between 2007 and 2008, but then jumped 54% between 2008 and 2009, when the economy took a dramatic turn for the worse. For the past three years, the average unemployment rate for bachelor’s degree grads under 25 has remained stubbornly rooted around 9%.

Why job creation doesn’t lower the unemployment rate

New jobs are being created that are suitable for college graduates, but at nowhere near the rate necessary to bring the unemployment rate down. Between 2007 and 2011, the number of employed college grads increased by 1.8%, but the number of unemployed grads increased by 75%. Part of the problem is the ever-increasing number of college graduates, whose numbers have risen 8.6% in four years.

The difficulty of predicting the future for the Class of 2012

Unemployment rates for the population as a whole vary from month to month, but over a period of months it is usually possible to spot trends. The data for college graduates under age 25 is much more difficult to interpret because of wild month-to-month variations. There was a 177% difference between the highest and lowest monthly unemployment rates in 2008 and, even in 2011, the monthly unemployment rates fluctuated 111% between a high of 13.1% and a low of 6.2%.

The degree of employment difficulty facing the Class of 2012 will vary considerably depending on when they look for jobs. Most students graduate in May. The chart below shows the impact of new entrants into the job market: Finding a position in June, July and August is the most challenging. Young college grads who want work will find much less competition in April. This is, of course, better news for the still-unemployed members of the Class of 2011 than it is for the Class of 2012; most employers want to see applications only from those ready to start work within a month.

Why employment statistics do not tell the whole story

The BLS definition of employment is simple: graduates count as working if they hold any kind of employment. Thus, they are considered employed if they work while in graduate school, have part-time work out of necessity, or hold positions that do not require a college degree. Anecdotally, it seems likely that–despite the latest improvements in the job market– the Class of 2012 will face significant challenges finding interesting work that is commensurate with their educational background.

Note: All statistics relate to college graduates under 25 with bachelor’s degrees, and are based on the Bureau of Labor Statistics Table 10 (unpublished).

The Career Center of the Future: Recruiting Exceptional Leaders

Three years of high unemployment for recent graduates have convinced senior leaders in colleges and universities that they must pay greater attention to preparing their students for life after college. Increasingly, that means re-visioning the role of the career director and her department.

Many long-term career directors have recently observed significant increases in their 403B accounts and are choosing to retire. That means colleges now have the opportunity to go from vision to action.

Deans and vice presidents embrace the idea of finding new career leaders who think broadly and strategically about their role inside and outside their institutions. They are excited by the prospect of finding candidates who are “connectors”—leaders who are adept at bringing many parts of their institution together to support student career development, whether that development happens as part of a course, through internships, study abroad or leadership on the athletics field. And, senior leaders increasingly recognize that their career directors will be doing work that directly affects institutional strategic objectives.

Sadly, hiring managers often find their applicant pools lacking in appropriate candidates. It’s not surprising: In this economy, when selling a house or finding a job for a spouse is tough, good candidates are staying put. They will only move for a position that looks significantly better than their current situation. On paper, many of these new career director postings do not look inspiring.

Recently, I was sent job descriptions for career directors at three forward-thinking universities. With the exception of references to technology, the descriptions could have been written in the 1970s. For a search to generate good candidates, descriptions must reflect institutional excitement for a new model of career preparation, along with a clear articulation of what constitutes success.

The Career Center of 2012 demands a leader who understands both academia and the world students will enter when they graduate. It requires someone who is equally at ease presenting to students, the College’s trustees, and a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And, the director must be an “orchestrator of opportunity”, who leverages institutional relationships for the benefit of students. Leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit are critical.

Typical job descriptions have a brief summary of the position’s function, followed by sections for responsibilities and minimum qualifications. To attract good candidates, I recommend writing a new kind of description that answers the following questions:
1) Why does this position exist?
2) What are the expected results for the position?
3) Based on what metrics will success be determined?
4) With what departments, and with whom, will the position collaborate?
5) What is the organizational structure (both up and down)? Which positions are direct reports?
6) What are the key strategic functions?
7) What operational tasks will the incumbent perform herself?
8) What functions does this position oversee?
9) What percentage of the time will the incumbent devote to strategic, operational, and management functions?
10) What special needs or opportunities exist?

Candidates should be cognizant of what knowledge, skills and abilities are required. Rather than putting very high educational/experience requirements on the position, however, I recommend giving candidates the opportunity to truly understand the position and explain in a cover letter how their background and experience qualifies them to do a stellar job. It is incumbent upon hiring managers to carefully check references –and not just those references initially provided by the candidate.

There are talented and diverse candidates who could be exceptional career directors, but we have to get away from thinking that the only path to the position is through a master’s program and prior employment in a career services office. We must keep an open mind about applicants with different backgrounds, recognizing that few candidates will possess the ability to walk on water. Regardless of background, the new director will likely need support and coaching for success.

A Model for College Grad Career Success in 2012

In 2008, Brittany Haas left college with a newly minted degree in Apparel Design. A few months later, the stock market took a nose dive, leading to years of double-digit unemployment for young college grads. Hit worst have been those with degrees in art and design and liberal arts. But this is not another story of doom and gloom. At age 24, Brittany is US Retail Planner for a world-renowned fashion house, managing a multi-million dollar budget—along with her own business.

So how did the youngest daughter of four, who grew up on Long Island without any connection to the fashion industry, come so far, so fast? Brittany’s story is a model for any student who wants to find meaningful work in a tough economic environment; unwittingly, she followed the five smartest moves identified in Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career.

1) Figure out who you are and where you want to go

2) Get experience

3) Build social and networking relationships

4) Identify your competence gaps

5) Find your hook

Figure out who you are and where you want to go

From an early age, Brittany was good at math and science. But she also had a strong creative side. In high school, dancing was usually Brittany’s activity of choice, and she often spent six hours a day in class or at practice. But at 16, Brittany attended the Pre-College program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and fell in love with fashion. So, when it came to applying to college, RISD was a natural first choice. Brittany was devastated when RISD quickly rejected her application, telling her that her portfolio did not meet the requisite standard. Fortunately, Brittany had a Plan B: the Cornell University College of Human Ecology, where Brittany could study Fiber Science Apparel Design along with a huge dose of liberal arts. It was a blessing in disguise: in-state tuition, an education that combined rigor with practicality, and an Ivy-League degree. Brittany relished the academic work, taking eighteen credits per semester, instead of the required twelve. She also had an active social life and joined a sorority.

Get Experience

Brittany knew the key to her success in the fashion world would hinge on understanding the way the industry worked. And, from the time she entered college, both her parents and professors encouraged her to get internships. Brittany found all her internships using a very low-tech approach: she simply wrote personalized emails to sixty companies for whom she wanted to work. The first year Brittany received very few responses, but as her experience grew, so did the response rate. Brittany’s first internship was with the Israeli designer, Yigal Azrouel. It was unpaid and very low level, and she recalls hating it. But, in retrospect, Brittany was grateful for the opportunity to observe all aspects of a small company.

The first paid internship came the following summer, when Brittany worked for bridal boutique, Kleinfeld. This time, Brittany chose her internship specifically to gain experience in marketing. Finally, during the summer after junior year, Brittany found an internship as assistant manager at Nordstrom, which she describes as a “real job”. It gave her great experience on the retail floor, while paying her an excellent salary. To gain additional funds, Brittany also waitressed during the summer—often for four days a week.

Going to the career fair in her senior year, Brittany was an attractive candidate to the few retailers who came to campus. After two on-campus interviews, a retail math test, and a “Super Friday” at the company site, Brittany went to work for Ralph Lauren. Since then she has learned the department store side of the business by working for Saks Fifth Avenue, and started her third full-time post-graduation job in retail planning at Hermes. Asked whether Brittany is concerned that she is now totally on the business side of fashion, she replies that she takes care of her creative side by also running her own business, SomethingBorrowedNY, which rents out designer bridal accessories.

Build Social and Networking Relationships

Much of Brittany’s success can be traced to her uncanny ability to form relationships. Even so, she recalls that networking did not initially come easily to her, and she had to force herself to make the effort. If her business was to be successful, Brittany knew she had to find ways to get advice and publicity, so she started going to networking events in New York City. Organizations like Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., Women 2.0, the NY Entrepreneurs Business Network, and General Assembly, have been particularly helpful. At first, Brittany attended events with a friend and business partner, a strategy that made it easier to play off each other’s comments while discussing their new business with strangers. But, after a few years of meeting large numbers of people and talking about what she does, Brittany is now a networking pro.

Social media also plays a big part in Brittany’s life. In common with many small businesses, SomethingBorrowedNY grows through frequent use of blogging, and the effective use of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Brittany reports that LinkedIn is also by far the best way of finding work in the business side of fashion—at least once you have experience. No longer does she have to seek work; now, companies and headhunters look for people like Brittany on LinkedIn.

Identify Your Competence Gaps

From the time she entered Cornell, Brittany was intent on entering the fashion world, and made decisions about academics and work experience based on what she would be able to learn. She had an interest in business, but believed she could learn those skills on the job. So, when given the option of majoring in Fashion Design Management or Apparel Design, Brittany chose the latter. She wanted to understand fabrics and garment construction—something it would be hard to do simply from working in the business. Brittany selected internships based on her desire to see all sides of fashion—from design, to planning, to retail. The variety of these experiences allowed her to relate much more effectively to potential employers. It didn’t hurt, of course, that one of those prospective employers was a Cornell grad and sorority sister.

Find Your Hook

Brittany doesn’t have one hook; she has dozens. They include:

* A work ethic second to none: she usually works from 9am to 6pm at Hermes, and from 7pm to 11pm on SomethingBorrowedNY.

* A clear focus on fashion, with an understanding of both design and business.

* Excellent math skills and a good knowledge of French—a real plus for her semi-annual business trips to Paris.

* An entrepreneurial spirit combined with the ability to get things done.

* A winning personality and unusual maturity.
None of these “hooks” are extraordinary, but few candidates possess them all. In Brittany’s case, she simply took advantage of her natural aptitudes and interests.

For most college students and grads, finding or pursuing a career in 2012 will not be easy. But it can be done. In this economic environment it pays to focus, devote the requisite time for the job search, and persevere.

Alumni Unemployment Demands New College Solutions

Graduation used to mark the end of a college’s responsibility to its students. But many institutions have come to realize that they need to pay attention to their graduates—however long they’ve been out of school. Nowhere is there more pressure than in the area of career services, judged by alumni as one of the key areas where they need help.

There are compelling reasons for colleges to respond to alumni needs: When graduates can’t find jobs, get laid off, or fail to find even the bottom rung of the career ladder, their misfortune now directly affects the colleges they attended.

Matriculation 
Families want assurances that a college’s alumni have successful careers. No longer is the matriculation decision based solely on the strength of a college’s academic program, or the student’s interest in a particular college. Families want to know that if their sons or daughters matriculate, they will find good work after graduation. Vague references in the college View Book may have sufficed in the past; now, real data is needed to prove a college can deliver on its employment promise.

Retention 
Layoffs and parental unemployment affect the ability of students to afford a college education and stay in school once they have matriculated. But, student retention is also influenced by what happens to recent graduates. When underclass students see the difficulties college seniors face in finding work, they are less inclined to want to remain a student and accumulate more debt. Having a vision of a successful future may be critical to persistence.

Alumni involvement and philanthropy Unemployed alumni are less likely to want to be involved with their alma mater: it’s human nature to want to share successes but hide misfortune. This is a problem for colleges because research has shown that the more involved alumni become with their institutions, the more likely they are to eventually become donors. Unemployed alumni have other priorities for their savings.

Graduate unemployment clearly cannot be ignored. Indeed, the future of many colleges may depend on finding additional ways to meet the needs of alumni—regardless of their employment status. Babson College in Boston provides a good example of innovative thinking: the College has made it possible for many alumni who previously held high-level positions to occupy office space on campus, and occasionally teach—building a sense of goodwill towards the College that will last far beyond the period of alumni unemployment.

The college that thinks creatively in this period of high unemployment, and invests in services and activities that better prepare graduates for the future, is the one that will not only survive, but thrive.

 

Shifting Demographics Change College Employment Outlook

According to the June 2011, report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for young graduates with bachelor’s degrees was a staggering 12%–substantially higher than for any other graduate cohort. But, as most college careers offices and development offices can tell you, the recent recession has also adversely affected large numbers of their alumni. The term “jobless recovery” is apt.

The statistics tell a troubling story for anyone hoping for a quick turnaround in career prospects. There are clear reasons for pessimism:

Seniors are not retiring
 Those within ten years of retirement at the time of the economic crash of 2008, are likely to have had a significant set-back in retirement assets—even if they were brave enough to stay invested when the market dropped. The impact of this reality can be seen in the 22% increase in those bachelor’s degree grads aged over 65 who have chosen to be in the labor force since 2008. Almost 200,000 more people in this age group were employed in 2011 than were employed just three years earlier. Two thirds of this growth can be explained by the increased population of older college grads; the remainder are directly attributable to seniors working longer.

Baby-boomers have been particularly hard hit by the recession 
The group that probably feels the most pressure to increase retirement savings are those in the 55-64 year old cohort. Unfortunately, they are the ones most affected by their older peers hanging on to employment. The baby-boomer bubble has exacerbated the situation. Between 2008 and 2011, there was an 18% increase in the 55-64 year old cohort, leading to the worst increase in unemployment rates of any age group of bachelor’s degree graduates. In June, 2008, their unemployment rate was 2.9%. Three years later it was 6.5%–a 124% increase. Once laid off, it is particularly difficult for those over 55 to find new work.

There is significant pent-up demand for employment
 In June, 2011, there were 900,000 more bachelor’s degree graduates who wanted, but could not find, work than three years earlier. Adding hundreds of thousands of jobs that require post-secondary education is likely to take years.

The employment situation of older graduates should also be a concern to anyone who is invested in the success of educated young people.

When seniors do not retire, it causes stresses on every other group in the workforce. Those who are employed find fewer promotions; salaries are depressed; and, employees at all levels face difficulties obtaining suitable employment.

For those on the bottom rung of the career ladder, the poor economic climate may mean accepting a position that does not require a college degree—a reality that few are willing to accept.

Note: All statistics come from BLS Table 10 (unpublished). Future blog posts will discuss how the employment crisis for young college graduates can be alleviated, and what role students and their colleges will need to play to ensure their employability.

Employment Elusive for 2011 College Grads

The government’s June statistics contained an unpleasant surprise for the Class of 2011: a ten percent rise in the unemployment rate compared to June, 2010. Twelve percent of college graduates under the age of 25 had no work at all in June, 2011—not even a part-time or low-level job.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After two years of unemployment rates above ten percent, there were signs of improved prospects for college seniors. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported in March that 53% of employers planned to hire more college seniors from the Class of 2011 than the Class of 2010. And, colleges across the country attested to increased participation from employers in fall career fairs.

But, the anticipated uptick in employment appears to have fizzled. A NACE student survey completed in May, 2011, showed that while close to half of those who applied for positions received a job offer, only 24% of respondents had actually accepted a job by graduation. No improvement over last year.

It is likely that those who did not accept their job offers are looking for more relevant and lucrative opportunities. But, many of those students holding out for a better offer are likely to be disappointed. They will have strong competition from those who graduated two years ago and still have not found a career path.

An unemployment rate of 12%–for any group of college graduates–is unprecedented in recent memory. And, the rate is likely to stay high unless there is a massive increase in job creation. Here’s why:

More young people are graduating with bachelor’s degrees
 Between June, 2008 and June, 2011, the number of college grads aged 20-24 grew by 66,000.

More young graduates want to work 
Typically, around 80% of bachelor’s degree grads aged 20-24 participate in the labor force, with the remainder attending graduate school, or taking time to pursue other non-work activities. Between 2008 and 2011, however, there was a 5% increase in young graduates who were either working or looking for work. That means over 100,000 were competing for essentially the same number of jobs as in 2008.

Fewer young graduates are going immediately to graduate school
 Given increased participation in the work force, it appears that younger grads are putting off graduate school, or choosing not to go at all. This is likely in response to high debt loads and an uncertain employment market.

Without intervention, high unemployment of new college graduates is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. If we want young people to capitalize on their education, pay back their considerable loans, and make meaningful contributions to society, it is incumbent on educational institutions, employers and the government to work together to find new solutions. Without new approaches, Barack Obama’s efforts to increase the number of college graduates will backfire.

Note: All statistics are from BLS, Table 10 (unpublished). Future blog posts will discuss how the employment crisis for young college graduates can be alleviated, and what role students and their colleges will need to play to ensure their employability.

Shifting Demographics Change College Employment Outlook

According to the June 2011, report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for young graduates with bachelor’s degrees was a staggering 12%–substantially higher than for any other graduate cohort. But, as most college careers offices and development offices can tell you, the recent recession has also adversely affected large numbers of their alumni. The term “jobless recovery” is apt.

The statistics tell a troubling story for anyone hoping for a quick turnaround in career prospects. There are clear reasons for pessimism. When students return to college, or set foot on campus for the first time, it’s normal for parents to have conflicting emotions. One of those emotions is frequently anxiety about the cost of education and the value of that education in the real world. But such concerns are likely to be brushed away by the assumption that as long as their sons and daughters take it easy on the partying and pay attention to their studies, they’ll be rewarded with a good job at graduation.

At a time when the unemployment rate for recent bachelor’s grads is at an all-time high (13.1%) it’s essential to question this assumption. The path from college to a good career is not automatic; it takes considerable work on the student’s part, starting early in their time at college. Follow the ten lessons below and today’s college students will not only be better prepared for life after college; they will also gain maximum advantage and enjoyment from their education.

• A college education happens everywhere—in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field, through internships and beyond. Learning outside, as well as inside, the classroom may prove to be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. Take responsibility for, and engage with all aspects of your education. It will make your college experience more meaningful and it will be helpful to your career.

• When you matriculate at a college, you’re not expected to know what you want to do after you leave that college. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career directions. Make the decision yours—not your parents, nor your peers! To explore potential avenues of interest, take advantage of opportunities such as becoming a leader of a campus group or doing research with faculty, and weigh the value of internships versus other summer options.

• Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”. Colleges typically have many resources available to students. Taking early advantage of the academic advising and academic resource centers, for example, can get you back on track and help you make the most of your education.

• Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you think you need it for a particular career. (You may not!) While you should be strategic about choosing some of your early courses if you’re leaning in a particular direction (e.g., economics, biology, pre-health, public policy), it’s much more important to study what you love than to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. For most students, the subject matter of your degree will not determine your career. Most careers can be pursued with any major. Resist the temptation to build academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons. And do not double major for the sake of a credential. Few employers believe double-majoring confers a career advantage.

• A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school or fellowships/scholarships, but a very high GPA is not essential for most positions and employers rarely consider GPA for second jobs. Students with a stellar academic record aren’t necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.

• Further education can be a great idea, but may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of education for what you want to do. Increasingly students are working for a while before going on to further education, providing the opportunity to consider the value and need for graduate and professional school.

• Study abroad can be very helpful to your career. But it can only give you a real career advantage if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency, cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision making/problem solving. Avoid having an American experience abroad, rather than a true international experience. It is through different and difficult experiences that you are most likely to find answers to one of the most important career questions “Who are you and what do you want to do with your life?”.

• You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and advisors early, and throughout your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and guides

• Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be temporarily unemployed at graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your value to the work world. Most employers of college grads do “just in time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left. Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual application process may happen after finals.

• Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with counselors in your Career Center and with other trusted advisors, so that you learn the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare yourself through education for life.

Career Advice for the 2011 College Grad

For college seniors, graduation is no longer something on the distant horizon. It’s only a couple of months away. For the student still seeking post-graduate employment–as most are–that means there are only a few remaining weeks to work on career preparation before exams loom. It’s tempting to throw in the towel, and simply enjoy the remains of the college experience. But savvy students will take advantage of college resources to put a career strategy in place before they graduate. In doing so, they will set themselves apart from the competition, and reduce the time it takes to find a position. The following ten action steps provide the basic foundation for success:

1) Have coffee with your career advisors, whether they are faculty, family or career professionals. Everyone can use an advocate in the job search. The more they know about you, and your interests and values, the better able they will be to help you find and pursue opportunities.

2) Learn how to format your cover letter according to accepted business norms. Unfortunately, this critical skill no longer seems to be taught in high school. So it’s not surprising that many students don’t know where the address of the recipient goes, how to address your future employer, how to place the letter within the page, or how many spaces you have to put between your closing sentence and your name.

3) Pay attention to the content of your cover letter. The purpose of a cover letter is not just to put on top of your resume, but rather to entice an employer to interview you. Most employers will want to know how you found out about the job opportunity, what you have to offer and why you want the job. Cover letters are critical to some employers, yet deemed totally unnecessary by others. Unless an employer has specifically told you not to send one, however, consider it an essential part of your application.

4) Get a second or third “read” of your resume and cover letter to make sure they have no typographical or grammatical errors. Some employers immediately eliminate candidates whose materials are not word perfect. When you’ve been working hard on a document, you may not notice that you wrote “who’s” instead of “whose”. It matters. Have a detail-oriented friend proofread for you – every time you send a letter or update your resume.

5) Have your resume critiqued. The obvious reasons are to eliminate careless errors and to make sure the resume is appropriately formatted. But there’s another reason to get a critique: to make sure the focus of your resume is as close to the focus of the job you desire as possible. What image does your resume give of you? If it says you’re a brilliant academic, but you really want to go into business, you need to re-orient it.

6) Don’t rush. It’s tempting to use a similar cover letter and resume for each job. Although the basic format can be the same, you need to customize each one. Employers can sniff out “form” letters a mile off. If you give the wrong title of the position you want, it’s a dead give-away that you’re searching for multiple positions. Every employer wants to feel that you want their job, not any old job. Make them feel special!

7) Project enthusiasm. If you can’t get excited about the job, you’re unlikely to get it. You may see it as a boring, entry level, position, but your future employer is probably investing significant time and energy into hiring the right person. To be that right person, you need to indicate through your application that you’re familiar with the job and the company (read the website carefully and do your research), that you know what you can contribute, and why you want the job. In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, enthusiasm for the job was one of the most important factors in the employer’s decision-making process.

8) Be selective where you apply. That’s difficult to do if you don’t care where you work and you just need to make money. However, your attitude will show through if you use the “shot-gun” approach. Think of it this way: You will be unlikely to compete well against other candidates using a generic approach – even if you apply for more than 50 positions. On the other hand, if you do 10 really thorough applications, your efforts will stand out, simply because so few people pay this amount of attention to the job search.

9) Follow through. You set yourself apart from other applicants even more if you follow up in person on your application. Some employers state that they do not want telephone calls. In that case you will need to email to ensure that your materials have been received. However, a telephone call gives you the opportunity to start to build a relationship with your future company, and to give them a sense of you as a person.

10) Commit to treating the job search like a job. After many years in college, you may want to take life easy for a bit. Don’t. The new grads who find jobs most easily are the ones who invest significant time, and are both prepared and persistent. If you’re researching, networking and preparing unique applications for jobs, you can easily fill forty hours a week. Just like going to work!

2011 College Grads Still Face Uphill Employment Battle

High school seniors who matriculated at four-year colleges in 2007 have seen the best and worst of economic times during their time in school. As they prepare to graduate, many must be thanking fate for the positive developments currently emerging in the employment market.

There is cause for optimism. Employers are returning to career fairs, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate for college grads over the age of 25 has decreased from a high of 5.3% in July, 2009 to a seasonally non-adjusted rate of 4.5% in January, 2011.

But economic gains have, so far, not benefitted new college grads, whose unemployment rate in January stood at a decades-high 10.8%. Contrary to all other groups, bachelor’s degree holders aged 20-24 experienced a 17% increase in their rate of unemployment between January, 2010, and January, 2011. And, over the past three years, that unemployment rate has almost doubled.

Three years ago, 116,000 of these young college grads were unemployed. Now, close to a quarter of a million find themselves without jobs. Many of those who do have jobs are underemployed and living back home with their parents.

A significant proportion of students attend college in pursuit of a better standard of living, commensurate with their investment in higher education. For those graduates who are unemployed or underemployed, college loan repayments are a cruel reminder of unfulfilled expectations.

As employers start to add more jobs, current students must prepare themselves to be compelling candidates, so that they avoid the unemployment/underemployment trap. Four strategies will help:

1) Take advantage of internships and co-ops. One reason why employers choose older college grads over their younger peers is because of their proven work experience. Students need to be able to articulate their relevant or transferable skills, even if they have not held full-time positions.

2) Go the extra mile. The passive approach no longer works, and that includes applying indiscriminately to every job on Craig’s List. Searching out employers of interest, reading up on company developments, and mining alumni databases to find points of connection to the organization, are all examples of the kind of proactive approach that is required.

3) Use your Career Center. Students who use their school’s career services office will typically find jobs more quickly than their peers. Yet, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, advising appointments at Career Centers nationally have gone down, not up. Career Centers cannot, or course, manufacture jobs, but they can help students position themselves more effectively with employers.

4) Make your career search a priority. No amount of advice can help you achieve your career goals unless you are willing to devote the considerable time it takes to conduct an effective job search.

There are jobs out there for new grads–and many lie unfilled because new college grads cannot make the case for their own employment. Parents, educators and career professionals have a vested interest and a moral obligation to help them do so.

College Loans Should Come with a Uniform Warning Label

In the next few months, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors will be deciding where to go to college. They’ve read the viewbooks, checked out the campus, and made sure they could major in a chosen subject. And, they’ve considered whether they will receive sufficient financial aid to attend.

What prospective students rarely do, however, is question whether a degree from a particular college is likely to lead to a lucrative job after graduation. How many prospective applicants press the careers office for information on employment or salaries? How many ask what it will take for them to be employed at graduation?

For the student applying for significant loans, the challenge of finding a well-paying job should be a cause for serious worry. The Department of Education estimates that in 2009, only 56% of students at private non-profit colleges were in repayment of their student loans four years after they graduated or left school. That figure dips to 54% for students at public non-profit institutions and plummets to 36% for students at for-profit colleges.

The reality of graduates struggling with debt is in sharp contrast to their expectations as students. According to the latest national survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, 72.7% of 2011 freshmen largely agreed that the chief benefit of college is increased earning power.

Sadly, the Department of Education data suggests that many entry-level graduate salaries, for those lucky enough to find a job, are insufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living while repaying debts. The unemployment rate in January, 2011, for those with bachelors degrees aged 20-24, stood at 10.8%. Graduates in this cohort who do have jobs may be either working part-time or underemployed, further exacerbating their financial situation.

Students who are considering taking on high amounts of debt must understand what that debt will mean for their lives after graduation. Colleges and universities have a clear responsibility to not only publish the career and salary outcomes for their graduates, but also to identify the time and effort required for a successful career search.

Perhaps it is time to put a warning label on every college loan that says: “This college loan may adversely affect your financial health. A college degree does not guarantee that you will receive a post-graduate job with a salary sufficient to repay your loans. Further, your debts cannot be discharged through bankruptcy.”

Increasing the number of Americans with a college education, and making loans available to more students are worthy goals. But, when students are able to take out loans with insufficient consideration of the consequences, it bodes well for no one–least of all, the debt-ridden college graduate.

The Education of Fortune 100 CEOs: An Update for 2011

In an article titled “Do You Need An Ivy League Degree to Rise to the Top in Business”, dated September 14, 2009, I made observations on a recently released report of the educational background of Fortune 100 CEOs. That report has now been revised, and it is obvious that there has been much upheaval in the upper echelons of business over the past year. Twelve percent of companies on the 2011 list are new, and stalwarts like Motorola, Phillip Morris and Macy’s are nowhere to be seen. But in terms of education, the CEOs from the new companies, and new CEO’s of other Fortune 100 companies, have much in common with those who made the list last year.

Interesting facts for the 2011 Fortune 100 CEOs include the following:
• 18 CEOs have an Ivy League undergraduate education
• 9 CEOs have an undergraduate degrees from a foreign institution
• 63% of CEOs have an advanced degree of some kind
• 11% of CEOs have a JD
• 36% of CEOs have an MBA

It is impossible to identify trends from only two years worth of data. However, I stand by the conclusion that I drew from my September, 2009, analysis:

The quality of education does make a difference to someone’s ability to become a CEO of a Fortune 100 company. But the data suggests that a smart person can get a quality education just about anywhere. Perhaps the secret to success is both simpler, but also more difficult to achieve: To reach the top, you obviously need to be a great leader, with vision and drive. But you also need good mentors and the foresight to be in the right place at the right time. What you don’t have to have is an Ivy League degree.

Improving Employment Market Leaves New College Grads Out in the Cold

There are numerous indications that the overall job market is improving. According to Indeed.com, a company that tracks job postings nationwide, 2010 saw an 88% overall uptick in listings over 2009. Some fields fared better than others: after significant declines in recent years, information technology listings in 2010 were up by 82% over 2009, and listings in the media rose by a similar percentage. Over 700,000 positions were advertised in health care in 2010. This positive trend is likely to continue in 2011. Michigan State’s Recruiting Trends, 2010-11 reports that employers of bachelors’ degree grads predict 10% more hiring this year.

But the good news in some quarters is tempered by troubling unemployment statistics for new college graduates. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while the increase in job opportunities has led to a flattening or slight decline in unemployment rates for most job seekers, the unemployment rate for new bachelors’ degree grads jumped from 7.9% in December, 2009 to 9.6% in December, 2010. Getting onto the career ladder has never been harder for this group.

It would be natural to assume that college careers offices would be overwhelmed by demand from anxious students. Yet, according to the NACE 2009-10 Career Services Benchmark Survey, 25% fewer students sought help than in the previous year. Even as loan repayment dates loom, many young people are placing all their faith in a better economy, without acknowledging the pent up demand for jobs from their slightly more advanced peers.

It may be difficult to find the perfect job, but it is by no means impossible. The 90.4% of employed college grads under 25 clearly did something right. What separates many employed graduates from their peers is the following:

  • They used all the resources at their disposal–including career centers, faculty, alumni, and relatives. And, they committed to putting in the time and energy required for a successful job search.
  • They explained what work they wanted to do with passion and thoughtfulness to anyone who would listen, and asked for advice and help. Many of them leaned on mentors and learned from their wisdom. Then they took action.
  • They made sure employers did not have easy reasons to reject them. Their resumes were well formatted without errors, and their communications were professional.
  • They were able, both in writing and in person, to communicate how they could add value to an employer. And, they were able to point to examples of success and competence. They modified their communications based on their company research and the job description of the open position.
  • They paid attention to the “gatekeepers” in human resources and in reception areas, treating them with respect.
  • They went beyond the usual job boards to seek out opportunities on employer websites. They mined LinkedIn to get insider information on company expectations and culture.
  • They built an online presence, through a personal website, blog, or social media, so that potential employers could find them.
  • They did not apply for any position for which they could not summon the energy to write a personal cover letter or do company research.
  • They started preparing for the job search long before they submitted their first application, building skills and experience that they knew would be useful.
  • They never took rejection personally, or used it as an excuse to give up the job search.

More Jobs, Higher Unemployment: A Confusing Message for the Class of 2010

The Class of 2010 has graduated into the worst economy in living memory. Those with bachelor’s degrees are joining their under-25 peers in a job market where 11.7% of their cohort is unemployed. And, while other segments of the market recover, the situation for recent graduates is deteriorating. In July 2009, the unemployment rate for college graduates with bachelor’s degrees was 10.1%. A year later, it is 15% higher. Those who chose to “ride out the economy” when the job market first slipped, made a serious error in judgment.

There is no doubt that it is hard for college graduates to find work. But dig deeper in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and the news is less gloomy. More that a 100,000 more college graduates are employed in July, 2010 than were employed two years ago.

Two factors play into this seemingly contradictory situation. The first is that over a two-year period, there has been a 3.6% increase in the total number of people with bachelor’s degree qualifications under the age of 25. The second is that the percentage of graduates who are participating in the workforce (either employed or actively looking for work) has jumped from 82% to 86%.

Here’s the bottom line: there are more jobs out there, but there are more young graduates chasing them. Never has it been more important for these job applicants to focus on what they want, identify where they can provide value to an employer and develop a strategy to get their foot in the door. The future of these young graduates depends on it.

Careers and College Debt: Don’t Blame the Parents

There is no doubt that today’s college graduates often leave school owing more money than they can easily repay. Writing in The New York Times on May 28, 2010, Ron Lieber puts the blame on higher education, banks and families. Many families have, indeed, been loath to put the brakes on excessive borrowing for college, but I believe Mr. Lieber’s finger pointing at parents misses a very important point.

Parents allow, and even encourage, their children to borrow for college, because they believe higher education provides an economic return on investment in the form of a well-paid job. The better the school (so parents think), the more likely the student will access the path to prosperity. Small wonder that the parent profiled by Mr. Lieber supported her daughter’s desire to attend NYU, even if it meant borrowing many thousands of dollars. Numerous ranking systems are testament to the perceived value of a particular school.

Probe the prosperity assumption just a little, however, and it rapidly disintegrates. Top schools often have access to prestigious employers, and robust alumni networks. But that doesn’t mean there are enough highly paid jobs available for all students with debts to discharge. Nor does it mean students will be qualified for those jobs—or even want them. And, alumni networks do no good if the student has no idea how to engage with adults around career issues.

A poor economic climate favors graduates with pre-professional degrees and directly related internship experience. But who is telling that to parents who would do anything to have their son attend an Ivy League school? And who is telling students that they don’t need a $200,000 education to become a Fortune 100 CEO?

Students from all schools–but particularly liberal arts majors from top colleges–need good career advice that is based on real world, not ivory tower, knowledge. Unfortunately, the media is complicit with colleges in perpetuating the erroneous belief that all it takes is a good education to secure a lucrative job at graduation.

Surveys conducted by consulting companies like Eduventures clearly demonstrate the importance of career preparation to the prospective college parent and student. Yet few colleges provide the kind of data that would support an informed college choice. Small wonder: gathering data costs time and money. And, schools have typically not invested in providing the kind of career services that would enable students to transition easily from college to career. The truth about the job situation for most new grads from top schools is not nearly as positive as most parents believe.

Parents might assume that in a down economy, colleges and universities would pay extra attention to the offices charged with helping graduates succeed outside the academic bubble. Not so. In the past year, most college career services have been hurt as badly as other administrative offices. In a recent benchmarking survey of sixteen college and university careers offices, conducted by Curran Career Consulting, only two escaped last year’s budget axe—and neither of those received an increase in funds. Most parents would be appalled to know that the annual amount of money spent per student on career services is often less than the cost of a couple of gourmet restaurant meals.

Parents and students need the facts about career preparation before they choose a school and sign the loan forms. In the next blog post, I will suggest a number of questions parents should ask colleges and universities before making a matriculation decision. Only with this information can a parent or student definitively say the risk of debt is worth the post-graduate reward.

College Seniors: Don’t Go To Graduate School

The Class of 2010 must be cursing their collective bad luck. For most of their college career, they watched employers wooing their older classmates with promises of high salaries and signing bonuses. Then they sat back, dumbfounded, as the Class of 2009 confronted the worst hiring situation in decades. Now, they have to face the fact that the jobs recovery still remains elusively over the horizon.

I’ve worked with students through several economic downturns, and there are always winners and losers in the employment game. The spoils this year go to the graduates with smarts, strong technical skills, and—most important–relevant work or internship experience.

The cruel irony is that the “losers” in the current senior class are often the ones who, since they were in diapers, have been told they were the best and the brightest. Armed with self-confidence, stellar SAT scores, and ambition, they matriculated at some of the top colleges in the U.S., majoring in subjects like Spanish, Anthropology, and Psychology.

Contrary to the general assumption, most of these students never intended to become translators, or anthropologists or psychologists. A significant proportion saw their education as a great preparation for a career in business—especially if they supplemented their majors with a minor in computer science or economics. Now they’re not so sure.

DUBIOUS PARENTAL AND FACULTY ADVICE

Students fitting this profile in the late 1990s would have catapulted themselves to the top of the career ladder by naming themselves CEO and authoring their new dot-com business plan on the back of an envelope. Since the tech bubble burst, this type of student has been increasingly drawn to the pay, prestige, and intellectual challenge of investment banking and management consulting. These two career fields rarely employed more than 20% of a university’s graduating class, but their firms’ recruiting seal of approval became synonymous with the perceived quality of the academic institution.

So what now for the college senior? Not only are finance and consulting opportunities in short supply, the rest of the employment landscape still looks bleak. The unemployment rate for college graduates under the age of 25 has increased more than 120% in the past two years, and while the rate of unemployment has leveled off, it is still at historic highs. Given the dire news, it’s small wonder that a large number of soon-to-be-graduates are sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding anything that smacks of the real world.

Many 2010 graduates are being aided and abetted in their retreat from reality by an unlikely alliance: parents and faculty. The dubious advice they are being given is to “wait out the recession” and go to graduate school. For faculty, it’s a no-brainer to encourage some of the brightest minds to stay in the academy—especially since they may honestly believe it’s for the good of the student. The reasons that parents give this advice are often a little more complicated.

IS A MASTER’S WORTH IT?

Parents of 2010 graduates have been more involved in their children’s education than at any other time in history. Throughout grade school and high school, they have nurtured their children’s talents, found tutors when necessary, and guided extra-curricular activities so their sons and daughters would find success in the college application sweepstakes. The reward for their efforts? A hefty bill for tuition and expenses that often exceeds $150,000. The expected quid pro quo for such an investment has been post-graduate professional success for their offspring. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, is unacceptable.

Many parents also assume that a graduate degree will automatically confer an economic advantage to their sons and daughters. A quick glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart shows what appears to be a clear correlation between education and salary. Crunch a couple of numbers and you find a 25% economic benefit to a master’s degree over a bachelor’s degree and a 55% pay differential between those with just a bachelor’s degree and those with a professional degree.

The devil, of course, is in the details. In a September 2007 article, “Is your degree worth $1 million—or worthless?” author Liz Pulliam Weston attempts to calculate the actual value of particular types of degrees over a lifetime. Her conclusions are generally consistent with what I have observed. One of her most notable findings: Recipients of masters degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences actually gained no economic value from further education.

On the other hand, Ms. Weston clearly illustrates the benefits of a professional degree. She calculates that over a lifetime, an MBA graduate will make $375,000 more than if she had simply finished her education with a bachelor’s degree. That’s an impressive figure, so why not encourage new grads to get an MBA? Trick question. Most schools will rarely accept candidates for an MBA without at least two to three years of experience. In fact, the average number of years of work experience for students in business school is typically around five.

“TRANSITION” DEGREES

Students could find an international business school that might accept them immediately after graduation, but they’d be missing out on something U.S. schools consider very important: the ability to put business education in context and to bring real world problems and solutions to the table.

The financial advantage of an MBA is also tempered by the actual, and lost opportunity, costs of attending. With more than $100,000 of debt at stake—often on top of undergraduate loans—graduates need to be 100% sure about the value of an MBA for their chosen career field before signing on the dotted line. An MBA degree might be a real plus for someone interested in nonprofit management, but the economic equation may not make sense.

A number of schools, including Case Western Reserve, have started masters programs designed specifically to give liberal arts grads a background in business. Located in the university’s business school and lasting a year or less, these programs can be very popular with students who like the idea of a “transition” degree which orients them more towards the business world. Unfortunately, these degrees are expensive and are often not well understood outside academia. The verdict is still out on whether one year masters programs give graduates a leg up in the work world. Employers typically recruit at the undergraduate or the MBA level but don’t know what to do with the student who does not naturally fit into either category. A better option might be to consider an intense short-term program, like the Tuck Business Bridge program at Dartmouth College.

“GET A JOB, ANY JOB”

Listening to my cautionary tales about graduate school and the job market, it would be easy to descend into despair. But new graduates have always been able to find jobs even in the worst recessions. Employment opportunities do exist, and the proactive job seeker will hunt them down, using connections and resources to expand the scope of his or her search. Increasingly, students and their families are looking to private career advising to obtain the kind of personalized attention and targeted strategies that give students an advantage in a challenging job market.

I recently asked three employers what they recommend students do if they are interested in going into an area of business after they graduate. All three agreed that students need to get experience, not more education. One went as far as to say “get a job, any job, even McDonald’s.” The point is, in this economy your GPA or your SAT score may be less important than your experience and your attitude. Arrogance is out; humility is in.

Companies these days can afford to be picky. They want to know whether you can do the job that they need to have done. If you’re graduating in a major that is unrelated to your career interest, you’ll have to take the extra steps necessary to show the relevance of your education. Sometimes that means focusing the employer’s attention less on the subject matter of your degree and more on your internships or extra-curricular activities. However challenging the job market, the savvy job hunter will always find creative ways to make the hiring case, and in doing so, stand out from the crowd.

Addressing Brown University students in a careers program during a past recession, the late Frank Newman, former president of the University of Rhode Island, announced to his audience that they were graduating at the best of times. What he meant was that the graduate who can successfully find opportunities when times are bad will be well positioned for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. I believe that’s excellent advice for the Class of 2010.

Careers and the College Grad: Predictions for 2010 and Beyond

December 31, 2009: The Wall Street Journal’s lead story proclaims that 2009 was a banner year for stocks. This is great news for parents paying for their children’s increasingly expensive college education from hard-earned savings. Yet the good economic news disguises an ugly fact: unemployment figures continued to rise throughout 2009, only flattening out towards the end of the year. And, none of the experts expect a significant improvement in the employment picture anytime soon.

Based on my reading of the statistical tea leaves, along with anecdotal data from clients, I have five predictions each for college students, and for the career services offices that help them figure out and find their futures.

College students

1) For the foreseeable future, it will be a buyer’s market for employers, not new college graduates. You won’t be able to “ride out” the poor economy—whether you’re a senior or a freshman. Building a career focus and skills early in your college career will be key.

2) A good GPA and a good school will no longer guarantee a good job. You’ll need relevant internships or jobs to prove that you can do the work you say you’re qualified to do.

3) Liberal arts students who are not at the top of the class may get left behind in the employment game. The less your major relates to your career field of choice, the more relevant experience and effective career strategies you’ll need.

4) You won’t find your job sitting in front of a computer. Forget job boards—except to get a sense of the kinds of organizations that are hiring. Success will only come to those who find a way to use connections to get their foot in the door, and who know how to exploit social media.

5) Students will need professional career help. Few students have sufficient background or training to understand how to achieve career goals, and your first interview may be the one that really counts. Expert advice on career strategy and thinking like an employer will be essential.

College careers offices


1) The number of employers signing up for career fairs will increase in 2010—a welcome budget boost for cash-strapped careers offices. But the number of interns and new grads sought by employers will not significantly increase from last year.

2) Career services budgets will remain flat, or sustain even further cuts. The careers office that doesn’t change will become increasingly marginalized.

3) The careers office that identifies ways to provide better services at lower costs will be the one that gets the positive attention of senior university leadership.

4) More partnerships will be formed between the careers office and academic advising, alumni affairs, and enrollment management, reflecting the importance of graduate success to other parts of a college or university.

5) Careers offices with diminished staff will struggle to provide the breadth and depth of services required by students and alumni in a difficult economy. Success in meeting client needs will require a different approach to career volunteers, partnerships, and outsourcing.

Employment Advice for 2010 College Grads: Finding the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Going to the dentist and giving a public presentation consistently rank as two of the most universally dreaded activities. The Class of 2010 could add a third: going through the senior job search.

When the economy tanked in 2008, college juniors watched with a sense of horror as their carefully laid internship plans were destroyed. But the horror was tempered with relief that the major impact of the collapsing job market would fall not on them, but on the Class of 2009.

One year on, it is clear there is no lucky escape for the college grads of 2010. According to November, 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.5% of college grads under the age of 25 still have no work at all, a figure that has risen 50% from a year ago. College seniors in 2010 will enter a market that is already saturated with unemployed or underemployed graduates.

So how are current college seniors coping? A surprising number of them appear to be putting their collective heads in the sand. Far from flooding to their careers offices and asking for help, they are opting out. By the end of the December, those who were successful in on-campus recruiting will have already accepted job offers. And those who are pursuing further education will have their applications well in hand. But for more than half the class, the future looks so unclear that students would rather postpone reality and concentrate on enjoying their final semester. Small comfort to the parents who have invested two hundred grand in their son or daughter’s education.

It’s tempting for the Class of 2010 to think that there’s little that can be done. After all, the thousands of employers who might seek the talents of graduating seniors have not yet identified their hiring needs. But the light at the end of the employment tunnel will be much brighter for the student who commits to learning the skills, aptitudes and strategy for a successful career search while they are still in college. Those will be the students who can capitalize on employment opportunities as they arise.

Winter break is the time when most parents and their college seniors have the dreaded “career” discussion. Student commitment to a career strategy, which includes a plan to develop essential career skills, attitude and focus, will go a long way towards providing parental piece of mind. Employment at graduation? For students who see finding a post-graduate job as part of their education, it’s a real possibility.

First published on http://www.catapultadvising.com.

Career Advice For New College Grads: Find Your Hook

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time

2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This fourth post covers the third key career strategy: Find your hook.

Find Your Hook

Anyone who’s been admitted to a selective college is familiar with the notion of finding a “hook”. That’s what separated you from all those with a similar background whom the college chose not to admit. It’s the same for the job search. Like the graduates in Smart Moves, you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.

The more you know about what you want to do, the easier it is to identify a potential hook. It could be a specific skill, like an unusual language. It could be some specialized training or the fact that you started a successful business out of your dorm room. More likely, your hook will be something quite simple, like persistence combined with a winning personality.

Let me give you an example from one of my former students at Brown University: David was a sophomore who was desperate to get a banking internship in London. With limited background in economics, he was really at a disadvantage. But he took my advice and went to England over winter break to talk to alums in London, staying with a family friend to save money. He made good connections and continually followed up but still hadn’t got something nailed down by Spring Break. Finally, he stayed up till 4am one night to catch the alum in her office at 9am. She was so impressed that she offered him the job.

How do you figure out your hook? You need to adopt your potential employer’s point of view and identify ways that you can add value or ways that you can get noticed in a positive way.

Here’s the best news: Even if you have no unusual skills or talents, you can set yourself apart from other graduates and find your hook by doing your homework and following through. Sounds obvious? It is. But it’s amazing how rarely candidates go beyond a cursory glance at a company website, do what they commit to, or take the time to write thank you notes to their interviewers.

Career Advice for New College Grads: Think Like An Employer

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time

2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This third post covers the second key career strategy: Think like an employer.

Think Like An Employer

Before we talk about thinking like an employer, I want to say a few words about the job search process. And this is important, because up until now, I’ve been talking about YOU, about what YOU want, and about how YOU get where you want to go. But when you’re in the job search process, the tables are turned. Sure, the initial 10% of the job search is all about you. You get to decide where you’re going to apply and what kind of work you think you’re suited to. But the next 80%, which includes the resume, the cover letter and the interview, is all about the employer and the employer’s needs. Only once they’ve metaphorically “fallen in love” with you and you’ve been offered the job, do the tables turn back. The ball in the final 10% of the process, once the employer has made the offer, is back in your court. You get to decide whether to accept the offer.

Given how much time the employer is in the driver’s seat, it makes sense to see things from their point of view.
Once you’ve identified where you’d like to work, visualize the hiring manager at your ideal employer reading your resume and cover letter. Imagine she’s reading hundreds of applications and within 10 seconds she’ll make a decision whether to pursue your candidacy.

You can almost imagine her sitting there with a check box, picking out key words on your resume, and trying to find ways to screen you out—because it is, unfortunately in most cases, trying to screen you out vs. screen you in.

When most people talk about their experience, they emphasize the areas in which they have achieved the most. But your highly developed technical skills and ability to create top quality websites may be perceived as irrelevant in a sales position.

The key to thinking like an employer is to focus like a laser on the requirements of the position, and put your relevant qualifications front and center. Consider the format of your resume and the way you’ve ordered your accomplishments. Do the required abilities show up first? Does your cover letter make it easy for an employer to visualize you in the job?

And while we’re talking about cover letters, use them as a way to show you’ve done your homework about the company and can give a compelling argument about why you’ll be helpful to them.

Obviously your resume needs to be easy to read, up-to-date, with no typos. But your application materials also need to shout out “I have the qualifications, the experience, and the enthusiasm you need. I can add value.”

One final word about thinking like an employer is this: consider whether the employer really needs someone with your particular skill set, and how many applicants they are likely to have. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out the odds if the only positions you seek are likely to have over a hundred equally qualified applicants.
A sound piece of advice is to spend most of your time identifying the hidden job market (jobs that aren’t advertised) rather than indiscriminately applying to hundreds of online postings on the off chance that when they’re shuffled you’ll show up on top!

Consider where the unemployment rates are lowest and the job openings are highest. North and South Dakota, for example, both have unemployment rates of lower than 5%. If you’re more of an East Coast type, New Hampshire’s unemployment rate is substantially below the average, at 7.2%. And if you’re going to be really strategic about where you apply, consider that according to a survey by Indeed.com, in a place like Chicago, there is one job for every seven applicants, whereas in Washington DC, there are six advertised positions for every applicant. Not surprisingly, the states of Virginia and Maryland that surround DC, have some of the lower unemployment rates (7.2%).

 

Career Advice for New College Grads: Leveraging Your Connections

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time

2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This second post covers the first key career strategy: Leverage your connections.

Leverage Your Connections

When I say “leverage your connections”, I know half of you are about to dose off already, because you think you know what I’m going to say, and it’s all about networking. But you have nothing to worry about. I’m not going to advise you to go to a networking breakfast where you only know two people vaguely, and start working the room. Nor would I suggest doing a mass email to everyone you’ve known since grade school asking them if they know of any available jobs . Leveraging your connections demands a very strategic approach, and it requires that you act authentically. That means not doing anything in your job search that is obviously inconsistent with the way you normally behave.

Now that I’ve hopefully allayed your fears, let’s talk about who or what connections you have. Everyone has two types of connections: I’ll call them the Gold list and the Silver list. People on the gold list are already in your corner. You could call them up even after a long silence, and they’d still be happy to hear from you.

  • parents and relatives
  • school-related: friends from school or elsewhere, professors you really hit it off with, spiritual or career advisors with whom you formed a bond
  • professional-related: colleagues and connections; bosses and former bosses; people you’ve done projects with.

These count, even if the person knew you as a summer employee, intern, or through your campus job
I will guarantee that everyone here has at least a dozen people in the above categories. (And, if you don’t think you have many connections, you still have time to build them. Make it a point to get to know one adult well every semester.)

So who’s on the silver list?

Here’s where your alumni network really comes into play, because alumni from your college or university have a vested interest in your success. If you say you attend Grove City, it’s an automatic calling card for a cup of coffee with someone, or perhaps even an interview.

Apart from alumni, there are also plenty of other people who might go on your silver list, by dint of their being connected to your gold list. There may also be people your past who can come to life as a great connection. Don’t rule anyone out as a silver connection, even if they seem unlikely. The hairdresser in your home town who always asks what you’re up to these days is a perfect example. Barbers and hair stylists often know more what’s going on and who knows who than anyone else. Some of you may remember Ray’s story from Smart Moves. Ray’s the stuntman who got his first stunt opportunity through being alerted to auditions and a contact by his hair stylist.

OK, so you’ve got all these connections; how do you leverage them? Because even though over 50% of jobs come through connections by some estimates, it’s rare that you call someone on your gold list and they just happen to have a fantastic job available to you.

First you have to do some, what I call, “back work”. You have to figure out what you want to do, and create what some people call your “brand”. That means getting involved with social networking.

As a minimum, you need to get a LinkedIn account and develop a strong profile. The wonderful advantage of LinkedIn is that you can present yourself any way that you want, even emphasizing where you want to go, or skills you want to use, even if it’s not evident from your major. LinkedIn is also a place to put a passive message about the fact that you’re seeking a job and what type of job you want.

Many students are not as familiar with LinkedIn as they are with Facebook. You can think of LinkedIn as your professional presence, and that presence will eventually connect you with hundreds or thousands of people. I’ve been actively using LinkedIn for just over a year, and I now have over 700 first level personal connections but over 3 million related contacts. If you plan, it doesn’t take that long to build a network.

Second, consider writing a blog and developing your expertise through a personal website. Simple websites or blogs can be free, using a platform like WordPress. If you’re passionate about something, writing about that passion, and getting others experts to guest blog, is a great way to brand yourself. You can get word out about your blog by using Twitter and sending a tweet every time you submit a new post.

Once you’ve got an online presence, it’s time to Google yourself. What shows up? What do you want to show up that doesn’t? What do you want to try to get taken off? If you Google yourself and the first thing you see is an unprofessional Facebook photo that you put on when you were in high school and you forgot about, it’s time to find a more appropriate image.

Here’s the second piece of back work you need to do: Develop an elevator speech, and an eyeball paragraph: Each do the same thing, one verbally and one in writing. They allow you to explain clearly and concisely what you want to do. Unless you’re starting your own business, you’ll probably never be able to give the whole speech, but it really helps you to focus on the points you want to make in a discussion about your career. The eyeball paragraph is something you can use all the time: it’s a short paragraph that you can send to your connections, allowing them to immediately know why you’re writing and how they might be able to be helpful to you.

So, how do you put this all together to leverage your connections? Pretty much anyone, except your parents, who’s going to help you, is going to want to know how you’ve been spending your time and where your interests lie. Having information on the web helps you quickly and easily answer their questions, while you move on to quickly and succinctly explain how you’d like them to help.

When you really understand where you want to go, you can take advantage of even random connections. Sharon, another person who was profiled in our book, Smart Moves, wanted to switch from being a buyer for a very large apparel store, to writing about fashion. Her ideal employer was Newsday in New York. When she saw a person on the subway wearing a Newsday jacket, she engaged them in conversation about their work, and ended up getting hired as a freelance writer.

Sharon’s situation is actually more common than you think. Leveraging connections usually means finding common ground before you ask for help, and having an idea where you want that conversation to lead.
There are plenty of circumstances in which you can leverage the knowledge and background of your connections through an informational interview:

  • They work in a company or type of company where you want to work
  • 
They have insight into the hiring of a particular company
  • They have connections who could help you get in the door for an interview
  • They know what background and qualifications are essential for the work you want to do
  • 
They understand the culture of an employer or industry
  • They know where the growth is in the field
  • They can help you fine-tune answers to questions

Never underestimate the power of doing a lot of informational interviewing about a career field before asking someone more directly for help with your career. And before you decide to take out large loans to do a graduate program, find out from as many sources as possible whether further education is necessary right now for the work you want to do. Graduate school as a way to ride out the recession can be a quick way to mounting debt—a strategy not to be undertaken lightly.

Understanding How Careers Work: Advice For New College Grads

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time
2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time
3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better
4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This first post covers the four important career messages. Subsequent posts will explore the three career strategies.

  1. Discovering your passion evolves over time

Few college graduates could have accurately told you their passion at graduation. This is not surprising, because it turns out that identifying a career passion evolves over time. Think for a moment about Alison Levine, one of the people profiled in Smart Moves. Alison now describes her passion as combining adventure travel with philanthropy. But could she have told you that when she was doing her undergraduate degree in communications? Absolutely not. What about when she was getting her MBA or working at a prestigious investment bank? Ditto. In fact, Alison didn’t discover her passion for mountaineering until a new procedure was discovered to treat her heart defect.

For Alison, her illness and subsequent treatment helped her discover a passion for mountain climbing. And it’s that first passion that then led to Alison’s related passion for helping the women who live in the areas in which she climbs. Alison runs the Climb High Foundation, whose programs enable these women to work as trekking guides and porters in their local mountains and national parks so that they can maintain an adequate, sustainable living wage and can make meaningful, long-term improvements to their quality of life.

If you just heard about Alison’s passions, you might think that her educational background in communications and her marketing and finance experience would be a waste. In fact, her success at achieving her passion comes from her ability to integrate all of her knowledge and talents. It’s Alison’s ability to give motivational speeches that provides the money to support both her mountain climbing and her philanthropy.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to know everything in college.

  1. Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

Even if you know your passion from a relatively early age, it’s rare to find a linear path to achieving that passion. Take Brad, for example. In Smart Moves, Brad states his passion as “alleviating unnecessary suffering”, a passion he discovered because a childhood friend died of campus. But what is Brad doing now? He’s completing an MBA, after several years working as an investment analyst at a health care private equity fund, and working at a major pharmaceutical company.

Too often, when we hear that someone has a passion for something like alleviating unnecessary suffering, we immediately jump in our minds to the most obvious professional path: becoming a doctor. That’s why Brad’s story is so interesting. Because he, too, thought he’d be a doctor, and he did everything he could to prepare himself for that path. He even managed to be sent to Peru through Doctors without Borders, despite the fact that the organization never hired students for international assignments, and rarely hired people who were not doctors or medical professionals. Through that experience, and an opportunity to evaluate a World Health Program in Bangladesh, Brad really began to understand medical care in Third World countries. But his experiences were not all positive. In fact, Brad says that he got a strong sense of how much well-intentioned aid and medicine is lost to graft and corruption before ever reaching the intended recipients.

Through experiences in the field, Brad recognized that, for him, the path to reach his passion was not to be the doctor and deal with one person at a time, but to look at alleviating suffering from a much broader perspective. And that meant putting himself in a position to eventually fund global initiatives. Looking in from the outside at Brad’s career, many people would assume that he’d lost his way. But being true to your passion doesn’t require you to tell everyone why you’re taking a particular path. For Brad, working as an investment banker was a means to an end. And, alongside his finance work, Brad has always volunteered for organizations, constantly building the skill sets he’ll need to be successful in achieving his goal.

The other thing I want to mention about Brad, and all the other people we profiled in Smart Moves is that they aren’t perfect. They’re just like you sitting in the audience. People always talk about achievements, but let’s face it, we’re all going to pursue paths from time to time that probably aren’t wise in retrospect. Brad actually went down an ill-fated path to a dot-com internet company right after college. Six months later the dot-com went bust in the last recession and Brad was left scrambling, not knowing his next move.

I do not know one successful graduate who has never come face to face with serious challenges—most of the time not of their own making. If you get used to reflecting on the things that don’t go well in your life and constantly look for ways to improve situations, you will end up developing one of the most important skills in life: career resilience. What I mean by career resilience is acquiring the ability to look at a bad situation and figure out how get around it in order to achieve the ultimate goal.

  1. The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

In Brad’s case, if he had not had the two experiences of health care in developing countries while he was still in school, he would have continued his original path towards being a doctor. His frustration of not being able to influence health care in a broader way may not have manifested itself until long after he’d accumulated over a $100,000 in debt.

So the question to ask yourself is are you taking the most advantage of your Grove City education? Are you using all the available resources to challenge yourself to figure out your place in this world? And, are you using your education to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities that will help you not only decide how you want to live your life, but also provide the opportunity to find a path to your passion?

When I talk about education, I’m thinking of it very broadly. Education is not just what you study in college, but also what skills you develop in and out of the classroom, through your experiential education, and study abroad. And it’s not about checking off the boxes, as in “took a class where I used Powerpoint”; it’s about truly engaging in, and reflecting on, your education.

Let’s take study abroad or work abroad as an example. Learning outside the U.S. can be extremely helpful to developing the kinds of intercultural competency you need to follow your passion. But it’s only really a growth experience if you go outside your comfort zone, for example by living with a local family, studying only in the language of the country, or making your own arrangements. When I was at Duke, I discovered that employers often assumed that if you’d studied in a country like Spain, you’d speak the language. And if they started to talk to you in that language, you better be able to at speak enough Spanish to say “I’m sorry, I was in Madrid a couple of years ago, and I’m a bit rusty ”!

Graduating from a good college or university will help you in opening doors to opportunities, and doing well in school is important, but good grades aren’t everything. You can be successful in work you love even if you didn’t get stellar SATs or a great GPA. After all, employers rarely ask for your GPA after your first position—if then! The best antidote for lower grades is successful, relevant experience.

Many of the Smart Moves stories talk of the value of being involved in extracurricular activities. Sometimes the value of this involvement, though, is in helping you to discover what you would rather keep as interests, rather than as a career. Jonathan envisioned himself as a famous sportscaster, but his passion for politics and a reasonable family life led to decide to be a lawyer by day and limit his work at the TV station to Friday nights. When we think about our lives, we cannot separate our own personal passions from our context. With whom do we want to share our lives, and what does that mean for the kind of career we pursue?

  1. Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

For many people, the whole notion of “career” is totally overwhelming. The reality is, though, that no one starts at the top. And in this economic climate, starting at the bottom—even in a job that doesn’t require a college degree, is sometimes necessary. My first job was a file clerk for the Inner London Education Authority office of Career Services—and no, I had no thought at that time that my passion would be to help people of all ages find work they love. Many of the graduates in Smart Moves started work in very low-level positions. Cara worked for free at a music station; Warren bused tables in a country inn. Liz worked behind the cheese counter. These jobs were way below the graduate’s intellectual capacity. Being clueless, or underemployed, however, did not ultimately affect their ability to follow their dreams.

One of the major things that has changed in the past decade or so is that there is no longer a stigma to frequently changing positions—especially if you’re laid off, or in your first couple of jobs after college. There is evidence of this in a Duke University study that investigated how the Class of 2001 had fared in their careers during their first five years after graduation. It turns out that, on average, they had 2.79 jobs within the first five years and 43% of them had changed not just jobs but careers. When you’re thinking of taking a job, it’s worth reflecting on why you want that job, and how it will lead you closer to your kind of work you really want. Sometimes you have to take a job simply to put food on the table. There is no shame in that. And there are often ways to make entry-level jobs more useful to you than the job description might imply.

On October 22, 2009, a blogger called Tyler, who’s a recent graduate with a BA in English, wrote a very interesting entry on the Higher Education Weblog. I want to quote from his article:

“The planning firm that used me as office slave creates written reports and documents for city governments, the state Supreme Court and high-paying private clients. After I’d worked there a few months, I asked my boss if I could assist in writing them. After all, I had an English degree and the engineers and geographers at the company didn’t. He agreed and started me off typing reports and correcting a few grammatical errors. But while typing a poorly written market-research study, I asked if I could rewrite it…….I was allowed to redo the report. It turned out well, the client was pleased and I gained impressive experience for my resume.”

Tyler demonstrated a key lesson. You have to do the job for which you were hired well first. But after that, if you can find a way to help the organization while making your job more interesting, you’ll often be given the opportunity. I’ll add my 2 cents. Sometimes you have to accept jobs in which you have no real interest, and you may dread going to work. I’ve been there, so I know. BUT—and this is important– you are not your job, and no job can stand in the way of your reason for being. If the job really sucks the wind out of your sails, finding outside avenues, like volunteering, can be critical to your well being.

Good News for College Grad Employment

The latest government (BLS) unemployment statistics for October, 2009, were accompanied by a collective national groan. Across all populations, the average unemployment rate rose to a high of 10.2%–up four tenths of a percent from September, 2009, and 54% higher than a year ago. But unemployment woes have not affected every group equally. There is a whopping discrepancy between individuals with no high school diploma, and those with a college degree.

The statistics tell a pretty clear story, and it’s all about education. According to the BLS data, if you don’t have strong educational qualifications, you’re more likely to be unemployed. Period. Those with no qualifications at all have a 14% unemployment rate, while those with a high school diploma are unemployed at the national average. On the other hand, college graduates over the age of 25, fare significantly better. Their overall unemployment rate is now a respectable 4.6%, a rate that is still historically high, but has been decreasing since July. There remains a glut of unemployed recent graduates, but older graduates have been finding jobs: 163,000 fewer college grads over the age of 25 were unemployed in October, 2009, than in the previous month.

While it’s easy to think that the recession may be over for experienced graduates, that may be an overstatement. Certainly, more of them have jobs, but what isn’t known is whether these jobs are full or part time, and whether they actually require the credential possessed by the applicant. A college degree does not guarantee work that is interesting and lucrative—and commensurate with the money you have spent to obtain the degree. But it does make it more likely that you can find some kind of employment, even when the economy is in trouble.

Higher Education: Don’t Ignore Your Liberal Arts Majors

In an Interfolio blog article on November 5, Mike Lovell makes the case that careers offices should pay more attention to their liberal arts majors. He cites a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Katharine Brooks. I applaud Ms. Brooks’ idea of partnering with faculty. I also like the idea of offering students a course through which they identify their transferable skills, whether through a credit or a not-for-credit program. But I’d like to go much further. In the 21st century, when an economic return on tuition investment is so important to both students and parents, it is incumbent upon everyone in a college or university—from the President on down—to be talking about education and graduate success in the same breath, and to do so from the first year on. Because if talking about a student’s future is confined to the upper-class classroom and the occasional visit to the careers office, we will still end up with graduates who can’t make the connection between college and career.

What liberal arts students need is universal support to explore different career fields; stories about alumni and how they found paths to work they love; a great deal of experiential education; and, strategies to make their education relevant to the hiring managers who are considering their applications for employment. Students can’t just jump from a college career course to a job. There is much work that needs to go on in between those two milestones, and it will take the collaboration of university administration as well as alumni, faculty and the careers office to make that happen.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities is engaged in a very interesting initiative called LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise), which “champions the value of a liberal education for economic creativity and democratic vitality”. Its Liberal Education Outcomes Report, produced in 2005, does a great job of identifying the intellectual and practical skills obtained through a good liberal arts education. Intuitively, it makes sense that a liberal education would promote quantitative and information literacy, but a student telling the employer that she has these skills is likely to be met with blank stares. We need a different language to help students communicate the value of their education to an employer, and we need to be honest: most employers of entry level graduates don’t really care about a student’s education (as long as he has the educational qualification they seek); they care about whether he can do the job the employer needs to have done, and to do so with very little training. With a pre-professional degree, it is clear what a graduate can do; a liberal arts grad has to work much harder to demonstrate that she has the knowledge and skills to do the job. Almost always, she will need to supplement her education with related work experience.

In Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads, a book I coauthored in 2006, we illustrated through the stories of 23 liberal arts grads that the education they received was often extremely useful—but only when they were well on in their career. And, of the top Fortune 100 CEOs, for whom undergraduate degree is known, 35% have degrees in the liberal arts. Clearly a liberal education has value in higher level positions. But what about the 2010 grad whose career aspiration does not coincide with the title of his degree? No amount of fancy language or learning outcomes are going to help him find employment in this market. In fact his liberal arts education may seem totally irrelevant. We need to make our new graduates feel comfortable with the fact that their liberal arts skills and knowledge will not be wasted. Almost certainly, liberal arts grads will find themselves utilizing their liberal arts knowledge and skill sets for decades into the future. But for now, higher education–not just the careers office– must help liberal arts majors simply find a job.

2009 College Graduates: Unemployed and Forgotten

What has happened to the college graduates who received their diplomas last Spring? Since that time, the word on the street—or at least on Wall Street—is that we are no longer in recession. But the improving public mood has not translated yet into hiring. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate inched up to 9.8% in September, with no demographic group being spared.

On the surface, the 9.3% unemployment rate for college grads with a bachelor’s degree under the age of 25 seems quite positive. After all, the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of 16,000 college seniors, conducted through April 30, 2009, concluded that only 19.7% had jobs lined up by graduation. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data hide some more troubling information. The employment numbers are higher than expected, because they include college graduates who did any work during the previous week—even if that work was part-time work while they were in graduate school, and even if the work did not require a college degree.

A better way of assessing the severity of the situation for recent grads is to compare employment data on 2009 graduates, to the same data, from the same month in 2008. The percentage of this cohort who are in the work force (employed or actively looking for work), is almost identical to a year ago, indicating that there was, in fact, no rush to graduate school. What is strikingly different is the change in both the number and the percentage of young college graduates seeking work compared to a year ago. The unemployment rate in September, 2008 for those with just a bachelor’s degree was 6.6%, compared to 9.3% a year later. In September, 2009, there were 202,000 young college graduates looking for work–54,000 more than in the same month last year. The situation is even worse for men. Their unemployment rate in September was 11%, compared to under 8% for women.

Peter Coy, who penned an article in Business Week on October 8, 2009, talks about the hazards of long term unemployment at the beginning of a career: “For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of “lost generation.” Studies suggest that an extended period of youthful joblessness can significantly depress lifetime income as people get stuck in jobs that are beneath their capabilities, or come to be seen by employers as damaged goods.”

So who is helping the Class of 2009 find opportunities and contribute to the economic recovery? Many alumni associations and careers offices have started to provide more services to their constituents, but their efforts often fall short due to lack of appropriate staffing, time or budget to help those who have already left school. Given the increasing cost of education and the decreasing value of a college, higher education needs to take more responsibility for the success of its graduates. And that success has to start with a job. While the cost of providing alumni career services may seem steep, it is money well spent. A college graduate who is given assistance when he or she needs help, is the one who will keep giving back to a college through increased engagement and philanthropy.

Graduate unemployment is not just a problem to be solved by the Career Services office, or the Alumni Association. It’s an institution-wide issue. Now is the time for discussion and action at the highest level of college and university administration. The Class of 2009 needs immediate help.

Update for October, 2009: The unemployment rate for college grads aged 20-24 is heading downwards. There was a .4% drop in the unemployment rate from 9.3% to 8.9% from September to October. But the rate of unemployment is still almost 40% higher than in October a year ago.

Note: Essential employment data on higher education, college graduates and Career Services is updated every month on this website.

Is Starting Your Own Business a Good Idea for Unemployed New Grads?

Q. I’m a recent college grad with a true entrepreneurial spirit. Since I’m currently unemployed, I’m thinking of starting my own business. Unfortunately, I have debts rather than investments. What do I need to consider before I put “CEO” on my resume?

A. Before you can decide how to make a living in these difficult economic times, you have to identify your priorities. It’s tempting to put being your own boss at the top of the list. Unfortunately, you need to consider some very unsexy items too: paying back your school loans, getting health insurance, and paying your basic living expenses.

How quickly you can start your own business will depend on three things: first, how well you can control your expenses. Second, how much you’re able to save. And, third, how much you personally need to contribute to your business enterprise.

Few can afford to work full time in their own business immediately after graduation. Does that mean, then, that you have to dust off your “interview suit” and act the part of perfect recruit? Hardly. But if you want to become your own boss as quickly as possible, you’ll need to have a business plan and a strategy to achieve your goals. Back of the envelope calculations no longer work! And forget 40 hour weeks: to survive you’ll be lucky not to be sleeping under your desk with spreadsheet in hand.

Apart from financial considerations, new grads need to know what they don’t know. Running a t-shirt business in college is light years away from running an indie-rock company with a payroll and marketing expenses. Since you’ll probably have to work initially for someone else, focus on finding a job where you can learn the skills you don’t have. If you’re fortunate enough to find one of the all-too-rare investment banking jobs, you can pick up very useful information about how companies are funded. Accept a job at a small start-up, and you can undoubtedly learn from someone else’s mistakes.

An alternative to working in the corporate world is to pursue a day job while continuing to develop your own business. Remember, it’s difficult to put 100% effort into two demanding occupations, unless they are directly related. Tanuja, who had a contract to write a book, worked in a public relations firm during the day and wrote by night. But it ended up being too stressful. She quit the PR firm to waitress, so she’d have the mental energy to write her novel.

It’s tough being unemployed, and also not being in a position to start your own business, but the important thing is to use your time wisely. Get into good work habits by devoting at least eight hours a day to either looking for a job, or doing research to help develop your business. And spend as much time as you can building connections–through your family, your community and your alma mater. When you can get other people as excited as you are about your ideas, they’ll often bend over backwards to help.

A similar article was first published in SmallBusinessProf.com

Do You Need An Ivy League Degree to Rise to the Top in Business?

Thousands of high school seniors will apply to Ivy League universities this fall. For most, receiving a fat acceptance package is considered equivalent to winning the financial and career lottery. Rejection, however nicely expressed, is cause for huge disappointment—even despair. But how important is it to get into an Ivy if you want to reach the highest echelons of business? A new survey of the educational background of Fortune 100 CEOs suggests it may be much less important than you might think.

Consider the following data points from the Fortune 100 CEO survey:

  • Thirteen CEOs received their undergraduate degrees from Ivy League institutions. But fourteen received their degrees from international colleges and universities. Not one Fortune 100 CEO graduated from Brown, Columbia or Princeton.
  • Five CEOs graduated from Harvard, but another five graduated with an undergraduate degree from a British university.
  • Ten Fortune 100 CEOs did receive a graduate degree from Harvard. No other institution came close.

Given the data, it is hard to make the case for going to any particular undergraduate college or university. So do the Fortune 100 CEOs have any educational characteristics in common? Unfortunately, there is no information available about activities while in college, or GPA. What we do know, however, is that 85% of the Fortune 100 CEOs for whom information is available, majored at the undergraduate level in one of four areas: Engineering, Business Administration, Economics/Finance and Accounting. All these areas have a strong quantitative bias. The remaining 15%, studied in a wide variety of areas from history to geology or biology. Two thirds of the CEOs obtained an advanced degree, with about a third of the Fortune 100 choosing to complete an MBA.

Does the quality of education make a difference to someone’s ability to become a CEO of a Fortune 100 company? Absolutely. But the data suggests that a smart person can get a quality education just about anywhere. Perhaps the secret to success is both simpler, but also more difficult to achieve: To reach the top, you obviously need to be a great leader, with vision and drive. But you also need good mentors and the foresight to be in the right place at the right time. What you don’t have to have is an Ivy League degree.

Getting out of Law

Q. I’m a lawyer who’s never taken to the legal profession. Can I look forward to other career options?

A. What your question does not tell me is if you’ve “gone off” the law entirely, or simply don’t want to work in a law firm, where you have to bill in excess of 2,000 hours a year and never see your family.

Let’s assume for the moment, that the mere thought of having “lawyer” or “attorney” in your title (or, for that matter, partner or judge) makes you break out in hives. Are there other options? Absolutely. By definition, you’re smart, you know how to think and reason, and can write well. The trick now is to convince someone to hire you and pay you enough to satisfy the student loan collectors or mortgage company.

Lawyers who are looking for jobs outside the law often believe that they can do anything, if only given a chance. They also tend to look for equivalent salaries to those they would have made in private practice. Here’s where you often have to eat some humble pie. To get your foot in the door, you must convince an employer that you can do the job they need to have done. Sometimes, that means you’ll be promoting skills, such as your marketing ability, that require far fewer brain cells than your legal studies. You may also have to consider a salary substantially lower than your peers in the legal world. Ultimately, your educational background may help you do your work better or more efficiently – and many law-trained graduates reach the pinnacles of industry — but there’s no guarantee that you’ll move ahead more quickly than your peers with bachelor’s degrees or MBAs. The good news is that if you really don’t want to be a lawyer, you’ll be much happier in your chosen profession.

The trend now is for students to take off a year or two before attending law school. Given the numbers of lawyers who’d prefer to be doing something other than the law, having time to reflect on what you want to do before jumping into the next stage of education is a great idea!

Interview Success: An Employer Perspective

Whew! You got your foot in the door for an interview. Now what? It turns out that what you don’t do is as important as what you do. In this guest blog, Adriane Kyropoulos gives the inside scoop on these important do’s and don’ts. Adriane’s an expert: As Vice President in Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs, she interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. Here are her reflections on common mistakes made during the interview process.

1) Poor handshake. Like it or not, an interviewer’s impression of you can be sealed in the first three seconds that starts the interview. Not minutes – seconds. Candidates with clammy hands or a “dead fish” handshake do not instill confidence and imply a lack of ability to relate. On the other hand, candidates who crushed my hand or pumped my arm came of as comically aggressive. Either way, it is important to make eye contact, and strike the right balance with a firm but appropriate handshake. Practice with friends if necessary; it is an important part of building rapport and getting the interview off to the right start.

2) Talking too much, or not at all. I used to have days where I interviewed candidates pretty much non-stop for eight hours. I don’t know what was worse, the candidate who talked too much, going on and on with rambling answers or the candidate who approached the interview like an interrogation and answered every question in less than three words. If you take too long to answer direct questions, or talk nervously, you give the impression that you can’t think logically, get to the point, or perhaps you are covering something up. If you are not conversational and thorough in your reply, you will not relate to the interviewer. There are some basic questions about your background and professional experience that you should anticipate and for which you should be prepared for with concise, dynamic responses, no longer than one to two minutes in length. Avoid verbal ticks such as “uhm” “like” and “you know.” Match the communication style of your interviewer, and try to make the conversation flow as naturally as possible. Do not use profanity, colloquialisms or talk about your personal problems or social life.

3) Speaking negatively about current or past employers. Your last manager may have been an abusive, boorish and unbearable idiot. Even if you have found yourself in the unfortunate position of working for the world’s worst boss, never, ever express your ill feelings. No matter how reasonable your complaints, you will be considered suspect and will come off as a disgruntled employee who is difficult to work with and who would similarly complain about any employer. Although it may be a challenge, especially in cases where there were reductions in force, be prepared to put a positive spin on your experiences and to highlight the positive. It’s a smaller world than you might think, and you never know what will be repeated.

4) Mind your appearance. The days of the required navy blue interview suit are probably over; most offices have now adopted “business casual” attire and employee garb can allow for a certain amount of personal flair. When interviewing, however, play it safe. If necessary, do a little research to see what employees wear at the company where you are interviewing. Avoid overly bright patterns. Ladies: forgo risqué necklines or hems that are too short. Gentlemen: leave the gag tie at home and make sure your shoes are shined. A clean hair style and manicured nails should be a priority. Make sure you don’t smell. Not only body odor, but too much cologne or perfume can leave a negative impression. I have interviewed candidates with poor posture, visible tattoos or facial piercings, strangely colored hair, one who wore dark sunglasses indoors, and one unfortunate fellow who was clearly so hung over that I swear I could smell what he had drunk the night before. None of these candidates were hired.

5) Not being on time. On the days where I was interviewing non-stop for eight hours, having a candidate show up late could easily turn my day upside down. Show up on time. Allow extra time for travel, traffic glitches and getting through security. Some people feel that candidates who are too early can make an equally negative impression that reeks of desperation, but it is never, ever acceptable to be late.

6) Not preparing for the interview. There were candidates that I met with who had extraordinary resumes and impeccable academic credentials. When it was clear to me that they knew nothing about our firm or where they saw a fit for themselves, the interview was finished. There are many, many qualified candidates for every job. You should be able to show your interviewer why you in particular are a good fit for the firm, and that you have genuine interest for working at the company based on an understanding of its business principles and culture. Almost every company has a web site that can provide firm history, a mission statement, locations, recent accomplishments. Do your research and be prepared to answer general questions like “Why Company ABC” or “What makes you want to work here.”

7) Poor eye contact. There is nothing more disconcerting than spending thirty minutes with someone who can’t look you in the eye, or, on the other extreme, stares at you as if you were an alien. Either situation can create a negative effect. This is like the handshake – if the right balance is a challenge, practice with a friend ahead of time.

8) The egomaniac. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Chances are, there is somebody at the company where you are interviewing that is going to know more than you will about a particular matter. Stating too strenuously that you are the “smartest and best person for the job” can backfire. You need to show enthusiasm and sell your accomplishments, but be careful not to go overboard.

9) Mind your P’s and Q’s. Be nice to the receptionist, the secretary, the security guard, the human resources assistant who is scheduling your interview. Do not bring coffee or food to an interview. Do not answer your cell phone or send text messages. The only things you should bring to an interview is an extra copy of your resume and references and pen and paper to take notes. I know of a candidate who was eliminated from consideration because she left an empty coffee cup on her interviewer’s desk. And then there was the candidate whose phone rang – with an incredibly loud ring tone that shouted out expletives. Turn your phone off! Do not chew gum, bite your nails or crack your knuckles. Be on your best behavior.

10) Don’t Lie. Don’t misrepresent your past accomplishments, or exaggerate your achievements. Make sure all of your previous employment and educational information is correct, and be prepared to discuss any aspects of your history in an upfront and honest manner. The information that you divulge in an interview can be compared and contrasted to information obtained from an employment application or a background check and inconsistencies can eliminate you from consideration.

Management Coaching: A Strategic Investment for Colleges & Universities

When college and university revenues decline and budgets are slashed, training and development is frequently the first item on the chopping block. Not so in the Student Affairs division at Duke University. Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, Caroline Nisbet, gave her staff the opportunity to decide where to cut. Nisbet quickly acceded to staff requests to keep professional development coaching in the budget, recognizing that the value of coaching reached far beyond the individuals concerned: The entire Student Affairs division benefited from the coaching her staff received.

Management coaching is a relatively new phenomenon in academia, but it has a long history in corporate America. According to a 2008 article in Fast Company, coaching is now a billion‐dollar industry, with a significant percentage of chief executive officers and senior executives taking advantage of coaching services.

What is good for corporate senior executives is just as good for leaders in academia. But the word “coaching” has too frequently been associated with performance deficiencies. Writing in the Harvard Management Update in January 2007, Lauren Keller Johnson acknowledged there used to be a stigma attached to coaching, but claims that the stigma has largely disappeared. She explains that “coaching is now used largely to expand a talented individual’s repertoire of skills, and working with a coach has even become something of a status symbol.”

Coaching Comes of Age in Academia

Academia may have been a “late adapter” of coaching, but that is about to change, thanks in part to an economic situation requiring significant modifications in how universities are managed.

As work forces contract, some managers are finding themselves in charge of areas with which they have little familiarity. Other individuals must demonstrate leadership and strategic planning skills they did not learn in graduate school. Staff layoffs are causing significant management challenges.

Many colleges and universities rely on time‐tested ways of doing business. In 2009, however, leaders need to think creatively about everything from doing more and better with less, to finding non‐financial means to reward and motivate staff members. No longer is it acceptable to say “we’ve always done it that way.” For many long‐time directors and vice presidents, the new order will create discomfort and uncertainty.

Coaching provides the opportunity to help managers adapt to very different work environments by employing their strengths in the most effective ways and building their capacities to move successfully into a new era. The strategic use of coaching can be particularly effective in student affairs given its culture of assessment. Now is the time to apply learning outcomes to staff as well as students.

What is Coaching?

The types of coaching most frequently used in the academic workplace fall into five categories: management, professional development, performance improvement, transition, and leadership development. Coaching is, by definition, holistic, and recognizes that factors outside of the work environment affect an individual’s
performance. As a result, coaches may employ many different types of coaching, including life coaching.

Stephanie Helms, director of assessment and professional development programs in student affairs at Duke University, speaks to the value of this holistic approach: “As people we are not compartmentalized. We don’t stop being parents, significant others, or caregivers when we arrive at the workplace.” She adds, “Having the opportunity to form a relationship with someone who is skilled at assisting with navigating each role, honing skills and defining success, cannot be underestimated.”

Though coaching styles and purpose may differ, any coaching assignment has three common elements:
• a one‐on‐one relationship,
• a goal and action orientation, and
• a commitment to the process on the part of both client and coach.

The first step in developing a successful coaching relationship is to determine the goals of the assignment. The client is in the “driver’s seat” and needs to clearly identify issues, challenges, and opportunities, and discuss what new behaviors to explore or employ. This is where trust comes into play—the client must feel comfortable sharing situations he or she has not handled well, or in which he or she feels less confident, in addition to helping the coach become acquainted with his or her strengths. Further, the client must be open to observations, critique, and feedback that may conflict with his or her self-image.

The coach can only help if the client has provided sufficient information about his or her situation and is open to different interpretations and perspectives. Chandlee Bryan, president of Best Fit Forward, believes that a key value of good coaching is the ability to provide an independent assessment of the client’s situation while providing support for behavior change when necessary.

Ongoing coaching relationships provide opportunities for staff members to debrief situations with their coaches as they occur. This immediacy is enormously beneficial for clients and provides a professional sounding board for potential courses of action. A good coach will help a client clarify options, widen perspectives, and find solutions.

Find the Right Coach

Identifying and selecting an appropriate coach is much harder than it might seem. Anyone can hang out a shingle and proclaim a willingness to provide coaching services, and there are no universally respected qualification for coaches. Complicating matters is the breadth of the field—a life coach may be totally
ineffective as an executive coach and vice versa.

Catherine Fitzgerald, an experienced executive coach, puts her finger on the problem of finding the right person: “The (coaching) field emerged outside of academic institutions, and there isn’t a solid base of theory and research on which coaches can agree.”

The coach search should concentrate first on finding someone with the ability to understand the client’s needs and environment from a first‐hand perspective. Ideally, the coach for a senior student affairs officer would be someone with high‐level administrative experience in academia.

Some clients prefer coaches who have actually walked in their professional “shoes,” but unless the coaching need is related to the subject matter of individuals’ professions, that is usually unnecessary. More important for professional development coaching is that coaches have keen appreciation for the problems and solutions associated with managing staff. Other prerequisites for strong coaches include listening well and helping clients solve their own problems using a wide variety of techniques.

Also, some clients assume that it is best to find coaches who closely resemble them, but there are no data to support the the conclusion that this is necessary for success. Helms agrees: “My coach does not share my race or gender. I have never found my coach to be ineffective based upon our cultural differences. In fact, they complement each other.”

As with any hiring situation, once a client has determined that the coach has the basic requirements, it comes down to fit. No coaching arrangement will work without mutual trust and good chemistry.

Some coaches push clients very hard to make changes, such as becoming more assertive or improving presentation skills. In these cases, the coach will often assign “homework” in between meetings. If a client does not want to have his or her feet held to the fire, it is important to make sure the coach is willing to employ a less directive style.

In cases of performance management coaching, the client’s supervisor may want the final say regarding the coach who is hired, and he or she will also want to be involved in setting clear expectations and timelines for observable change. Yet it would be counter‐productive for a manager to force a coach on an employee, if either party was convinced that coaching would not succeed. Before signing on the dotted line, clients will want to ensure that fees and logistical arrangements meet their criteria.

Logistical Issues and Costs

The length of a coaching assignment is typically six to12 months. It could be shorter if coaching is part of a performance improvement plan that requires that the staff member demonstrate a change in behavior by a certain date. The duration, frequency, and length of a coaching relationship are typically at the discretion of the client and are determined with budget issues in mind. Some managers prefer longer meetings every couple of weeks. Others enjoy the benefit of being able to pick up the phone to debrief situations as they arise. Of critical importance is the coach’s ability to get to know the client and his or her issues and goals very well because coaching is contextual. At the minimum, a two‐hour face‐to‐face meeting at the start of the coaching process is usually required. Follow-up meetings can take place by telephone if that method meets the needs of both parties.

The January 2007 Harvard Management Update reported that a six‐month arrangement with a highly qualified, highly experienced coach can cost between $15,000 and $30,000. Fortunately, coaches who work with academic leaders and managers have lower fee structures.

Nisbet reports that coaching fees for Duke University student affairs staff members typically range from $150 to $350. A discount of 10 to 15 percent can often be arranged if several staff members are working with the same coach or coaching company. Although fees are often quoted at an hourly rate, it may be possible to hire coaches on retainer for a certain period, during which time a staff member has access to the coach on an as‐needed basis.

Gain a Return on Investment

In 2008, Fast Company partnered with Brian Underhill of Coach Source to conduct a research project about coaching with 48 companies. The results of the survey attest to the value of coaching: 63 percent of the responding organizations reported that they planned to increase their use of coaching over the next five years, and 92 percent of the 86 leaders being coached said they expected to use a coach again.

Effective coaching can be valuable to organizations and individuals, but clear expectations about the scope of assignments and coaching styles are keys to success. Beyond agreed-upon expectations, the client must be committed to the process and be willing to leave his or her comfort zone. Both coach and client need to recognize that there are no one‐size‐fits‐all solutions, and there may be some trial and error involved in developing strategies. Openness, trust, and a willingness to hear and share observations are critical to successful coaching relationships.

It is important to note that coaching is not appropriate for all situations. If a manager or director has a particular skill deficiency, training may be more effective. Coaching is better suited to situations that are unique to the client, or where the ability to understand other “players” or the environment is important. No laws govern coaching confidentiality, and the person paying the bills may expect reports from either the coach or the client to validate the return on investment. The required scope of the report may be clearly articulated in the case of performance
improvement coaching, or take the form of a loose request for occasional updates. When updates are voluntary, it is helpful for the coach and client to agree on what will be shared so that a strong sense of trust remains. A report requirement is often perceived negatively by employees, but for the client receiving professional development coaching, feedback to a manager provides an excellent opportunity to talk about career goals, professional development, and management expectations. The likelihood that an investment in coaching will continue is directly linked to the payer’s perception of value.

A Win-Win Solution

Up to 90 percent of a student affairs budget is devoted to employee salary and benefits. In addition, turnover, poor morale, and performance issues all have significant time and cost implications. It makes good economic sense, therefore, to address problems before they arise.

Anecdotal information in academia indicates that coaching is a win‐win for employees and their institutions. Staff members respond well to suggestions for change that take into consideration their styles, backgrounds, and environments. Their supervisors appreciate that results are immediate and targeted to areas that most benefit individual employees’ performance. During times of significant change, coaching has the advantage of timeliness and focus.

Student affairs is ideally situated to lead the way in developing coaching as a effective training method for its employees. In the process, it will benefit from a workforce that is skilled, motivated, and ready to accept the challenges of a new era in academia.

Sheila Curran is a professional coach, specializing in academia. She holds the highest qualification in human resources, the SPHR, and is the former executive director of the Duke University Career Center. She held a similar position at Brown University before starting Curran Career Consulting in 2008. She can
be contacted at curranoncareers@gmail.com.

Example of a Coaching Assignment

Name: Stephanie Helms, EdD, Director, Assessment & Professional Development Programs
Duke University, Division of Student Affairs

Type of coaching received? Professional development

When did the coaching relationship start? October 2007

How often do you receive coaching? Once a month, with occasional homework
assignments

How long are the sessions? 45 to 60 minutes

What have you learned from coaching? I have strengthened my skills to be strategic in planning and deliberate in my actions. The opportunity to process every step from inception to implementation away from my work environment has been incredibly helpful.

What are the advantages of coaching versus other forms of professional
development? Coaching is uniquely designed for the individual. It allows the ability to measure growth and development over time against pre‐identified variables.

What qualifications or experience does the coach have that make the individual particularly useful to you? I appreciate the coach being skilled in listening and demonstrating appreciative inquiry—asking the right questions. Having an understanding of the environments and cultures I need to explore is essential.

Would you recommend coaching to your peers? I would absolutely recommend coaching to my peers, and I have. Coaching has helped me be more reflective about experiences, as opposed to complaining or feeling stuck
.

Why is this a good use of your budget? Coaching provides a return on investment
that is immeasurable because it has more of a direct impact than a traditional experience. It is individually designed and tailored to fit the needs of one person.

Types of Coaching Examples

Management 
A manager of residential life is promoted to an assistant vice president position, in
which he supervises former colleagues. His coach helps him navigate difficult human
resource issues while becoming a sounding board for his work in a new area: strategic
planning.

Professional Development
 A new career center director is hired from the corporate world. A coach works with her to
capitalize on the strengths and knowledge she brings to the position, while helping her to
adapt to the academic world.

Performance Improvement
 The director of student activities has developed wonderful relationships with students, but has been unable to develop a strong and competent staff. Working with a coach is part of a formal performance improvement plan.

Transition
 A 55-year-old director of judicial affairs has volunteered to take “early retirement” to save
money for the department, yet she still needs to work. A coach is hired to help the director
transition to a new position and life outside academia.

Leadership Development
 A mid-level manager is identified as someone with significant growth potential. She works with a coach to identify and address competence gaps and ensure a smooth transition to a higher-level position.

Advantages of Coaching over Other Forms of Training

• Tailored to an individual’s personal needs and context

• Focused on client’s goals

• On‐going and flexible

• Addresses situations as they arise

• Requires no travel

• Delivers proven return on investment

Questions to Address when Choosing a Coach

• Does the coach have a clear idea of how to achieve results through coaching?

• Does the coach have the required technical skill set (e.g., experience in management or
human resources)?
• Does the coach have the right personal characteristics (e.g., ability to establish
rapport, trustworthiness, willingness to listen)?

• Does the coach have an understanding of the client’s work and organizational
culture?

• Does the coach have a strong track record in coaching?

• Can the coach be available when needed and accommodate preferences for on‐site, in‐person, or telephone coaching?

• Are the coach’s fees within the budget for coaching?

Published in the NASPA Leadership Exchange magazine, Summer 2009 edition.

Career Advice for Liberal Arts Parents

Over a million and a half students will become college students for the first time this fall. According to studies conducted by the educational consulting firm, Eduventures, two thirds of these students will have chosen their selected college in large part based on the assumption that it will prepare them well for a career. But within minutes of setting foot on campus, all thoughts of the future will be obliterated by more mundane problems, such as negotiating with roommates about where to put the refrigerator, or finding the best Thai food. And once school actually starts, thoughts of career recede even further.

Parents go through their own form of denial about their children’s futures. The logic of choice: it’s good that the economy is bad now, because my son has four years for it to get better. Many parents also erroneously assume that if their son or daughter goes to a good school and does well, they will automatically receive a top job after graduation. (Based on the recent lawsuit filed by an unemployed graduate against her alma mater, some students labor under a similar misunderstanding.)

After working with thousands of parents at Duke University and Brown University, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten things that every parent of a liberal arts student needs to know about education and career.

1) Your sons and daughters will probably change their minds about their major at least once, and probably multiple times. That’s normal.

2) Not surprisingly, most students change their minds about their expected careers, too.

3) Students do not need to immediately put themselves into a pre-med or pre-law “box”. There are no pre-requisites for law school, and students are increasingly taking a full four years to complete medical school requirements.

4) It is now almost the norm to work for a year or two before going to grad school, law school or medical school. And, most top MBA programs only accept students with significant experience.

5) The subject matter of the major may not have anything in common with a student’s career aspiration. If it doesn’t, your son or daughter will need to supplement the major with relevant experiences outside the classroom
.

6) Internships are now a pre-requisite for success in finding a good position. Students who are most in demand by employers have often had two or three internships before graduation, and have built work skills and knowledge throughout their time in college.

7) College provides numerous opportunities outside of the classroom to build skills that employers covet. Club leadership, membership on an athletic team, and study abroad can all round out the resume. The key is to use these experiences to demonstrate commitment, skills development and learning.

8) Students who build strong relationships with grown-ups—faculty, administrators, alumni and other parents—will be way ahead in the career game. Connections count.

9) Your son or daughter should not wait until senior year to start exploring careers, examining options, building skills and developing application materials. An ideal time for the first visit to the careers office is early sophomore year.

10) Today’s students use their parents as a primary source of advice on careers. You will be doing your son or daughter a huge favor by encouraging exploration and experience, while letting them do the work!

How do I Ace The Interview?

Question: I’m a recent grad who has not yet found work. I’m looking for an event management position in New York, and employers seem interested, but I don’t get called back after the interview. What am I doing wrong?

Answer: The good news is that you’re getting your foot in the door. So your academics and experience are making the grade. The problem area appears to be your interview. Interviewing is one of the most difficult skills to master. Essentially, you have to sell yourself to a potential employer. After years of letting your academic results speak for you, you have to find ways of letting your personality shine through. And you need to control those sweaty palms and the red flush that appears on your neck when you’re under stress.

Employers look for three things: first, whether your qualifications match the requirements of the position; second, whether you have the personal characteristics that are necessary (such as the ability to take initiative); and third, organizational fit. Interviewers often employ the “2am in Japan test”. Essentially they’re asking themselves “if I were stuck in an airport in Japan at 2am with this person, would I want to talk to them?”! Your potential employer wants you to be competent, but they also want to like you.

Few people are good at interviews without practice. The best way to ace an interview is to find a professional whom you trust to ask you sample questions and give you feedback. Don’t forget to work on your beginnings – the ubiquitous “tell me about yourself” question, and your endings—why you think you’re the best person for the job. Be open to their critique—however harsh it may seem. The more you can practice outside of the interviewing suite, the easier it will be when your ideal job comes along.

 

Laid Off: Choosing Outplacement Assistance vs. Salary Pay Off

Question:  I have been laid off from my mid-level management position, and have been offered outplacement assistance or an extra month of salary.  Which should I take?

Answer:  The first thing you need to discover is the nature of the outplacement agreement.  If you’re being offered a deluxe package, you can look forward to personal attention, including testing, contacts and individual coaching, as well as an office and clerical support for your job search. Conventional wisdom says the job search takes one month for every $10,000 in salary you desire, so this kind of intensive help can cut months off the time it takes to find a suitable position. If you were to purchase this kind of assistance yourself, it would probably set you back far more than one month’s salary.

On the other hand, the kind of outplacement services usually offered to mid-level managers involves mainly group meetings and standard advice. This can still be helpful, but it’s less clear that it justifies giving up hard cold cash.  It’s wise to give it a pass if you’re already a savvy job seeker, with an up-to-date resume, professional contacts and a sense of the market. Outplacement, ironically, has nothing to do with “placing” you in a job. It can, however, be worthwhile if you need the discipline of group meetings to keep your job search on track.

Regardless of the kind of outplacement offered, you’ll probably also be referred back to your alma mater for help. Many schools can help you find alumni connections in your current field, or one you’d like to enter.  Before signing on the bottom line for outplacement assistance, check if your college offers individual counseling, coaching, testing and job search advice. This is sometimes provided at no cost. You might even combine the resources of your alma mater with the services of an independent career coach, who can target her services to your specific needs.

Losing a job is never easy.  Luckily you have an employer who’s willing to provide help, even if you may not need it.

Why Higher Education Can’t Ignore Graduate Unemployment

Press Release

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CURRAN CAREER CONSULTING

Providing essential career information and consulting to higher education and individuals

http://www.curranoncareers

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Thursday, July 2, 2009

CONTACT: Sheila Curran
(919) 599 6207
Sheila.curran@curranoncareers.com

NEWS TIP: AS THE UNEMPLOYMENT RATE FOR COLLEGE GRADS DOUBLES, HIGHER EDUCATION NEEDS TO PAY MORE ATTENTION TO CAREER SERVICES

Now that the Bureau of Labor Statistics has released its June statistics, all eyes will be focused on the overall unemployment rate of 9.5%–a rate only slightly higher than that reported in May. But there is one piece of data that deserves greater attention: The rate of unemployment for college graduates over the age of 25 has risen more rapidly than for any other educational cohort. In June of 2008, the rate was 2.4%; now, it stands at 4.8%.

Over a million college graduates lost their jobs in the past year. They are competing for employment with the roughly 1.2 million new graduates who are estimated to have joined the ranks of job seekers.

While an unemployment rate of 4.8% may seem low compared to the overall rate, these unemployed individuals have collectively spent millions of dollars on their educations. Many of them have advanced degrees and significant debt loads. They expect an economic return on their tuition investment.

When the unemployment rate for college graduates over age 25 was less than 2%–true for almost all of 2002, for example—colleges and universities could logically assume that their graduates would find positions without much help. That is no longer true. A significant number of today’s college graduates will be forced to accept a job that does not require either a college degree or professional experience—if they can find one at all.

The cost of tuition, room and board at a 4-year institution rose 32% for private colleges and 42% for public universities between 2002 and 2008, with average costs in 2008 running at $30,393 and $13,639 respectively. With such increases come expectations, verified in surveys conducted by the educational research company Eduventures, that higher education will prepare students for their futures beyond college. Prospective students evaluate the degree to which an institution will provide access to professional development opportunities, connections, internships and jobs.

Sheila Curran, a career strategy expert, who has directed career centers at Duke University and Brown University, believes the time has come to think creatively about linking college to career. She recommends an institution-wide approach to securing graduate success that takes full advantage of alumni and parents as career resources. Says Curran, “Exceptional career services can be a key asset that helps colleges and universities to differentiate themselves from their peers.”

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Career Services: Cost Center or Strategic Advantage

Are college career services offices fast becoming irrelevant? In this slideshow, presented for the Boston College Career Summit on June 24, 2009, Sheila Curran makes the case that career services offices can be an extraordinary strategic advantage to their institutions, but only if they embrace change.

Career Services: Cost Center or Strategic Advantage?

 

Webinar on Revolutionizing Career Services

Visitors to this site are invited to view and listen to the  webinar slides and discussion on Revolutionizing Career Services: Meeting the Needs of Today’s Students and Alumni, presented by Sheila Curran, and Laura Boothroyd, Managing Director of Consulting Services at Eduventures. Please send comments and questions to curranoncareers@gmail.com.

 

Employment and the New College Grad

Sheila Curran talks with Sara Nordhoff of the Forte Foundation in a webinar titled Smart Moves for Your Career: Positioning Yourself for Success in a Down Economy, January 21, 2009. The audience is women undergraduates interested in business, but the messages are applicable to all students and graduates. Sheila maintains that success in the job search is all about attitude, focus and strategy. The text of the webinar is below:

Sara: What does your crystal ball say about the employment outlook for college women?

Sheila: Well, Sara, there’s no doubt that there are dark clouds on the employment horizon. The US lost over a million jobs in the last two months of 2008 and conservatively, the projection is for 2 million more people losing their jobs in 2009.  And by all accounts, on-campus recruiters are making about 20% fewer offers than last year. So, it’s going to be more difficult to find jobs—whether in business or some other field. But there are jobs out there.  What we’re going to be talking about today is how to put yourself in the best position to get hired.

But first we need to talk about the elephant in the room…..

Sara: What is the elephant in the room?

Sheila:  For those unfamiliar with the expression, the elephant in the room refers to something big that’s in front of your eyes but no one talks about.  In this case it represents the fact that probably 50% of those listening are thinking in the back of their minds that if this “job” thing doesn’t work out the way they want, they’ll go to graduate school.  In fact, applications to grad school at places like Duke are up over 30% from last year. Faculty are undoubtedly encouraging this trend.

Sara:  Why shouldn’t recent grads go to graduate school?  It’ll make a lot of parents very happy, and students will be be able to ride out the recession.

Sheila: My strong advice is if you weren’t seriously thinking about graduate school before the economy tanked, don’t jump on that bandwagon now. For a woman interested in business, grad school may just be a fast way to more debt, and may not increase your chances of getting ahead.

Sara: Students are probably not hearing much about why they shouldn’t go to grad school immediately after graduating from college.

Sheila: You’re right, but I posed the question to a number of experts outside academia. Here are their responses:

Expert #1, employed in NYC:  It’s all about having work experience.  A master’s candidate without experience is much less useful that a bachelor’s candidate with experience, and is therefore less likely to get the job

Expert #2, business career advisor for undergraduates and graduate students at a top university: Students with master’s degrees and no relevant experience often don’t fit into employers’ hiring plans. And, they’re perceived as being too expensive.

Expert #3: Highly successful businessman: Don’t go immediately to grad school.  Get experience. I don’t care whether it’s working at McDonalds. More school immediately after college will not be to your advantage

So don’t believe me; believe the people doing the hiring in this economy.

Sara: Just to clarify, are you including MBA courses in what you said about grad school?

Sheila:  No, MBAs are completely different, because you almost always enter business school with several years of experience. The hiring situation is also difficult for B-School grads, but the strategies we’re talking about today are equally applicable.  And, just to clarify, there definitely are jobs where having an master’s degree could be to your advantage.  My advice, though, is to not assume the benefits of a degree program you’re considering without checking out those assumptions with hiring managers.

Sara:  So, if employers aren’t looking for women with graduate degrees, what are they looking for?

Sheila:  They’re looking for KSA:  Knowledge, skills and abilities. The good hiring manager, who’s been trained to interview (which is not always the case), is going to compare the needs of her employer to your qualifications.  If your major doesn’t indicate that you understand the industry where you’re applying for a job, you need to find a way to show you have the required knowledge through courses, work experiences and possibly even extracurricular activities.

Skills and abilities are less likely to come from the classroom, but you can draw from all your college experiences—on and off campus.  Hiring managers may make assumptions about your level of competence from your GPA and your major, but they don’t know about your skills and abilities unless you highlight them.  That means specifically mentioning skills and abilities in your resume and cover letter and giving examples.

Sara:  So what you’re basically saying is that in the absence of a personal connection, it’s your combination of relevant knowledge, skills and abilities that will get you the interview.

Sheila:  Right, but getting the job is going to require that you ALSO possess three other critical attributes:  A great attitude, clear focus, and a well-thought-through job search strategy

It’s interesting.  If you ask most people what it takes to get a job, few will tell you about attitude, focus and strategy. But that’s what we’re going to concentrate on today. Because there are thousands of new grads out there with a great education, and even good experience. It’s the addition of attitude, focus and strategy that will help you beat the competition.

Let’s start by talking about attitude.

Sara: Attitude is one of those nebulous characteristics.  What exactly do you mean?

Sheila: I’m using attitude in the employment context to mean four things: if you want to succeed in this market, you have to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent. The fact is, most candidates don’t have the perfect blend of knowledge, skills and abilities. And if an employer has a choice between one slightly imperfect candidate and another, she’ll pick the one with the good attitude every time. An employer recently gave me an example of this. On paper the candidate for a technology sales position didn’t look as qualified as some of the others.  But in the interview, her knowledge of the product line and genuine enthusiasm shone through.

Sara: The woman in your example showed her positive attitude through her enthusiasm.  Is there anything more you want to say about being positive? For example, what strategies do you have for staying positive when there’s so much bad news around?

Sheila:  Funnily enough, the first strategy I’d employ is not putting yourself in a position where the chances of rejection are almost 100%. Let me give an example: A student came to work in my careers office, with the clear purpose of getting first access to any available business-related job openings. Sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, he shot himself in the foot by applying indiscriminately online for any opening.  He didn’t get a job that way, and when he did hear back from an employer—pretty rare in itself—it was always a rejection. That can make anyone depressed.

Sara: Are you suggesting that college women not apply for jobs where all it takes is to apply on line?

Sheila: I know of instances where students have gotten jobs through sites like Monster or Craig’s List, but they tend to be lower level, commission sales, or technology jobs.  Look at it this way, if you can easily find a job listing through an online site, so can thousands of others. So your chances will only be good if you can find some additional ways to get the employer’s attention.

Sara: So far, I’m even more depressed. What are the reasons to be positive?

Sheila: The number one reason is that it can get you a job.  Let’s assume you have the basic skills and qualifications, and you’re invited for an interview. Genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity, and for the value you can provide, is infectious.  People like to be around upbeat people, and employers are no different. So if you’re down about the job search, don’t let it show.

Sara:  OK, let’s move on to your second point.

Sheila:  OK, point #2, you need to have a pragmatic attitude. Easy example:  Last year, you wanted to work in the investment banking industry. This year, unless you’re one of the few people who got hired from an internship—in which case you’re not on this call—you’ll need to expand your horizons to look for work.

Sara:  What do you mean by “expand your horizons”?

Sheila: It might mean thinking “finance” not “i-banking”, and considering smaller companies, different geographic locations, or different ways of employing your interests and skill sets

Sara: Your third point is being prepared.  But isn’t everyone well prepared for the job search in this economy?

Sheila: It’s certainly true that successful job hunters will spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the job search. So let’s test the notion of being prepared.  I’d like our audience to think about the degree to which they would be prepared to do an on the spot telephone interview for a position in which they’re really interested, but for which they applied three months ago online. Being prepared means either having an extraordinary memory, or having records of your applications and interactions in an easily retrievable database. Of course, if the employer calls at 10am, and your computer is invisible under a pile of clothes and you still haven’t had that essential cup of coffee, it’s worth asking if you can call them back in a few minutes.

Sara: Do you have any success stories of students or recent grads who were particularly well prepared?

Sheila: Yes I do.  Sharon comes to mind. She’s one of the women profiled in my book, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads.  Sharon was a buyer for a major retail chain, but she really wanted a job writing about the fashion industry. Here’s where taking graduate classes really was the right decision.  Because Sharon knew that she couldn’t just move from retail to writing, even if she knew the field about which she wanted to write. So she signed up for an NYU evening journalism class. That was the first smart move.  The second was to have her wits about her when she approached a woman on the subway as she was heading to class.  She noticed the logo on the woman’s jacket was for Newsday, one of New York’s biggest papers.  Sharon started a conversation about the woman’s work, and then told the woman about her interest in getting into the business of writing about fashion. Fast forward, and Sharon got a gig writing online articles about fashion. Of course, she couldn’t immediately give up her day job, but this chance meeting gave her the inside track to a new career.  Sharon knew what she wanted to do, and she was prepared when luck appeared.  That preparation gives you the confidence to take advantage of serendipity.  It’s also a powerful reminder to develop your elevator speech.

Sara: What’s an elevator speech?

Sheila:  It’s a short (up to thirty seconds)  pitch for what you want to do.  The idea is that if you found yourself in an elevator with a business leader who asked what you were doing in the building, you could tell such a compelling story that when you reached your stop that leader would want to continue the conversation with you.

Sara: So Sharon probably had the components of her elevator pitch in mind when she approached the woman from Newsday, and she was able to weave her pitch into the conversation. Sharon certainly has a good story, but how often does that kind of luck happen?

Sheila:  Probably more frequently than you might think.  When I was researching the book I coauthored on careers, I consistently heard people crediting their success to the fact that they were in the right place at the right time.  You have to be prepared if you want to take advantage of serendipity.  But realistically, most people have to be more persistent than Sharon, particularly when it comes to the job search.

Sara: Isn’t there a danger that employers will get annoyed with the persistent applicant?

Sheila: You’re right. So here’s the strategy.  (This is assuming that the job you’re applying for isn’t going through the on-campus recruiting process, and that you have the opportunity to send a cover letter)

1) The last sentence on your cover letter should say how much you look forward to talking with the company about your background and experience and how you can add value to xyz company. Then indicate that you’ll follow up in 2 weeks to make sure that they have all the information they need, and to see if you might arrange a personal appointment.

2) Follow up at the appropriate time.  The company will probably tell you they have your resume and that they’re not ready to make any decisions about whom to interview

3) Say that you’re still very interested in the position, and ask when would be an appropriate time to follow up again

4) If they give you a date, follow up at the specified time, starting with the statement that you’re following up as suggested by xyz person

If you follow these steps you’ll be combining persistence with respect.  Of course, if you also find someone in the company to speak on your behalf, you’re golden.

So, we’ve talked about attitude and the need to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent.  Now let’s talk about why you need to be focused.

Sara:  How important is it to know exactly what you want to do?

Sheila: It may be the difference between getting the job and not getting the job.  There’s a real temptation when you’re desperate to get a job to say you’ll do anything.  But that’s exactly the wrong thing to say. Employers don’t want to have to think about where they can use your skills. In this market, you have to be totally focused on what you want to do and how you can add value to the employer.  Essentially, however much of a square peg you might be, if the employer has a round hole, you have to make yourself fit into that round hole.  It’s all about making it easy for the employer to hire you.

Sara: So it’s good that students and graduates on this call probably already know they want to go into business?

Sheila:  Yes, but let’s remember how many different areas of business there are. Having a general direction is great, but knowing specifically where you’d be a good fit is much better.

Sara: Are there any areas of business that are growing and where it might be easier to find work?

Sheila:  You can find business jobs in just about any career field, so it’s worth following the news and anticipating which areas are growing and where federal  stimulus money may be spent over the next year. Areas where there may be opportunities are sustainability and energy conservation; risk management; areas of the federal government; health care, and education. But don’t wait until everyone else finds those opportunities.  Take the initiative to go down to your local Chamber of Commerce or Economic Development office and find out who’s starting businesses in the area where you want to work. Sometimes working for a start up can give you an education you’d never get in a larger company—even if you do have to do your share of filing.

Sara: Any other suggestions for someone who’s totally clueless about career direction?

Sheila:  Yes.  I’d hightail it over to your careers office and ask to take some assessment instruments to see where your talents and interests might best be employed.  Don’t forget to debrief the results with a counselor to make the most of the assessment. And then investigate potential fields of interest, for example by reading the Vault guides. Many careers offices provide access to Vault guides online.

Sara: We’ve covered attitude and focus.  Your next point, Sheila, is that college women need to have a strategy. Why is the job search strategy you use so important these days?

Sheila:  Strategy is what’s going to help you beat the competition. You should have both a micro strategy, which you employ when you’re applying for a specific job and a macro strategy for how you run your whole job search.  And by the way,  the strategies you use for your first real job can be employed at any time in the future, too. Let’s start with micro strategy, as in how you approach a specific job opening.

Sara:  Can you back up for a minute and talk about how our audience can decide what to apply for?

Sheila:  Yes.  Here are some basic rules. Only apply if

1) You have at least 75% of the qualifications, and 100% of the really important ones, like being a college graduate with experience

2) You know you can psyche yourself up to convey interest in the employment opportunity in both your documents and in an in-person interview

3) You’re willing to spend time researching the job and the company, and figuring out how you can add value to the company

Remember, the job search is not about you. Until you get the offer, it’s all about the employer.

Sara: So where does the strategy come in?

Sheila:  You have to be more prepared than the competition.  That means going way beyond the job description and the website to find out more about the opportunity, and identifying actual examples of what you’ve accomplished that relate specifically to the job at hand.

Once you’ve done your due diligence about the job, and found out more about the position and the company, it’s time to see if you can identify a connection or alumna who works at the company and who can give you the inside scoop.  In your conversation with the contact, tell her which job you’ve applied for, and that you are very interested in their company.  Your reason for talking to her is to find out how you can best position yourself to get hired.  The key here is to build rapport—so much so that you gain a supporter within the company.

Sara:  I think this is probably an area we’ll want to explore later in more detail.

Sheila:  Yes, we don’t have time to go into too much detail on the micro side. So, let’s move on to big picture strategies. My first macro strategy point is that you need to choose your board of directors.

Sara:  Are board member positions paid positions? 

Sheila:  Unfortunately no.  These are knowledgeable people, who have your best career interests at heart and who will tell you the truth. That means, by definition, they are not your parents or your best friends who are way too biased.

Sara:  So who should be your board members, and what do they do?

Sheila:  They could include a faculty member, a career advisor, an alumna or sorority sister in your field of interest.  They’re people who—based on your request– have agreed to give you feedback on your resume and cover letter, hear your elevator pitch, potentially even practice interview with you. Your board should be up to date on your thinking about career direction and be available to help you make good decisions. Keep them in the loop on what’s happening in your career search and listen to their advice carefully, even if you don’t take it.  They may think of additional avenues you could explore, and they’re particularly helpful if you’re dealing with either multiple job offers or multiple rejections.

Sara:  What else is on the list of macro strategies?

Sheila: There’s not a person I know who’d disagree with the idea that, however qualified you are, you have to network like crazy.

Sara: Networking seems like asking for help to many women, and makes them very uncomfortable.

Sheila:  You’re right that it’s a new skill for many women, but before you say “I don’t want to do that”, it’s worth looking at the benefits.  The more people who know you’re looking for work, and are impressed with your knowledge, skills and abilities, the more opportunities will open up for you.  You may be more comfortable if you realize that all you’re supposed to be doing is having a conversation with another person.  Most of the time you won’t be talking about the help you need unless the person you’re talking to offers the help first.

Here’s a tip for those of you who hate the idea of initiating a conversation about your career aspirations. Start with people you know, like relatives, who naturally open the door for you to talk about how school is going. Learn how to weave your future plans into the conversation. And don’t discount school advisors with whom you have a good relationship.  One student I know asked the professor teaching an undergrad law class whether he thought she should go to law school.  At first she was really upset, because he said “absolutely not”, but he followed it up with the comment that he saw her as being very successful in the entertainment business.  And then he did something that really surprised her:  he introduced her by email to his old college roommate, who was a film director in Hollywood.  This student now works in the entertainment field.

Sara:  I can see why you highly recommend networking. What’s next on your list of macro strategies?

Sheila: Here’s a very uncommon, but extremely useful strategy: identify and address your competence gaps.  That means, in simple terms, consider the types of jobs you want to apply for, and identify where you don’t meet the qualifications. If you do this now, you may have time to fix the problem before you apply for the jobs.

Sara: Do all candidates typically meet all qualifications?

Sheila:  No, but if you consistently see jobs of interest requiring a facility with Excel or Powerpoint, and you don’t know those programs, it’s really a good idea to learn them. Harpreet, another recent grad profiled in my book had excellent non-profit management skills but no formal grounding in business.  So she deliberately applied to work at a consulting firm where she could learn good business skills. The key in this economy is “don’t give them any excuse to reject you”.

Sara:  Just as a matter of interest, how long does it usually take for an employer to evaluate your application?

Sheila:  You’re doing well if they even spend 30 seconds on your documents, so make sure one of your competence gaps isn’t the inability to proofread!

Sara:  There’s a theme here, and it seems to be “employers have the upper hand, so give them what they want”.

Sheila:  You’re right. The piece of advice I give most frequently to students and recent grads is to think like an employer. I’ve already alluded to the fact that you need to make it easy for an employer to hire you.

Sara: Can you make that practical?  Take a resume, for example.  How can you demonstrate “thinking like an employer” in a resume?

Sheila: Most of us have a lot of different attributes, and we’re very proud of all of them – or at least our parents are.  There’s a temptation to a) put all of them down on the resume, including winning the jeopardy quiz in high school and b) send the same resume and cover letter to every employer.

Sara: Wait a minute.  Are you saying that you need to customize every cover letter and resume?

Sheila: Cover letters definitely need to be customized for the employer, because you want to highlight how your accomplishments will help you be an excellent fit with the open positions.  But it’s often helpful to rearrange your accomplishments on your resume, too, so that the most important items stand out more effectively.  Here’s a tip.  Give your resume to an acquaintance, and ask them to tell you what parts of your background, experience or characteristics stand out.  It’s a great check on whether you’re actually conveying what you want to convey.

Sara:  Isn’t it enough to just change the name of the company throughout the cover letter?

Sheila:  I can assure you that companies sniff out the quasi form letter virtually every time.  If you don’t write something really specific about why you truly want to work for the employer, they’ll probably ditch your application pretty quickly—that’s unless they’re doing what I call “hiring by the numbers”.

Sara:  What’s “hiring by the numbers”?

Sheila:  That’s when an employer doesn’t even want a cover letter; they just want to see that you have a certain GPA from a certain school, a particular major, and specific experience.  If that’s the case, you truly have to be a round peg for the round hole, or you won’t even get a chance to shine in an interview.

Sara:  Do you have any advice on resumes?

Sheila:  There are plenty of good sources of advice on resumes, including professionals in most careers offices, but two things are very important.  First, unless you worked full time before coming to college, make it a maximum of one page.  And second, make sure you list accomplishments, not just job duties, and quantify what you did where if at all possible.  Give your resume to a couple of detail-oriented friends to look over and make sure it’s word perfect. Spell check doesn’t catch everything! And don’t forget, the employer is going to be reading your documents with their requirements in mind.  The easier you make it for the hiring manager to find your matching skill set, the better.

Sara: I’m sure there will be questions from the audience about how to best present yourself to an employer.  But one of the things we said we’d do today was to highlight how to beat the competition.

Sheila:  Yes.  And that brings me to my last key point of strategic advice:  Find your hook.

Sara: I think you’ll have to explain more. What’s a hook?

Sheila:  A hook is some characteristic you possess, or an action you take, that separates you from your competition. Probably everyone in the audience employed some kind of hook to get into college.  It could have been a particularly high SAT score, or athletic prowess, or starting a non-profit company. It’s the same idea when working with employers.  Do you have something they can remember you by? It could be something personal like the fact that you climbed Mount Killimanjaro, or you could be like Theresa, who always writes personalized handwritten thank you letters to those who’ve helped, or interviewed her.

But even more powerful is the work hook. If you’re applying to work in a corporate area at Honda, being fluent in Japanese might be your hook.  Or, you might have consistently demonstrated a willingness to go above and beyond what was expected in each of your internships—and have the references to prove it.  And don’t underestimate the opportunity for non-profit work to provide you with business experience hook.  After graduation, Sara joined the Peace Corps in Morocco to learn a language, but in working for a small NGO there, Sara learned a huge amount about women’s small business development and developed an interest in micro finance. A skill set or knowledge that most people don’t have can be your hook.

Sara:  So our listeners should think about their own hook, in the context of the work they want to do?

Sheila: You got it!

Sara: These examples are very helpful.  Do you have any suggestions as to how students and recent graduates can find more helpful stories.

Sheila: Well, coming to webinars like this, and Forte Foundation presentations on campus, is a great start.

Sara: Yes, and many listeners may be unaware that Forte also has a section on its website called “Girl Talk”.  That’s a place to continue the kinds of discussions we’re having in this webinar.  What else, Sheila?

Sheila:  I can’t say enough about the value of informational interviewing to get career advice from those more experienced, who’ve already made their mistakes. Many women are shy about reaching out for this kind of advice, but you just have to. Sometimes if you concentrate on asking questions about someone else’s career, you’ll be less self-conscious.

Sara: Who can you go to for informational interviews?

Sheila: A good place to start is with your existing connections:  aunts, uncles, business colleagues of your parents. But you also have to mine your alumni network, and events where alumni come back and share their career histories.  Those are particularly helpful if you can wangle a way to be a host.  You may also find your career center a great source of referrals and information.

Sara: Can you talk about what students and young alums might get from your book.

Sheila.  Absolutely. Thousands of people have found my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads:  Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career to be really inspirational. That’s because it talks about careers in context.  Smart Moves contains the stories of 23 fairly recent grads who found work they loved, and tells of the smart moves they took to become successful. (It also talks about some dumb moves, that you would hopefully avoid!)

Sara:  How does your book relate to business?

Sheila:  Actually the advice in the book is applicable to a career search in any career field, and quite a few of the people we profiled went on to get an MBA. When the book was used in the Engineering department at Duke, they changed the name to Smart Moves for Engineering Grads! It could easily be called Smart Moves for Business.

Sara: We’re getting close to the end of the formal portion of this webinar, so Sheila, do you want to recap the smart career moves our audience should be thinking about?

Sheila:  Yes, there are essentially three things to always keep in mind while you’re going through the job search:

First:  Keep a positive attitude—no matter what happens

Second:  Be focused on what you want to do and where you can add value and

Third: Design a custom strategy for your career search and for any position in which you’re interested.

Sara:  So any final words of wisdom?

Sheila:  If there’s anything I want students and recent graduates to know, it’s this:  The unemployment rate may be creeping up, but the unemployment rate for college grads is typically about half the national average.  There are jobs out there, and there are smart moves you can make to get them.

So don’t hyperventilate; don’t feel you have to go to graduate school to wait out the recession.  Know yourself and your skills so well that you can go out there and wow your future employer.

Good Luck!

Getting References for the Stealth Job Search

Q. I’m a mid-level manager who has had five bosses in eight years, and an ever-changing set of goals.  After seven years of stellar evaluations, I just received a review that convinces me I need to leave.  How should I handle references?

A. Life is too short to stay with an unappreciative boss. You’re wise to consider moving on.

Your potential new employer (let’s call her Susan) will want to talk to your current supervisor.  You can deal with this in a couple of ways.  First, you should alert Susan that your current employer doesn’t know you’re looking and a premature announcement might make life difficult. Alert her to the fact that this supervisor has been there a short time and does not know you well.  Tell Susan you’d appreciate her not calling your current organization unless you’re a finalist, and ask her to get in touch with you first.  (If she won’t respect that request, you don’t want to work there, anyway.)  You might also offer an alternative: your past written reviews.

Often, future employers will leave your current supervisor for last when calling references.  If you choose your references wisely, Susan may not feel the need to delve further.  How do you do that?  First, pick people who know your work broadly and deeply.  Former supervisors are best, or senior-level managers who understand your situation. Second, find references who can counteract possible perceived weaknesses.  If leadership is a critical component of the new position but you believe your current boss would criticize you in this area, find a reference who thinks you’re a great leader. This is a time when you can be damned with faint praise.

What if you keep coming up number two?  At some point, you may feel the need to leave your current situation even if you don’t have another job.  It’s worth getting professional advice about how you can move on – preferably with a decent severance package.  And don’t forget to negotiate exactly what the organization will say about you.  Good luck.

Philosophy Majors: Get a Job!

The Class of 2009 must be cursing their collective bad luck. For their entire college career, they’ve watched employers wooing their older classmates with promises of high salaries and signing bonuses, but now some of the biggest recruiters are not just gone from campus. They’re gone. Period.

I’ve worked with students through several economic downturns, and there are always winners and losers in the employment game. The spoils this year go to the graduates with smarts, strong technical skills, and—most important–relevant work or internship experience.

The cruel irony is that the “losers” in 2009 are often the ones who, since they were in diapers, have been told they were the best and the brightest. Armed with self-confidence, stellar SAT scores, and ambition, they matriculated at some of the top colleges in the U.S., majoring in subjects like English, history, and philosophy.

Contrary to the general assumption, these students never intended to become writers or historians or philosophers. A significant proportion saw their education as a great preparation for a career in business—especially if they supplemented their majors with a minor in computer science or economics. Now they’re not so sure.

DUBIOUS PARENTAL AND FACULTY ADVICE

Students fitting this profile in the late 1990s would have catapulted themselves to the top of the career ladder by naming themselves CEO and authoring their new dot-com business plan on the back of an envelope. Since the tech bubble burst, this type of student has been increasingly drawn to the pay, prestige, and intellectual challenge of investment banking and management consulting. These two career fields rarely employed more than 20% of a university’s graduating class, but their firms’ recruiting seal of approval became synonymous with the perceived quality of the academic institution.

So what now for the liberal arts student? Not only are finance and consulting opportunities in short supply; the rest of the employment landscape is also bleak. In the past 12 months, more than 1 million college grads have lost their jobs and will be competing for many of the same entry-level opportunities as the 2009 graduates. And, to make matters worse, a recent survey by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute indicated that only 6% of employers want to hire humanities or liberal arts majors, and only 5% seek graduates with social science degrees. Given the dire news, it’s small wonder that a large number of soon-to-be-graduates are sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding anything that smacks of the real world.

Many 2009 graduates are being aided and abetted in their retreat from reality by an unlikely alliance: parents and faculty. The dubious advice they are being given is to “wait out the recession” and go to graduate school. For faculty, it’s a no-brainer to encourage some of the brightest minds to stay in the academy—especially since they may honestly believe it’s for the good of the student. The reasons that parents give this advice are often a little more complicated.

IS A MASTER’S WORTH IT?

Parents of 2009 graduates have been more involved in their children’s education than at any other time in history. Throughout grade school and high school, they have nurtured their children’s talents, found tutors when necessary, and guided extra-curricular activities so their sons and daughters would find success in the college application sweepstakes. The reward for their efforts? A hefty bill for tuition and expenses that often exceeds $150,000. The expected quid pro quo for such an investment has been post-graduate professional success for their offspring. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, is unacceptable.

Many parents also assume that a graduate degree [in liberal arts or social sciences] will automatically confer an economic advantage to their sons and daughters. A quick glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart shows what appears to be a clear correlation between education and salary. Crunch a couple of numbers and you find a 25% economic benefit to a master’s degree over a bachelor’s degree and a 55% pay differential between those with just a bachelor’s degree and those with a professional degree.

The devil, of course, is in the details. In a September 2007 article, “Is your degree worth $1 million—or worthless?” author Liz Pulliam Weston attempts to calculate the actual value of particular types of degrees over a lifetime. Her conclusions are generally consistent with what I have observed. One of her most notable findings: Recipients of masters degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences actually gained no economic value from further education.

On the other hand, Ms. Weston clearly illustrates the benefits of a professional degree. She calculates that over a lifetime, an MBA graduate will make $375,000 more than if she had simply finished her education with a bachelor’s degree. That’s an impressive figure, so why not encourage new grads to get an MBA? Trick question. Most schools will rarely accept candidates for an MBA without at least two to three years of experience. In fact, the average number of years of work experience for students in business school is typically around five.

“TRANSITION” DEGREES

Students could find an international business school that might accept them immediately after graduation, but they’d be missing out on something U.S. schools consider very important: the ability to put business education in context and to bring real world problems and solutions to the table.

The financial advantage of an MBA is also tempered by the actual, and lost opportunity, costs of attending. With more than $100,000 of debt at stake—often on top of undergraduate loans—graduates need to be 100% sure about the value of an MBA for their chosen career field before signing on the dotted line. An MBA degree might be a real plus for someone interested in nonprofit management, but the economic equation may not make sense.

A number of schools, including Case Western Reserve (Case Western MBA Profile), have started masters programs designed specifically to give liberal arts grads a background in business. Located in the university’s business school and lasting a year or less, these programs can be very popular with students who like the idea of a “transition” degree which orients them more towards the business world. Unfortunately, these degrees are expensive and are often not well understood outside academia. Employers typically recruit at the undergraduate or the MBA level but don’t know what to do with the student who does not naturally fit into either category. A better option might be to consider an intense short-term program, like the Tuck Business Bridge program atDartmouth College (Tuck MBA Program).

“GET A JOB, ANY JOB”

Listening to my cautionary tales about graduate school and the job market, it would be easy to descend into despair. But new graduates have always been able to find jobs even in the worst recessions. As a 1973 graduate with a degree in Russian and Persian and no money, I discovered first-hand how to survive. This year’s graduates will do likewise. Employment opportunities do exist, and the proactive job seeker will hunt them down, using connections and resources to expand the scope of his or her search. Graduates with large debt loads and an immediate need for employment will likely show everyone else the way to success in this recession.

I recently asked three employers what they recommend students do if they are interested in going into an area of business after they graduate. All three agreed that students need to get experience, not more education. One went as far as to say “get a job, any job, even McDonald’s.” The point is, in this economy your GPA or your SAT score may be less important than your experience and your attitude. Arrogance is out; humility is in.

Companies these days can afford to be picky. They want to know whether you can do the job that they need to have done. If you’re a liberal arts grad, you’ll have to take the extra steps necessary to show the relevance of your education. Sometimes that means focusing the employer’s attention less on the subject matter of your degree and more on your internships or extra-curricular activities. However challenging the job market, the savvy job hunter will always find creative ways to make the hiring case, and in doing so, stand out from the crowd.

Addressing Brown University students in a careers program during a past recession, the late Frank Newman announced to his audience that they were graduating at the best of times. What he meant was that the graduate who can successfully find opportunities when times are bad will be well positioned for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. I believe that’s excellent advice for the Class of 2009.

Revolution in Career Services

In this article, Sheila Curran, President of Curran Career Consulting, and Steve Goldenberg, CEO of Interfolio, share a candid and provocative discussion on the future of career services in colleges and universities.

Steve: Students graduating in 2009 are facing bleak employment prospects. Are Careers offices prepared for the onslaught of demand from worried students and laid-off graduates?

Sheila: That’s an interesting question, because in all the articles I’ve read about the impact of the economy on graduate hiring, I have only once seen reference to worried students flocking to career services. Contrary to conventional wisdom, in prior recessions, the number of visits to career services offices often fell compared to traffic during good times. And I haven’t heard of any student government organization demanding more assistance for their constituents.

Steve: Why are students not seeing the handwriting of unemployment on the wall?

Sheila: Probably the first reason is that many fall career fairs—and even some held in the winter—were full. To students, employers at career fairs means available jobs. But in late 2008, many employers were hedging their bets, not knowing where the economy was heading. The second reason students aren’t going to their career services office is that they may not be convinced that there is anything these offices can do to help.

Steve: Well, are they right? Can career services offices really do much to help when the whole economy is tanking?

Sheila: Absolutely, but they’ll need a completely different approach. Most colleges have now started doing seminars on finding jobs in a down economy, and that’s great, but it’s not enough. Careers offices need to re-invent themselves, just like they advise their laid-off clients.

Steve: Are you talking about a short-term fix to deal with this economy, or do you have something completely different in mind?

Sheila: Actually, I’m calling for a revolution in the way business is done in career services. The new model would be effective in both good economic times and bad, but its benefits would be immediately apparent.

Steve: And you’d implement this new plan now, when career services offices are under intense pressure to provide more with less? That sounds a little crazy.

Sheila: Absolutely. Here’s why. This recession is different. First, every area of the economy is affected, and probably will be for some time. We’re not only looking at large scale unemployment of college grads immediately after graduation, but also the continued unemployment or underemployment of thousands of college grads for some time to come. Remember, significantly over a million students will graduate this spring, trying to be absorbed into an economy where close to a million college grads lost their jobs in the past year.

My second point, which is probably even more important, is this: Parents who foot the bill are increasingly concerned about the value of their investment in higher education. Their involvement in their children’s futures is not surprising: The average cost of a four-year college education increased at a rate of 5.6% (2.9% above the rate of inflation) between 1998 and 2008. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education 2008 Almanac, the average annual cost for tuition, fees, and accommodation in 2007-2008 exceeded $35,000, and a number of colleges have now crossed the $50K a year threshold.

Steve: That makes sense, but it still makes me wonder how any office could organize itself to give its students or graduates an edge.

Sheila: It’s possible, but it’s not easy. A pre-requisite is university leadership that values the success of its students and graduates. Given that support, career services offices need to change the way they do business. Typically, careers offices are set up so that they are the hub: employers come to them and students come to them. At the end of the revolution that I advocate, careers offices will have much less control, but they’ll be much more effective. Step one is identifying and concentrating on core competencies. Step two is getting out ahead of the game. And step three is building and facilitating a career community.

Steve: I want you to go through your steps in detail, but before you do, are you saying that if something is not a core competency, a career services office should give it up?

Sheila: You’re absolutely right. Giving up programs, services and activities has always been difficult for colleges and universities, but this is the time to bite the bullet. Besides, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the task won’t be done, just that the careers office will not devote time to doing it.

Steve: I need an example.

Sheila: You probably provide the best example, Steve. Ten years ago, if colleges offered a credentials services, they probably offered it in-house through their career services office. Initially there was a lot of suspicion about whether companies like Interfolio could do as good a job as the in-house service. But taking your company as an example, it’s clear that not only can outsourcing save money, it can also provide additional, value-added services to its clients. Almost all careers offices do some outsourcing right now—usually in the form of a recruiting system—but there are other areas of untapped potential for outsourcing. For example, how many colleges have thought about outsourcing the administration of their on-campus interview scheduling or their career fair management? And how many universities re-invent the wheel every year producing career content that is readily available for free on the web. The bottom line is, if something is not your core competency, or if another entity does the same task more efficiently or effectively, careers offices need to consider changing how they do business.

Steve: What do you say to those career directors who don’t want to lay off the person who’s been performing the task in house?

Sheila: In my new model, the careers office would still have just as many staff; they’d just be working on different tasks. So I’d say this to the career director:  If your credentials person is a great performer, re-train her for one of the new roles. Preparing students for careers is not rocket science. It will, however, require that staff embrace change and continuous education.

Steve: OK, let’s move on to your second point: Getting out ahead of the game. What does that mean?

Sheila: Any good public relations firm will advise that when you have bad news, you need to talk about it before it hits the media. The effect of the economy on the class of 2009 is not an exactly analogous situation, because the bad news is not focused on one particular university, but there are still enormous benefits to identifying the problem as early as possible and explaining how you’ll deal with it. Places like Babson College in Boston started a communication campaign months ago. Not coincidentally, they also have a plan to reach out to all their graduates and a commitment to help them until they find work. Few colleges have been as proactive as Babson, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late. Students need to know that the college or university has a vested interest in their success, and that there is some kind of service safety net. I recently picked two students for dinner and asked them how they were doing. Met with complete silence, I probed further. It turns out they were incredibly worried about their internship and job searches, but felt totally alone. The successful careers office will make communication, concern and commitment to students the building blocks upon which they fashion programs and initiatives.

Steve: Are you talking about a proactive approach just for seniors?

Sheila: No, although it’s certainly essential to address the current needs of the class of 2009. What I’d like to see is an emphasis from the day a student sets foot on campus on developing interests and values, and taking advantage of opportunities. I’m a firm believer that the student who makes the most of education—inside and outside the classroom– is the one who is best prepared for whatever they choose to do after graduation. We need to make it the norm for students to not know what they want to do when they leave college and for the whole university or college to support their career development.

Steve: So getting out ahead of the game means communicating expectations about college and career from the time a student matriculates, and articulating the responsibilities of both student and institution?

Sheila: Yes, but the proactive approach must go way beyond setting expectations about how a student can get from college to a career they love. Careers offices must take the initiative to understand the organizations and industries in which their students are likely to be interested. And it can’t just be done through internet research. Careers staff have to get out and talk to employers and help employers determine where there might be a good pipeline of potential employees from a particular college. Essentially, I’m saying Careers offices need to add sales to their portfolio of skills.

Steve: I can imagine you’ll have a lot of pushback on that idea.

Sheila: Absolutely. Someone who is trained as a traditional career counselor may be uncomfortable in a role that asks them to promote their students to employers—even if the promotion is not of specific students but of students with certain characteristics and educational background. In many Careers offices it may be possible to limit the “sales” role to one of two people, and keep the traditional career counselor role the same. But there are enormous benefits to having an entrepreneurial and outward-looking philosophy pervade the whole careers arena.

Steve: I’ve always been a big fan of entrepreneurship. What does entrepreneurship mean in the context of a Careers office?

Sheila: It means we recognize that the careers world is constantly changing, and that we need to adapt with it. Different generations approach work differently. Employers, even Fortune 100 companies, come and go. Careers will exist next year that aren’t even on our radar screen today. The careers world is a fascinating place to be. But it’s not one where we can ever sit still and say “well, we’ve got that one down”. If we are not entrepreneurial in the way we help our students, we’ve lost the battle. I think there’s general agreement now that we must train students not just for their first job, but for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. In the Careers office, we need to exhibit the same kind of flexibility and entrepreneurial attitude that we encourage in our clients.

Steve: This sounds like you’re advocating that Careers office staff act very differently from most university employees.

Sheila: You’re right. It’s the job of the Careers office to help students recognize how their educational experiences connect to their lives after college. Careers staff will never be taken seriously by their academic colleagues until they can prove that they understand the value of the education students receive.

Steve: That’s easy to do when a student studies a pre-professional subject like nursing or accounting. But isn’t it much more difficult when someone is studying a liberal arts subject? I know you got a bachelor’s degree in Russian and Persian. Is there really a case to be made for why that’s a good background for the work you do?

Sheila: The connection between a liberal arts degree and a career is definitely much less obvious when the subject matter of that degree is not the content of a person’s career. But I think we concentrate way too much on the subject matter of a student’s degree. All Careers staff need to be able to articulate what skills and characteristics a student can gain through education in and out of the classroom, and the ways in which students will need to supplement that education with experience in order to be qualified for the positions they seek. What I’m really advocating when I say that Careers offices need to get out ahead of the game is that they take the initiative to help both employers and students identify how they can meet each other’s needs. That doesn’t happen automatically. And it’s a place where Careers staff can really make a difference.

Steve: Let’s move on to your third point: Building a career community.

Sheila: I start from a very strong viewpoint that most Careers offices can’t get there from here.

Steve: OK. I’ll bite. Where’s the “there” that Careers offices can’t get to?

Sheila: I’m talking about mission “scope creep”. Most Careers office missions I’ve read are essentially missions impossible, trying to offer comprehensive services to undergraduates, graduate students and alumni. Even taking alumni out of the equation, the ratio of professional staff to students is about 1 to 1000 in private schools and 1:2000+ in public institutions. Yet, most offices still aim to provide in-person advising and counseling. With the lack of staff, it’s no wonder that most Careers offices get mediocre results in university-wide surveys.

Steve: Are you making the case for more staff?

Sheila: Absolutely, but the reality is that’s not going to happen in this economy—unless, of course, you happen to be in a business school that wants to increase its standing in the rankings. For most schools, I believe the only way to give students the services and expertise they need is to build a career community.

Steve: How does that work?

Most colleges and universities have alumni, parents and friends who are devoted to the school and would enjoy advising students about the career field in which they’re involved. Many times, schools have a formal alumni network, but what I advocate is a much more comprehensive initiative that is actively managed by the Careers office. Members of the Career Community would be tapped to give presentations on specific career fields; advise students one-on-one in their area of expertise; promote students to their companies; and source employment opportunities.

Steve: It sounds like a great idea, but how do you ensure that the Career Community gives good advice?

Sheila: The key is that the Career Community would be made up of individuals with whom Careers staff already have, or are prepared to build, a relationship. It would certainly be helpful to have Community members start providing service on a pilot basis, and it’s important that students have the opportunity to rate their advice and assistance.
Steve: I imagine building a Career Community would be very time intensive for staff.

Sheila: You’re right, but it’s worth shifting some staff responsibilities, or eliminating less useful programs, in order to facilitate relationships with volunteers and expand Careers staff knowledge.

Steve: Wouldn’t a Career Community be expensive?

Sheila: Since the Career Community members would be volunteers, the only financial outlay would be for training and appreciation events. A Career Community provides an incredible engagement opportunity for alumni, so it might be possible to gain some funding from the Alumni Association or Development Office.

Steve: It seems that these offices would be natural allies of the Careers office, anyway.

Sheila: You’re right, but in a recent poll I conducted, almost two thirds of Alumni and Careers offices claimed to collaborate only occasionally or rarely.

Steve: How do you propose a Careers office remedy that?

Sheila: The Careers office of the future needs to be a key player on the institutional stage. It needs to articulate to senior administrators its value and the areas for which it can be held accountable. When these leaders understand that the Careers office can be a strategic advantage, they will be much more likely to appreciate and promote the value of a coordinated effort to enhance the success of graduates.

A couple of years ago at the first Career Summit at Duke, my Vice President of Student Affairs, Larry Moneta, asked the group to articulate why Careers offices were relevant. The fact is, senior university leadership is going to demand that Careers offices prove their worth.

Steve: Once colleges and universities have stopped slashing budgets, do you think that careers offices will get back to business as usual?

Sheila: The short answer is “no”. Over the past thirty years, careers have changed out of all recognition and parental demands for an economic value to their tuition investment have increased to a fever pitch. We can no longer “tweak” an outdated model. It’s time for revolution.

Revolution in Career Services

In this article, Sheila Curran, President of Curran Career Consulting, and Steve Goldenberg, CEO of Interfolio, share a candid and provocative discussion on the future of career services in colleges and universities.

Steve: Students graduating in 2009 are facing bleak employment prospects. Are Careers offices prepared for the onslaught of demand from worried students and laid-off graduates?

Sheila: That’s an interesting question, because in all the articles I’ve read about the impact of the economy on graduate hiring, I have only once seen reference to worried students flocking to career services. Contrary to conventional wisdom, in prior recessions, the number of visits to career services offices often fell compared to traffic during good times. And I haven’t heard of any student government organization demanding more assistance for their constituents.

Steve: Why are students not seeing the handwriting of unemployment on the wall?

Sheila: Probably the first reason is that many fall career fairs—and even some held in the winter—were full. To students, employers at career fairs means available jobs. But in late 2008, many employers were hedging their bets, not knowing where the economy was heading. The second reason students aren’t going to their career services office is that they may not be convinced that there is anything these offices can do to help.

Steve: Well, are they right? Can career services offices really do much to help when the whole economy is tanking?

Sheila: Absolutely, but they’ll need a completely different approach. Most colleges have now started doing seminars on finding jobs in a down economy, and that’s great, but it’s not enough. Careers offices need to re-invent themselves, just like they advise their laid-off clients.

Steve: Are you talking about a short-term fix to deal with this economy, or do you have something completely different in mind?

Sheila: Actually, I’m calling for a revolution in the way business is done in career services. The new model would be effective in both good economic times and bad, but its benefits would be immediately apparent.

Steve: And you’d implement this new plan now, when career services offices are under intense pressure to provide more with less? That sounds a little crazy.

Sheila: Absolutely. Here’s why. This recession is different. First, every area of the economy is affected, and probably will be for some time. We’re not only looking at large scale unemployment of college grads immediately after graduation, but also the continued unemployment or underemployment of thousands of college grads for some time to come. Remember, significantly over a million students will graduate this spring, trying to be absorbed into an economy where close to a million college grads lost their jobs in the past year.

My second point, which is probably even more important, is this: Parents who foot the bill are increasingly concerned about the value of their investment in higher education. Their involvement in their children’s futures is not surprising: The average cost of a four-year college education increased at a rate of 5.6% (2.9% above the rate of inflation) between 1998 and 2008. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education 2008 Almanac, the average annual cost for tuition, fees, and accommodation in 2007-2008 exceeded $35,000, and a number of colleges have now crossed the $50K a year threshold.

Steve: That makes sense, but it still makes me wonder how any office could organize itself to give its students or graduates an edge.

Sheila: It’s possible, but it’s not easy. A pre-requisite is university leadership that values the success of its students and graduates. Given that support, career services offices need to change the way they do business. Typically, careers offices are set up so that they are the hub: employers come to them and students come to them. At the end of the revolution that I advocate, careers offices will have much less control, but they’ll be much more effective. Step one is identifying and concentrating on core competencies. Step two is getting out ahead of the game. And step three is building and facilitating a career community.

Steve: I want you to go through your steps in detail, but before you do, are you saying that if something is not a core competency, a career services office should give it up?

Sheila: You’re absolutely right. Giving up programs, services and activities has always been difficult for colleges and universities, but this is the time to bite the bullet. Besides, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the task won’t be done, just that the careers office will not devote time to doing it.

Steve: I need an example.

Sheila: You probably provide the best example, Steve. Ten years ago, if colleges offered a credentials services, they probably offered it in-house through their career services office. Initially there was a lot of suspicion about whether companies like Interfolio could do as good a job as the in-house service. But taking your company as an example, it’s clear that not only can outsourcing save money, it can also provide additional, value-added services to its clients. Almost all careers offices do some outsourcing right now—usually in the form of a recruiting system—but there are other areas of untapped potential for outsourcing. For example, how many colleges have thought about outsourcing the administration of their on-campus interview scheduling or their career fair management? And how many universities re-invent the wheel every year producing career content that is readily available for free on the web. The bottom line is, if something is not your core competency, or if another entity does the same task more efficiently or effectively, careers offices need to consider changing how they do business.

Steve: What do you say to those career directors who don’t want to lay off the person who’s been performing the task in house?

Sheila: In my new model, the careers office would still have just as many staff; they’d just be working on different tasks. So I’d say this to the career director:  If your credentials person is a great performer, re-train her for one of the new roles. Preparing students for careers is not rocket science. It will, however, require that staff embrace change and continuous education.

Steve: OK, let’s move on to your second point: Getting out ahead of the game. What does that mean?

Sheila: Any good public relations firm will advise that when you have bad news, you need to talk about it before it hits the media. The effect of the economy on the class of 2009 is not an exactly analogous situation, because the bad news is not focused on one particular university, but there are still enormous benefits to identifying the problem as early as possible and explaining how you’ll deal with it. Places like Babson College in Boston started a communication campaign months ago. Not coincidentally, they also have a plan to reach out to all their graduates and a commitment to help them until they find work. Few colleges have been as proactive as Babson, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late. Students need to know that the college or university has a vested interest in their success, and that there is some kind of service safety net. I recently picked two students for dinner and asked them how they were doing. Met with complete silence, I probed further. It turns out they were incredibly worried about their internship and job searches, but felt totally alone. The successful careers office will make communication, concern and commitment to students the building blocks upon which they fashion programs and initiatives.

Steve: Are you talking about a proactive approach just for seniors?

Sheila: No, although it’s certainly essential to address the current needs of the class of 2009. What I’d like to see is an emphasis from the day a student sets foot on campus on developing interests and values, and taking advantage of opportunities. I’m a firm believer that the student who makes the most of education—inside and outside the classroom– is the one who is best prepared for whatever they choose to do after graduation. We need to make it the norm for students to not know what they want to do when they leave college and for the whole university or college to support their career development.

Steve: So getting out ahead of the game means communicating expectations about college and career from the time a student matriculates, and articulating the responsibilities of both student and institution?

Sheila: Yes, but the proactive approach must go way beyond setting expectations about how a student can get from college to a career they love. Careers offices must take the initiative to understand the organizations and industries in which their students are likely to be interested. And it can’t just be done through internet research. Careers staff have to get out and talk to employers and help employers determine where there might be a good pipeline of potential employees from a particular college. Essentially, I’m saying Careers offices need to add sales to their portfolio of skills.

Steve: I can imagine you’ll have a lot of pushback on that idea.

Sheila: Absolutely. Someone who is trained as a traditional career counselor may be uncomfortable in a role that asks them to promote their students to employers—even if the promotion is not of specific students but of students with certain characteristics and educational background. In many Careers offices it may be possible to limit the “sales” role to one of two people, and keep the traditional career counselor role the same. But there are enormous benefits to having an entrepreneurial and outward-looking philosophy pervade the whole careers arena.

Steve: I’ve always been a big fan of entrepreneurship. What does entrepreneurship mean in the context of a Careers office?

Sheila: It means we recognize that the careers world is constantly changing, and that we need to adapt with it. Different generations approach work differently. Employers, even Fortune 100 companies, come and go. Careers will exist next year that aren’t even on our radar screen today. The careers world is a fascinating place to be. But it’s not one where we can ever sit still and say “well, we’ve got that one down”. If we are not entrepreneurial in the way we help our students, we’ve lost the battle. I think there’s general agreement now that we must train students not just for their first job, but for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. In the Careers office, we need to exhibit the same kind of flexibility and entrepreneurial attitude that we encourage in our clients.

Steve: This sounds like you’re advocating that Careers office staff act very differently from most university employees.

Sheila: You’re right. It’s the job of the Careers office to help students recognize how their educational experiences connect to their lives after college. Careers staff will never be taken seriously by their academic colleagues until they can prove that they understand the value of the education students receive.

Steve: That’s easy to do when a student studies a pre-professional subject like nursing or accounting. But isn’t it much more difficult when someone is studying a liberal arts subject? I know you got a bachelor’s degree in Russian and Persian. Is there really a case to be made for why that’s a good background for the work you do?

Sheila: The connection between a liberal arts degree and a career is definitely much less obvious when the subject matter of that degree is not the content of a person’s career. But I think we concentrate way too much on the subject matter of a student’s degree. All Careers staff need to be able to articulate what skills and characteristics a student can gain through education in and out of the classroom, and the ways in which students will need to supplement that education with experience in order to be qualified for the positions they seek. What I’m really advocating when I say that Careers offices need to get out ahead of the game is that they take the initiative to help both employers and students identify how they can meet each other’s needs. That doesn’t happen automatically. And it’s a place where Careers staff can really make a difference.

Steve: Let’s move on to your third point: Building a career community.

Sheila: I start from a very strong viewpoint that most Careers offices can’t get there from here.

Steve: OK. I’ll bite. Where’s the “there” that Careers offices can’t get to?

Sheila: I’m talking about mission “scope creep”. Most Careers office missions I’ve read are essentially missions impossible, trying to offer comprehensive services to undergraduates, graduate students and alumni. Even taking alumni out of the equation, the ratio of professional staff to students is about 1 to 1000 in private schools and 1:2000+ in public institutions. Yet, most offices still aim to provide in-person advising and counseling. With the lack of staff, it’s no wonder that most Careers offices get mediocre results in university-wide surveys.

Steve: Are you making the case for more staff?

Sheila: Absolutely, but the reality is that’s not going to happen in this economy—unless, of course, you happen to be in a business school that wants to increase its standing in the rankings. For most schools, I believe the only way to give students the services and expertise they need is to build a career community.

Steve: How does that work?

Most colleges and universities have alumni, parents and friends who are devoted to the school and would enjoy advising students about the career field in which they’re involved. Many times, schools have a formal alumni network, but what I advocate is a much more comprehensive initiative that is actively managed by the Careers office. Members of the Career Community would be tapped to give presentations on specific career fields; advise students one-on-one in their area of expertise; promote students to their companies; and source employment opportunities.

Steve: It sounds like a great idea, but how do you ensure that the Career Community gives good advice?

Sheila: The key is that the Career Community would be made up of individuals with whom Careers staff already have, or are prepared to build, a relationship. It would certainly be helpful to have Community members start providing service on a pilot basis, and it’s important that students have the opportunity to rate their advice and assistance.
Steve: I imagine building a Career Community would be very time intensive for staff.

Sheila: You’re right, but it’s worth shifting some staff responsibilities, or eliminating less useful programs, in order to facilitate relationships with volunteers and expand Careers staff knowledge.

Steve: Wouldn’t a Career Community be expensive?

Sheila: Since the Career Community members would be volunteers, the only financial outlay would be for training and appreciation events. A Career Community provides an incredible engagement opportunity for alumni, so it might be possible to gain some funding from the Alumni Association or Development Office.

Steve: It seems that these offices would be natural allies of the Careers office, anyway.

Sheila: You’re right, but in a recent poll I conducted, almost two thirds of Alumni and Careers offices claimed to collaborate only occasionally or rarely.

Steve: How do you propose a Careers office remedy that?

Sheila: The Careers office of the future needs to be a key player on the institutional stage. It needs to articulate to senior administrators its value and the areas for which it can be held accountable. When these leaders understand that the Careers office can be a strategic advantage, they will be much more likely to appreciate and promote the value of a coordinated effort to enhance the success of graduates.

A couple of years ago at the first Career Summit at Duke, my Vice President of Student Affairs, Larry Moneta, asked the group to articulate why Careers offices were relevant. The fact is, senior university leadership is going to demand that Careers offices prove their worth.

Steve: Once colleges and universities have stopped slashing budgets, do you think that careers offices will get back to business as usual?

Sheila: The short answer is “no”. Over the past thirty years, careers have changed out of all recognition and parental demands for an economic value to their tuition investment have increased to a fever pitch. We can no longer “tweak” an outdated model. It’s time for revolution.

Graduate Unemployment: The Threat to Higher Education

Fiscal year, 2009, will go down in the annals of history as one of the most difficult for higher education. Many colleges and universities have had to trim to the bone, collectively shedding thousands of positions, while they try to beef up financial aid budgets. A great deal of attention has been paid to managing the economic ramifications caused by falling endowments and high tuition.

But few colleges have addressed a related threat on the horizon: the inevitability of post-graduate unemployment. Prospects for high paying, high prestige jobs in finance are already as rare as a seven-figure donor. Outside of finance, the employment outlook is better, but realistically can be described as gloomy. And the bad news holds true, whether the student is completing undergraduate, graduate or professional school.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that significantly more than one million college graduates over the age of 25 lost their jobs in FY09, pushing the unemployment rate for their cohort to 4.8% in June, precisely double the rate of June, 2008. And, the unemployment rate for those new graduates currently seeking jobs is already at 10.8%.

Higher education might be tempted to avoid the issue of rising graduate unemployment and place its faith in the Career Services department to alleviate student anxiety about the future. Across the country, students are being advised to start their career searches early and be more flexible in their attitudes towards opportunities. But these initiatives, however valuable, are not enough. A situation of this magnitude requires a response from senior leadership at colleges and universities.

There are compelling reasons why higher education needs to address the impending career crisis. No college wants to field calls from hundreds of graduates (or their parents) who will be incapable of paying off student loans. Nor do they want to see their unemployed graduates profiled in the local or national media. For many schools, the career success of students also affects core issues like matriculation and retention.

In the summer of 2007, a leading educational research company, Eduventures, surveyed more than 5,500 freshmen and high school seniors about the factors that were important to them when choosing a college. Sixty percent, not surprisingly, considered the school’s overall academic reputation to be one of the top three factors. But an almost equal percentage cited the expectation that the school would prepare them for their careers.

The Eduventures data appears to suggest that students—and their parents—are willing to overlook the high cost of education if they believe there is an economic value to a degree. Students applying to college in 2009 are likely to carefully scrutinize the career outcomes for a particular institution. An expensive college whose graduates are still consistently unemployed may end up losing prospective matriculants to a public institution, or to a college that has found ways to mitigate the adverse effects of a poor economy.

The career crisis will undoubtedly be felt as we move into fall, but the problems for universities may begin much sooner, in the form of retention issues. Students, particularly those who attend school while working, may reconsider the wisdom of incurring substantial debt without a guarantee of a better position after graduation.

A recent advertisement for a part-time receptionist position in Rhode Island drew over one hundred applicants, a high proportion of whom were college graduates. Students who see recent graduates from their school accepting jobs that do not require college degrees may question their own educational investment.

So what is a college of university to do?

The first step is to recognize that graduate career success is essential to the long-term health of any institution of higher education. Even if matriculation and retention are not problems, the career success of alumni drives donations to the college and volunteer involvement.

Now, more than ever, colleges and universities must communicate their vision of graduate success, and take steps to ensure that desired outcomes are achieved—regardless of the economy. Bold career leadership is required to exploit opportunities for institutional impact on a student long after graduation, while addressing immediate career issues.

Second, universities must appreciate the value of a coordinated approach to career development–one that integrates the experiences of the student in and out of the classroom, and incorporates service learning, study abroad, athletics, student leadership, mentored research and internships. Currently, the divisions that house each of these functions often act more like silos than collaborators, leading to duplication of effort and confusion.

The recommendation to involve different areas in no way implies that everything that happens on a college campus is career-related, or that the academic agenda needs to be changed. Rather, it is recognition that without high-level oversight and common understanding, it will be more difficult to achieve post-graduate career success.

Third, colleges and universities must capitalize on their own resources. Many academic institutions have networks of alumni who have volunteered to give career advice to students and alumni. This is the time to expand the networks to include parents and friends, and to build more personal relationships with volunteers. A concerted effort must also be made to prepare students to take advantage of such networks.

A key requirement in this economy is to be aware of a volunteer’s work situation. When a volunteer is well situated, he may enjoy being tapped for job leads and advice. But when the volunteer has, himself, fallen victim to the economy, a college builds extraordinary good will and long term commitment by offering the option of advice for his own career.

Finally, it is important that any new initiative involve professionals in the career services department. These are the people who have their fingers on the pulse of university, student, and employer needs. Given clear goals, they can assist university leaders in designing strategies and initiatives. But they cannot do it alone. There must be an expectation that university departments will work together.

Institutions of higher education are currently facing significant financial restraints. Fortunately, the ability to address the career crisis requires a comparatively small financial investment, or the redistribution of existing funds. What is much more important than money is a new vision for careers and graduate success.

Colleges and universities that deal with increasing demand for career assistance by providing more of the same services to students will forego the benefits that accrue to institutions which adopt a more creative, coordinated, and inclusive approach to careers.

Finding a Job in 2009: A Current Applicant Perspective

There are dire warnings about the employment market for 2009 grads, but what’s the real situation for current job applicants, and how can you make yourself more attractive to employers? Sheila Curran talks with Kesav Mohan, a 2009 graduate of Duke Law School, about law, consulting and entrepreneurship.

Sheila Curran (SC): Many people have predicted that graduates of undergraduate, graduate and professional schools will have a hard time finding work in 2009.  You’re going to be graduating next May with a law degree and have been looking for work.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most difficult time, how bad is the employment situation looking for new grads?

Kesav Mohan (KM): Sadly, I would put the situation at about a 7. The legal field tends to be among the “safest” professions – law students are usually pretty comfortable with their job prospects. Unfortunately, the lack of business activity means that law firms are getting less work. Which means they are hiring less. So I would say that a 7 is pretty accurate.

SC: What kind of work have you been considering?

KM: Law firms and consulting. I’m also launching a new product under my company: cashbackautomator.com. It’s getting some pretty good reviews.

SC: I know you have a good offer to join a law firm. How have things been progressing on the consulting front?

KM: Unfortunately, I didn’t get a consulting job. I made it to the last couple rounds of a couple firms. I was told that if it had been last year, I would have made it farther in the process.

While consulting firms have gone through the motions of hiring, they actually are severely cutting back on how many new hires they take on. The reasons are that they are seeing a lot less attrition from the firms, they are expecting to get less work, and they are seeing a flood of candidates from MBA and undergraduate schools. These candidates tend to be people who had ibanking or other finance jobs, and are now shifting their applications over.

SC: You were successful in getting interviews. Why do you think companies were interested in you?

KM: Bar none, it was the diversity of my experiences. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of varied things – from traveling around the world to owning my own company.

I think it’s important to note that people were more impressed by my “initiative” experiences than anything else. What did I start? Who did it help? What challenges did I face? Any job I have applied for has been impressed by the fact that I’ve sweated to transition so many things from the idea stage to reality.

Ultimately, you need to have a story. I think the biggest mistake that candidates make is not putting themselves in their interviewers’ shoes. Take a look at your resume with a critical eye. Is there anything there that makes you special or standout? If not, you better go find something. And don’t do it right before your interview. Build your life experiences early and often.

There are tons of kids who come from good schools. Or get good grades. Or do [enter typical activity here]. But ultimately, an interviewer has to pick. So the question is – what have you done that is memorable? I’m lucky to have a lot of stories – worked in prisons in South Africa, lived in Ireland, etc.

SC: What insight can you share with candidates interested in consulting positions?

KM: Prepare. You really need to prepare. Get the consulting books and go to as many practice interviews as possible. Frankly, I did a ton…but still didn’t do enough.

Also spend a lot of time doing math in your head. Learn how to round numbers. You will be impressive if you can get the answer to a numbers problem quickly.

SC: What about general job search advice for a deteriorating economy–for undergrads as well as graduate and professional students?

KM: Two things.

First, this is an excellent time to start a business. People always worry about access to capital. But the flip side to a bad economy is that there is a ton of skilled available labor and cheap resources. Good people are willing to work at lower prices, and people are selling a ton of goods.

Second, build a diverse skill set. Start thinking about how to learn skills you wouldn’t normally consider. There are still a ton of jobs out there – but they want people who can do “X”. They more you can prove to employers that you don’t need training to do a particular task, the better.

Kesav Mohan biography:

Kesav graduated from Duke University in 2004 with a self-designed major in Global Justice. He was fortunate to win the George J. Mitchell Scholarship to spend one year in Ireland completing his Masters in International Relations at Dublin City University. He then won the ELI Fellowship, where he spent one year working for non-profits in five different countries: Dubai, Venezuela, Canada, USA, and Ireland. He recently created CashbackAutomator.com.

How can I get a job in finance in 2009?

Question:  I really want to go into finance when I graduate next year.  I know the situation is bad, but there have to be some jobs available.  How can I make myself more competitive?

Answer: To get the inside scoop on jobs in finance, Sheila Curran asked an expert, Dr. Emma Rasiel of Duke University, for her opinion.  In this article, Dr. Rasiel shares insights and essential strategies for graduating seniors.

•••

Sheila Curran: We’ve heard a great deal about problems in the banking industry which are anticipated to continue in 2009.  How has that affected opportunities for new college grads, particularly in the highly-coveted investment banking positions?

Emma Rasiel: Unquestionably the number of available investment banking jobs will be much smaller.  The investment banking industry, and more generally the economy, are expected to continue to contract over the next several months.  Along with these changes come inevitable layoffs at all levels of the financial industry.  While the banks are expected to continue to hire new college grads, they will inevitably hire significantly fewer.

Sheila Curran: Which students still have a shot of being hired this year? What characterizes their background, experience or skills?

Emma Rasiel: Students will need to demonstrate more clearly than ever their genuine and longstanding interest in finance, as well as evidence of considerable preparation. In order to get interviews, students’ resumes will need to indicate academic excellence in a quantitative/analytical field of study, relevant extra-curriculars, and ideally some finance-related work experience.  The era of “taking a chance” on a student with limited relevant background/coursework/experience is over. 

Sheila Curran: Are there areas within investment banks that are easier to enter than others?

Emma Rasiel: As always, the banks will hire more students for Banking and Sales & Trading than for other areas (such as asset management or research).  But I think that the supply of available jobs in all of these areas will have shrunk.

Sheila Curran: If students have the required background and experience, how can they separate themselves from the pack and get the job?

Emma Rasiel: Take the time to read the Wall Street Journal every day and follow the significant stories so that you can talk intelligently about them in interviews.  Try to get an understanding of what has been happening over the last few months, and ways in which it has affected the industry.  There are almost daily stories about the credit/liquidity problem in the news media—read broadly on these, and start to develop your own view of what went wrong.  Some possible explanations include:

  • Greenspan’s loose interest rate policy in the first few years of this decade, following the dot-com boom and bust.
  • The erroneous belief across both Wall Street and Main Street that house prices would always go up.  
  • Predatory lending practices
  • Political short-sightedness in urging Freddie and Fannie to broaden their range of what is “acceptable” borrower income and documentation for a home loan
  • Advances in financial technology, permitting ever more complex and opaque financial securities.
  • Lack of accountability at each level of the lending-securitizing-investing chain.

An ability to talk intelligently about all of these issues, and even better, to have a view on which were essential precursors vs mere exacerbators, will give students the wherewithal to differentiate themselves in interviews.

Sheila Curran: What advice do you have for sophomores and juniors who are hoping to join investment banks after graduation?

Spread your net far more widely than just “traditional” investment banking!  The number of available jobs in the “big banks” has shrunk considerably, but there are other finance jobs out there, in which you can learn similar skills and still get your career off to a great start. Think about mid-market investment banks, private equity, asset management, hedge funds.  It will be harder to find jobs in these institutions, since they are less likely to recruit on campus, so you may have to do your own primary research:

  • Who are they?
  • Where are they located?
  • What is the application process?
  • What skills/experience are they looking for?

On the plus side, students who are willing to go to this extra effort will then clearly differentiate themselves from students who simply wait for these firms to show up on campus—if they do so at all.

Dr. Emma Rasiel is a Professor in the Economics Department at Duke University, as well as the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies. Professor Rasiel completed her PhD in finance at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, in 2003. Prior to beginning the PhD program, she spent seven years at Goldman Sachs, including five years in London as a bond options trader. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and an MA in Mathematics from Oxford University.

What Not To Do In An Interview

How many times have you been rejected after a job interview and wondered what went wrong? And how many times have you been able to get honest feedback about why the job went to someone else? Chances are, no one’s going to tell you the truth.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed thousands of job candidates and many of them were oblivious to the fact that they sabotaged their own job search at some point in the interview process. So I’ll let you into my top secrets of what not to do:

Preparing for the Interview

  • Don’t neglect your research. Being unaware of a big deal involving the company that recently hit the media is a killer. And not spending time on the organization’s website gives the impression that you’re not really interested.
  • Don’t forget to be nice to the receptionist. Receptionists and secretaries hold tremendous hidden power, and are often consulted by much more senior people about their impressions of the candidate. Ignore them at your peril.
  • Don’t use a paid interview trip to do other business. You may have a daughter in Boston whom you’d intended to visit, but if you’re flying there for an interview and your future boss wants to have dinner the night before, the boss comes first.
  • Don’t arrive late. Excuses are just that. Do a dry run before the interview.
  • Don’t use the interview to make a fashion statement—unless you’re convinced that you could never work for an organization that didn’t accept you as you are. The interviewer should remember what you say, not how you dressed.
  • Don’t forget your interview attire. I interviewed one candidate wearing jeans and a t-shirt—the same clothes she’d been wearing when she got on the plane the night before and checked her bags.

During the Interview

Answering Questions

  • Don’t deliver a monologue. Interviews should feel more like conversations than questions followed by speeches. It’s good to have plenty of examples up your sleeve, but try to limit your answers to no more than 20 seconds—enough to get the interviewer interested but not bored.
  • Don’t avoid hard questions, but if they’re leading you in a direction you don’t want to go—such as why you left the job you actually hated—find a way to bring the conversation back into positive territory.
  • Don’t lead with the negative. You may be asked about strengths and weaknesses. Always start with your strengths and end by saying one thing you’re working to improve.
  • Don’t use examples from the same experience or employer for every question. Your answers should demonstrate the breadth of your experience. But remember, examples of qualities like good judgment can come from any part of your background, including volunteer leadership experiences.
  • Don’t write notes in your portfolio during the interview, or read pre-prepared questions from your notebook. Your attention should be on building rapport with the interviewer.
  • Don’t forget to get the interviewer’s business card before you leave, and find a quiet place after the interview to make notes on the back of the card about your interview.

Interview Etiquette

  • Don’t eat with your mouth full. If a meal doubles as an interview, you’ll certainly be evaluated on your etiquette. Since good etiquette, talking and eating don’t go together very well, that means you probably won’t get to eat much. Avoid ordering difficult foods like spaghetti or barbecue ribs. Try ordering a mousse or crème caramel for dessert and at least you’ll be able to sneak a quick bite.
  • Don’t drink. You may be offered an alcoholic beverage, but you can easily decline. You need all your wits about you for an interview.
  • Don’t talk about salary or benefits in an interview until you’re clear the interviewer has gone from “interview” mode to “sell” mode. This isn’t the time to ask about the vacation you’d love to take before you start. If you want to ask about promotion opportunities, don’t make it personal. Instead ask how long it usually takes their best employees to gain additional responsibilities.
  • Don’t badmouth your current (or former) boss, or let on that the real reason you want a new job is because the old one stinks. However cathartic it may be, your inquisitor may be assessing whether the problem was you or the boss. Concentrate on the reasons why you want the new position.
  • Don’t fudge the truth. More often than not, the truth comes out.

After the Interview

  • Don’t forget to formally thank the interviewer—preferably by a personalized hand-written letter—as soon as you can. (The notes you took on his business card will be helpful here.) You’ll have to put professional note cards and stamps in your briefcase before you leave home.
  • Don’t skip the spell-check. If you’re not sure anyone can read your handwriting, or you’re shaky on spelling, write a thank you email rather than a card, and make sure you proof it carefully. Poorly written or careless correspondence can cause even the most interested employer re-think his decision.
  • Don’t misbehave. Crazy as it sounds, some applicants manage to sabotage their job search after they’ve aced the interview. I’ve seen offers rescinded because of unprofessional behavior at a “welcome” party, or because the applicant tried to renegotiate compensation after accepting the position.

If you’re receiving more job rejections than credit card solicitations, chances are you’ve made a few mistakes in interviews. But you don’t have to be perfect. And, if you have the required background and experience, knowing what not to do can be the difference between continuing the job search and landing the perfect position.

Managing Questions about Salary in Interviews

Question: I work in management for a nonprofit, and am interested in a similar job in the private sector.  My potential new employers want to know my current salary. Should I give it to them?

Answer:  There’s an old adage regarding salary negotiation that says “he (or she) who states a number first, loses”.  That’s particularly true when you’re underpaid—for whatever reason.  If you allow your new salary to be based on your current salary, you may be inadvertently giving up thousands of dollars. So how do you avoid the question? First, try to finesse the issue by stating that your requirements are flexible and dependent upon the nature of the position.  You might choose to go further and say that you’d be happy to discuss your salary in a personal interview.  Avoid, at all costs, giving a figure in a letter.  You want your new employer to be excited about you first, not hung up on whether they can afford you.

Second, do your homework and know your worth.  Worth is based on your years of relevant experience and data for the type of organization in which you intend to work. It’s usually expressed as a range, e.g., 45-55K.  You can get an idea of your worth through web sites like salary.com.  Even better, quiz friends who work in the industry.  Armed with this information, you can put your non-profit salary in context.  You’ll also want to know the value of your current benefits, like health insurance or retirement, which are often substantially greater in non-profit than for-profit organizations.

Most important, know that the “sweet spot” of salary negotiation is when your new employer has offered you the job but you haven’t yet accepted.  If you can get to that point without having mentioned a number, you’re golden!

Online Job Sites and The Entry-Level Grad

Question:  I’m a recent  grad who is actively seeking work.  Over the past month, I’ve applied for over fifty jobs through on-line job posting sites.  To date, I haven’t received any interviews, let alone job offers. Should I try a different strategy?

Answer:  Do a Google search on the word “jobs”, and you’ll find literally thousands of websites that list opportunities nationwide.  Given the number of job postings, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of job search security.  After all, you have a good degree and plenty of skills.  Naturally you assume you’ll rise to the top of the hiring list.  Trouble is, hundreds of other recent–and not so recent–grads have exactly the same idea.  You’ve discovered, the hard way, that a plethora of applications doesn’t automatically lead to success, however qualified you may really be.

On-line websites are typically not friendly towards the liberal arts grad, unless you want to go into a high-turnover area such as sales.  They’re custom-designed for the candidate who has a specific background or skills, such as ability to use SQL or Six Sigma.  Companies do key word searches on the criteria they’ve defined.  If those words don’t appear in your resume, your application will be unceremoniously dumped in the electronic garbage can.

So, should you avoid these websites?  Actually, no.  But you need to find a hook.  Use the sites to find out who’s hiring for what type of position.  Then go to the organization’s website and see if you can send in a resume plus a cover letter explaining why you’re a good match for the available position.  Better yet, find a grad from your college within the company who can give you the inside scoop on how to increase your chances of getting hired.

Careers & The College Grad: What’s a Liberal Education Got To Do With It?

Written for the First National Career Summit, hosted by Sheila Curran at Duke University, March, 2006

Introduction

Seventy-two percent of high school seniors perceive professional preparation as a key
driver of educational value. This is according to research conducted by Eduventures, a
Boston-based consulting company. When choosing colleges, these students assess access
to internships, placement record and the quality of the career office. Given these
statistics, it is likely that colleges and universities will increasingly view the careers
office as a strategic partner in attracting students, leading to increased visibility and
funding. However, before those of us in the careers field start cheering too loudly, it’s
worth evaluating whether we think this emphasis on pre-professionalism is a good idea,
particularly in a predominantly liberal arts institution. This paper explores the role of a
top college or university in preparing its graduates for the future, and issues that must be
addressed by those responsible for the academic program and careers offices.

The Consumer View

First, let’s look at what’s driving student opinion. There are good reasons for students and
their parents to be concerned about the future, given the high cost of education and
average debt at graduation of around $11,000. But what the Eduventures information also
suggests is that a significant proportion of students–and, no doubt, their families–are
viewing education primarily as a means to an end. In other words, students and their
families are buying a “brand” which provides a quid pro quo for their financial
investment. This investment is expected to lead to a high-paying job after graduation, or
access to a top medical, law, or graduate education.

The attitude of incoming freshmen is troubling on a number of fronts. Consider the
assumptions that appear to lie buried in the statistics, and are borne out in anecdotal
information from students:
• The end result of education is more important that the education itself
• Education that does not appear to have immediate pre-professional relevance is perceived as a luxury
• Success is defined by having a high-paying job at graduation

At a recent conference at Duke for high school guidance counselors, participants echoed
the research about student and parental attitude towards the college search. They also
pointed out that little information is available about what graduates really do after a
liberal arts education, and how they might best use a liberal arts education to their career
benefit. My coauthored book, published in May 2006 and titled Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, was written to address some of the
prevailing myths and assumptions.

Education and Preparation for a Lifetime of Changing Careers

While students and their parents typically look to student success immediately after
graduation as a test of whether an institution is providing a return on investment, these
results are not a true measure of the value of education. The fact is, most entry-level jobs
don’t require the kind of advanced abilities that can be developed through a good college
education. A better metric for success is the degree to which our institutions help students
develop the ability to progress throughout their careers, and ultimately to make a
difference in the world.

To illustrate this point, Appendix A identifies the basic skill sets that students need at
graduation. They are listed in order of importance as identified in the National
Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2007 employer survey. Appendix B identifies
the vastly more complex characteristics anticipated for success in 2020. I chose the year
2020 because I like the idea of 2020 foresight rather than hindsight. Plus, after thirteen
years in the work world, 2007 graduates will be poised for the kinds of positions
requiring broad responsibility. More important than the success characteristics
themselves is the identification on the chart of the ways in which a student can use his or
her college education to develop these attributes. It is clear that our view of education
needs to include all learning that takes place during the time the individual is a student:
classroom learning, extra-curricular activities, and work-related experiences.

Success Characteristics in the Work World of 2020

As indicated above, a strong liberal arts education prepares students best not for their first
jobs, but for jobs at mid management level and above. Clearly career centers need to
help students find employment immediately after graduation, but if they simply
accomplish that task, they will have missed the opportunity to prepare students for a
lifetime of changing work and careers. More important, they may neglect the task of
educating students about how they can best use skills developed in college as they
progress in their careers.

In 2020, it is likely that the most successful people will need the following skills:
• Leadership and management (encompasses need for emotional intelligence; vision; communication and human relations skills; persuasion)
• Motivation and initiative (encompasses need for tenacity and focus)
• Ability to move swiftly to capitalize on opportunity—both business and personal (encompasses flexibility; adaptability; ability to learn from experience; initiative, entrepreneurial spirit; sense of responsibility for self)
• Ability to leverage resources—people and things (encompasses ability to communicate; political savvy; human relations skills; an understanding of the way things work)
• Willingness to continually learn, reflect and change course (encompasses need for on-going analysis and reflection)
• Cross-cultural understanding and appreciation for difference (encompasses communications skills; ability to see things from different points of view; ability to synthesize and interpret information and create cogent arguments; foreign language skill)
• Honesty, integrity and strong work ethic (encompasses leadership and empathy)

Being aware of success characteristics for 2020 is important. But achieving them is
difficult unless career professionals and academic advisors give a consistent message
from the time of matriculation about how we view the relationship between education
and career. To promote the kind of graduate success that reflects well on colleges and
universities, there should be expectations for both institutions and students.

Recommendations for Academia

Increase opportunities for true immersion experiences through which students can
tackle thorny societal problems. (Duke Engage is a good example.) Recognize
that student initiative is critical to getting the most out of these experiences, and
ensure that mentoring, guidance, and reflection opportunities are available.

Improve advising. Few colleges or universities—particularly research
universities—would receive an “A” for advising services. Yet trained advisors
early in a student’s career can be instrumental in helping students make the most
of their education from a career perspective.

Build into the curriculum opportunities to practice communication skills,
particularly those that encourage listening, hearing and being able to articulate
different points of view. Support the debate team. Teach rhetoric!

Assess and evaluate programs, especially those like Study Abroad, that involve a
significant percentage of students. Consider introducing an area studies
requirement and a foreign language requirement so that students can gain the most
from their experience abroad. Don’t take it for granted that students will step out
of their comfort zones. Make it an expectation.

Encourage and support students who take responsibility for their own education,
and who seek out opportunities and resources. Support faculty and staff who
engage with students on an intellectual and personal level.

Encourage interdisciplinary work and the application of knowledge in real world
situations. Service learning is the ideal opportunity to integrate learning in and
out of the classroom. However, other areas could also lend themselves well to
working on projects that relate to classroom learning. Thus, a history course on
the holocaust could lead to helping to plan and promote a holocaust exhibit.

We cannot expect that students will know how important it is to take full advantage
of education, broadly defined. Therefore it is incumbent upon careers offices and
academic administration to reinforce the same message: that success after college is
dependent not just on the accumulation of knowledge, but also on the development of
attitudes and behaviors. It is also important that we educate students from the time
they set foot on campus about the purposes of a college education, and its relationship
to what they do once they graduate.

The Ideal: A Message to Incoming First Years

  1. A college education is the sum total of your student experiences. You can
learn in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field,
through internships and beyond. Learning outside the classroom may prove to
be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. The quality
of your education is determined—at least in part—by the degree to which you
immerse yourself in learning. Take responsibility for, and engage with all
aspects of your education.
  2. When you matriculate at college, you’re not expected to know what you want
to do after you graduate. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career
directions. Make the decision yours!
  3. Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and
it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself
to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”.
  4. Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you’re close
to completing the requirements, or you think you need it for a particular
career. (You may not!) It’s much more important to study what you love than
to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. You can
pursue most career paths with any major. Major doesn’t equal career, and
more majors doesn’t equal better careers. Resist the temptation to build
academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons.
  5. A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school
fellowships/scholarships, or for employment in investment banks/consulting
firms, but most positions do not require a GPA above a 3.0. Employers rarely
consider GPA for second jobs. Students with the best academic records aren’t
necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see
transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.
  6. Graduate school may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate
school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of
education for what you want to do.
  7. Study abroad can be a career boost or a career bust. Almost all students enjoy
their study abroad experience, but it can only give you a real career advantage
if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency,
cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision
making/problem solving. To obtain a career advantage, you need to have a
true international experience, not an American experience abroad.
  8. You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and
advisors early in your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and
guides.
  9. Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be unemployed at
graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at
graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your
value to the work world. Most employers of top college grads do “just in
time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left.
Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual
application process may happen after finals.
  10. Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with
counselors in the Career Center and/or with trusted advisors, so that you learn
the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare
yourself through your college education.

Conclusion

Education and career preparation are symbiotic. The more a student learns in college,
and takes advantage of work and internship opportunities, the more likely it is that he or
she will be considered a compelling candidate for employment. However, to make this
connection happen requires a partnership between academic administration, student
affairs and the careers office.

Some universities, like Duke, have already made progress by coding courses to identify
what attributes or skills will be developed through the class. But we need to go further.
Now is the time to make the connection between classroom learning, extracurricular
learning, and career. Once that connection is made, students will come to understand that
they can reach their professional goals while gaining something infinitely more valuable:
a true education.

Appendix A and B are available by emailing Sheila Curran at curranoncareers@gmail.com.

“Major” Decisions

Choosing a college major can feel like an overwhelming decision. Teen Ink asked Duke University Career Center’s Sheila J. Curran to give some expert advice. Here’s what she had to say:

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, friends. As soon as you reach high school, they’re asking you where you want to go to college. Their next question, invariably, is “what are you going to major in?” The answer is supposed to come tripping off your tongue, but your likely reaction is to want to bury your head in the pillow. The reality is that most teens are confused about their direction. Colleges provide plenty of majors that aren’t even available in high school. And what you are good at in high school may be very different from where you excel at the college level. To help you figure out the right major for you, here are some questions you should ask yourself.

Are you sure you want the subject matter of your major to be your career? If you major in accounting, employers will assume you want to be an accountant. A pre-professional major can be helpful if you know exactly what career you want to pursue when you graduate, but it can also pigeon-hole you.

Are you truly interested in a particular subject? If your passion is history, don’t be put off by the fact that you can’t associate history with a future job title. If you study a liberal arts subject, you’ll be gathering plenty of job-related skills, like research, communication and problem-solving ability. And if you study a subject you enjoy, you’re likely to work harder and get a better GPA.

Do you need to decide now? Many colleges allow you up to two years to declare a major. This gives you time to try new subjects and explore where they may lead. The vast majority of students change their minds about what to study — often several times — between the time they start college and the time they declare a major.

When you get to college, you’ll find plenty of advisors who are willing to help you plan your education, and tell you how to reach your educational and career objectives. So unless you have to commit to a particular course of study prior to going to college, tell your family “I haven’t decided on a major. But I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”