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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.

What Can You Do With a Degree in Archeology?

The current national focus on the cost of a college education and loan default rates has caused many to debate the value of a liberal arts degree.

On one side of the debate are the naysayers, who assume that if the title of your major is not also the name of a career, the degree must be of little use in the real world. On the other side are the educators, who highlight the high-level skills learned through a liberal arts education, but provide no evidence that employers of entry-level graduates actually demand those skills.

Absent from the discussion are voices of alumni, who have found ways to connect both subject matter and skill sets developed in college to a wide variety of careers. Many of these careers do not show up on the “typical career path” resource sheet.

In our book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, we profiled 23 liberal arts grads from 19 different schools, with 23 different careers. Not one would have traded their liberal arts degree for a “more practical” major. The reason? They ended up being able to make a decent living at work they loved.

Prospective liberal arts grads need to hear the career stories of successful graduates, but they also benefit from an in-depth look at how a liberal arts education can be used.

Graeme Davis, an archeology graduate, who is currently a successful writer and designer of video games, gives an excellent account of how he uses his education every day in his work:

Math: Math is a good grounding for anything computer-ish, but as a game designer rather than a programmer I still found algebra and probability indispensible in designing statistical systems for games. The state of the art in game design is getting more technical with every year that passes, making these even more important. On the soft-skill side, any mathematical subject (and I’d include physics there) teaches the kind of organized thinking that is vital for game development. It also gives me at least a chance of understanding what the programmers on my projects are talking about – sometimes it can sound like Martian to me – and good communication between disciplines (design, programming, art) is vital on a big, expensive project like an AAA video game!

English: Writing is at the core of what I do, so much so that I now call myself a game writer with design experience rather than a game writer/designer. I despised English literature when I was in high school, arrogantly thinking that I wanted to be a writer, not to obsess over the work of other writers. I was young and foolish, what can I say? I have come to recognize that as with painters, one’s own technique and understanding of the medium is immeasurably enhanced by studying the work of the masters. Story is a huge part of what makes a good game into a great game, and there is a surprising amount of dialogue and narration in most games – I’ve heard 60 hours (that’s 20-30 Hollywood movies’ worth) in a top-line MMORPG like World of Warcraft.

History: I came to history later in life, but quite apart from the work I’ve done on historical games (like the BAFTA-winning Total War strategy game series) it’s been tremendously important for doing things like creating fantasy settings for games. Understand how history and mythology work, and you can create fake histories and mythologies that ring true. Tolkien couldn’t have created The Lord of the Rings without his academic background in Anglo-Saxon literature. Oh, and enough Latin stuck with me that I was the go-to guy for fake-Latin Space Marine mottos in Warhammer 40,000, during my four years at Games Workshop.

Modern Languages: I studied French and German. They’ve come in handy on trips, such as the handful of visits I made to Paris for a project with Ubisoft. And as with history and mythology, an understanding of how languages work helps you construct fake ones for a fantasy game. For example, when I was writing for Warhammer Fantasy products, I twisted Welsh and Gaelic words for the Elven languages, while the Dwarf tongue was based on slightly mangled words from Scandinavian languages.

Geography: Like history, geography has come in useful in creating fantasy worlds. Knowing how landforms, climates, and so on all work helps create a more convincing world.
Biology: Once again, knowing about basic processes, anatomy, and ecology in this world helps create others that ring true.

Archeology: Fantasy worlds tend to be at a medieval level of technology, often with iron-age or dark-age barbarians nibbling at their frontiers. I’ve also written historical sourcebooks (Vikings, iron-age Celts, Rome, medieval England, and most recently the Thirteen Colonies up to the Revolutionary War) for Dungeons & Dragons and similar games.”

Most students have a very narrow frame of reference when it comes to careers. And, their parents often reinforce the myth that your major dictates how you will ultimately earn your living. Too often, relatives who hear that a student is majoring in history, philosophy or English will ask “what are you going to do with that”, reinforcing the idea that a liberal arts degree is a fast path to unemployment.

What students need to hear are stories of graduates, like Graeme Davis, whose education, inside and outside the classroom, has enabled him to follow his passion. The examples of these graduates will inspire students to make informed educational decisions, rather than following the crowd. And faculty may find a few more students in their archeology classes.

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.

A More Honest Approach to College Career Preparation

Surveys say many students unprepared for the job search

Thirty-one percent of employers believe that recent graduates are unprepared or very unprepared for their job search. That’s according to a study of over 700 employers, conducted in late fall 2012 by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, titled “The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions”.

That students lack the skills to find work in 2013 may be a surprise to those who foot the bills for their education, or teach in the halls of academe. But it’s no shock to many in the career services field, who find most students unwilling to devote even half an hour a week in their senior year to the job search.

The messages given to students from the first year on need to be changed

Before blaming students for being “career slackers”, colleges should consider the messages they send to students. Viewbooks tout the success of a university’s graduates, but they often selectively use data that implies exceptional results. Often, data is based on response rates of under 20% of graduating seniors. Rarely do pre-matriculation materials tell the real story of what happens to the “average” graduate.

The problem of educating students about career preparation goes far beyond admissions brochures. How many schools tell students at convocation or orientation that they should be thinking about building career skills at the same time that they are developing their intellectual capacity? Too many students think if they got into a good school, they’ll get a good job. No problem!

Students need to know what really matters to employers

In the absence of accurate information, students flock to majors like economics and business, because they believe it will be their ticket to a job. It is up to colleges to bust the myths about major and GPA that have become common lore among students, and provide advising that can help students navigate paths to their desired area of employment.

Some of the most surprising findings of the report titled “The Role of Higher Education in Career Development: Employer Perceptions” include the following:

• 78% of employers will consider any major. Only 19% of employers look for specific majors and do not consider candidates without them

• Work experience (particularly internships and other work during school) is more important to employers than academic credentials, including GPA, and college major

• An internship is the single most important credential for recent college graduates to have on their resume

• Most interviewers value extracurricular activities, like professional clubs, athletics and service, more than GPA

• The skills employers find most lacking in job candidates are written and oral communication skills, adaptability, managing multiple priorities, making decisions, and problem solving

• Employers want students to improve their knowledge of the organization and industry to which they are applying, and should do a better job of interviewing

Colleges should articulate how students can gain the knowledge, skills and experience required by employers

Data gathered February through March 2013 by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), highlight other important skills that employers seek in entry-level college graduates. Each college and university should take this information and lay out for students how they can acquire these skills both inside and outside the classroom. Skills are listed in order of priority to employers:

• Ability to verbally communicate with persons inside and outside the organization

• Ability to make decisions and solve problems

• Ability to obtain and process information

• Ability to plan, organize, and prioritize work

• Ability to analyze quantitative data

• Technical knowledge related to the job

• Proficiency with computer software programs

• Ability to create and/or edit written reports

• Ability to sell or influence others

When students understand what they need to know and how to acquire the necessary skills for success, they will be much more likely to understand the rationale for thinking about careers early in their time at college.

An online employer survey released in April, 2013 by Hart Research Associates for The Association of American Colleges and Universities, echoes a number of the same findings in the surveys described above. Ninety-three percent of the surveyed employers, for example, agreed that “a candidate’s demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major”.

Colleges must find ways to help students apply learning in real world settings

Employers in all three surveys see room for improvement in the way students are prepared for the workforce. Their most important message is that colleges and universities need to find ways to help students apply their learning in real-world settings. No longer can internships and other experiential learning simply be delegated to a junior professional in the careers office with few resources.

Career preparation of college students is often seen as predominantly the responsibility of the career services offices. Certainly, these offices should be held accountable for enabling students to make good decisions about career choices and develop job search skills. But what the Chronicle, AAC&U and NACE surveys highlight is that success in finding work requires the development of knowledge and skills over the entire time a student is in college, not simply in the last two or three years. Job search savvy only makes a difference when students can demonstrate how their educational background and experience meet an employer’s needs.

Preparing students for the world of work is an institutional responsibility, requiring a coordinated strategy. Career services offices, senior administrators, faculty, advisors, and employers must all play a role in charting a clearer path to graduate success.

An Alternative Graduation Speech for Parents of New College Grads

There ought to be a second graduation speech just for parents, in the afternoon, after the celebratory lunch, while the kids are off whooping it up. It should go like this: We know you have a great kid. We also know that, as amazing as she is, she may not have a job lined up, and that this fact is eating away at you.

Oh, sure you may have heard that hiring on college campuses is up more than ten percent from the past few economically horrendous years, but you’ve also heard that there are still over 30 applicants for every job and a backlog of unemployed young people milling round out there. You want to hear a speech full of practical advice about how you can help your kid land a job. Here it is:

Get them to network in four different ways

You may have a bleak image in your mind: Your kid, sitting at the computer in your house day after day, responding to online job listings. Is this the new job search, you wonder? Thankfully no; that would be isolating and depressing. Your new grad will need to use the computer and social media in her job search, but she will also need to get out there and make connections with real people.

First, have her contact her college career center. Job opportunities these days
emanate from a diverse array of companies, far different from the Fortune 500 firms that dominated the landscape when you first looked for work. Many career centers’ counselors are knowledgeable about these opportunities. They may also help her compose her resume and cover letters; gain access to job and internships listings, and companies’ recruiting systems; and learn how to use social media in her search. Luckily, summer’s a quieter time for them. If she lives close enough to go in person, even better.

Next, suggest she join fellow alums of her alma mater on linkedin.com/alumni, after establishing her own linkedin.com profile. This will allow her to connect with alums who graduated within a few years of her, and to see what career paths they have taken. If they have listed their college major, she’ll be able to search by that, too. She may find that fellow alums are eager to help her once she has a better idea of what she’s looking for.

After that, she ought to visit the local Chamber of Commerce or State Office of Business Development, where employees can direct her to a wealth of information on local companies and potentially even opportunities for freelancers.

Lastly, have her seek informational interviews, in which she can learn how people in careers that interest her got their start, or what skills they deem important to their success. If you know someone in such a field, you could ask if they’d be open to talking with her. She should go in with thoughtful, focused questions. One warning: If your kid has never before emailed someone to ask for this particular favor, guide him in composing his first request so that he doesn’t naively ask too much of the person, as in, “Hi, I’d love to hear everything you know about becoming an entrepreneur.”

Convince them to do some research

Especially in the early days after graduation, many grads find it useful to initiate broad Google searches, such as: “What kind of jobs can a psychology major do?” Get yours to also stop by your largest local public library, and speak to the (always very helpful) business librarian. He or she can direct your child to databases, like hoovers.com, which contain vast amounts of information on industries, companies and their competitors.

The job search will be faster if your new grad taps into all of these resources. Example: while visiting the Chamber of Commerce, your daughter learns of a local start-up that has recently received a large contract. She researches its competition at the library, and discovers, on linkedin.com/alumni, a fellow graduate who has done freelance consulting for the firm. He gives her insight into its culture and goals, which helps your daughter go into an interview far better-informed than other applicants. He may also give her ideas on which Community College courses prepared him to be an effective freelancer.

Clue them in to what employers want to hear

When new grads hear about a particularly appealing job, they often get caught up in how happy it would make them to land it. What they neglect to focus on is: what kind of applicant, with what skills and personal qualities, is most likely to get the job? Offer to read through job listings with your grad and say, “Here’s what I think they’re looking for in an employee.” Emphasize that interviewers are looking not only for enthusiastic applicants, but also for ones who are focused on what they have to offer the company.

Urge them to learn one new skill a month

When your son sits down for an interview, the prospective employer may ask him what he’s been doing since he graduated. “Looking for a job,” he’ll say. How much more impressive if he can add: “I also learned Java and how to design a website,” The more talents he has, the more marketable he is. He’ll also come across as resourceful, a go-getter who will find ways to contribute to his team.

Assure them they will get hired if they persevere

There may well be days when you get as frustrated as your child with her continued lack of a job. Perhaps you come home after work to find her acting as if she has given up: parked glumly in front of the TV, or on Facebook. Worse, you’ve just talked to a few friends whose own new grads found work (for seemingly vast sums of money). If at those moments you can be supportive, you’ll help her to get back out there the next day.

Remind yourself that just as not all kids learned to walk exactly the same week of theirlives, they won’t all master job-hunting the same week. Swear to your child that her time will come—as long as she persists in networking, researching, and mastering new skills.

Now tell them they own the job search

Never invest more time in your kid’s quest to find a job than he is. It’s one thing (reasonable) to offer to proofread his resume. It’s another to actually compose it for him. If you are the one googling what careers math majors can have, or the one tracking down alums from his college for him to email, how will he learn to research or network on his own behalf? He needs to develop these skills for the next time, when he’s ready to jump further up the career ladder.

Okay, that’s the speech. Now you can drive off into the sunset with your kid, back home for a short while–until he sets off on his own for good. And maybe, just maybe, five years down the road, your one-time new grad will be offering you career advice.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

——————————————-

CURRAN CAREER CONSULTING

Providing essential career information and consulting to higher education and individuals

http://www.curranoncareers

——————————————-

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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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.

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.

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.

Strategies for the Career Fair

How many times have you remarked that it seemed like only yesterday that you left high school?  Now you’re much closer to your college graduation, and you probably can’t imagine the next stage of your life – being employed.  Will coming to the Career Fair get you a job?  Probably not.  But by following some of the advice below, it can move you several steps ahead in the job search.  For those of you who are “just looking”, have fun, get information and save the advice for when you’re ready to find a job.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person “across the table” representing a company. They’ve often come a substantial distance and they’re on a mission.  They want to convince YOU that they should be your employer of choice.  But this goes both ways: YOU have to convince them that you are their candidate of choice.

How do you do that?  Here are some key ways to getting noticed:

Dress and act the part. Dressing as though they’d already selected you for an interview is always helpful.  Even if you have a 4.0 and tons of extracurriculars, you probably need to forego the body piercings if you want to have them give you a second look. (The right kind of second look.)

Read the company’s website.  You’ll usually find the url’s of Career Fair attendees listed on your career center’s website.  This can save you a lot of time, and the research will make you appear more focused.  It can also help you avoid going to tables of companies in which you are no longer interested.

Make sure you have a targeted approach.  If the employer sees you weighed down by the freebies of dozens of other companies, they may not take you seriously.  Plan to spend at least 5 minutes at each organization in which you’re really interested.

Wow the employer with intelligent questions.  If you’re just looking, you can ask questions like “So what does your company do”.  But if you really want to get noticed, ask them their reaction to articles you’ve read in the news about the company, or more personal questions like “what do you like best about working at xyz company”. (It’s probably a good idea to make small talk first!)

Go to a table when there aren’t too many people around.  Employers hate to stand waiting for someone to come to them.  Get up early, be the first at the table of the employer in which you’re most interested.

Build a relationship.  This is hard to do if there are a lot of students in line, but if you can spend 5-10 minutes chatting with the recruiter, they will remember you a lot better. (See 3) above: get up early!)

Don’t assume they wouldn’t want you because you have a lower GPA.  There are plenty of instances where good human relations skills (aka, the fine art of intellectual schmoozing) has made up for resume deficiencies.

…and talking of resumes

Make sure you leave the organization a copy of your resume that highlights your background and talents, particularly as they relate to the kind of job in which you’re interested.   (You may need to have more than one version of your resume.) A career fair is the one place that your resume always has to stand alone, without a cover letter.

Check out when the employer’s information session will be held.  Ask the representative at the Career Fair whether you’ll be able to continue your conversation with them at that time.  Often companies send different people to the Career Fair and Information Sessions, but you’ll still impress them with your knowledge of company activities.

Ask for the representative’s business card and ask if you can follow up with them after the Career Fair.  Then, FOLLOW UP! Doing what you say you’re going to do sets you apart from most applicants.

GOOD LUCK!

The Over-Qualification Quandary

Will 2008 be the year you finally make good on your resolution to give up the daily grind and find work you love? Perhaps you’re a lawyer who’s painfully aware that being in a courtroom isn’t as much fun as it looks on TV. Or, maybe you’re a baby boomer, whose concept of retirement is an opportunity to do meaningful work, rather than joining the golf crowd. Unfortunately, downshifting or changing your career is easier said than done, even when you have a lifetime of experience in a wide variety of positions. To be successful, you’ll need to jettison some old assumptions about how to find jobs.

When you’ve applied for positions in the past, you’ve proudly listed accomplishments. You thought climbing the corporate ladder was a plus. And in your old life, it was. But when you’re applying for work in a completely different field or at a lower level, your stellar resume may be treated with suspicion.

A potential employer, who hasn’t been privy to your soul searching, is likely to see multiple red flags in your application. The hiring manager can’t understand why, for example, you would want a job that pays perhaps a quarter of what you’re currently making. She may doubt your sincerity, commitment, or understanding of the work environment. Worse, you may be perceived as not having the basic skills for the lower level work. So, you’re not only overqualified, but under-qualified as well, and your application is likely to be consigned to the circular file.

This means that you are going to have to find a way to tell your story. And you can’t do that with a standard application or a laid-back “come and find me” approach. The key to getting your application to the top of the pile is focus, preparation, and a fair dose of chutzpah.

Focus

It pays to know exactly where you want to work, why you want to work there, and what you have to offer. Don’t waste your time applying online to hundreds of jobs or going through headhunters. Replying to job ads is another recipe for disappointment, because your application, by itself, will raise the dreaded red flags. Preparing careful approaches to twenty employers will get you much further.

Always do on-line, in-depth research on your targeted employers and their personnel. The more you discover, the better you’ll be able to identify where you might fit within the organization. And advance information about the background of your future boss or interviewer can be invaluable.

Preparation

Throw out your old approach to resumes and cover letters. When an employer reads your application, he doesn’t want to know about your 10 years of progressively responsible experience in a different industry. He wants the answers to “red flag” questions. Your new resume should demonstrate that you have the knowledge, skills and abilities for the open position—not one several levels up. And, your new cover letter should provide a compelling argument for why you want the position for which you’re applying, and why you’re the right person.

A good way to re-invent yourself on paper is to do a combination functional and chronological resume. In the functional part, you can easily zoom in on the experience and characteristics your new employer needs, highlighting accomplishments in each area. Don’t forget your volunteer work; it may be the most relevant experience you have. And remember that when you list the positions you’ve held, you get to decide how far back in your work chronology to go. You don’t have to include that first job out of college—or even your first few positions. Nor do you have to state your date of graduation.

I once avoided being viewed as over-qualified by not sending a resume at all for a position that was significantly lower than the one I’d left when I moved from Washington, D.C., to Rhode Island. I simply wrote the hiring manager a three-page letter describing how I thought I could be helpful in the open position. The letter got me in the door for an interview, and only after I was hired was I asked for my resume.

Chutzpah

However compelling your application, you have to find a way to reinforce your value through a face-to-face meeting. There is no substitute for personal connections, so cultivate relationships with friends and fellow alumni who work in your chosen field. Find like-minded people through CivicVentures.org, or—for women—thetransitionnetwork.org.

Any time a trusted person puts in a good word for you with an influential person in your desired field, you have a major advantage. Ultimately, of course, your goal is to get an interview for an open position, but with a little chutzpah, you can often get your foot in the back door, even if an opportunity doesn’t officially exist.

Dan was a seasoned international business executive who wanted to transition to a lower level position in academia for his final working decade. He focused on North Carolina, moved to the area, researched target institutions and departments, read job descriptions of open positions, and prepared his resume. Then he got to work making calls requesting informational interviews. With his foot in the door, and a good story, Dan was referred to many other department heads. He started by asking for information. But after several “informational” interviews, he ended up with a job in the international studies department.

Over-qualified does not mean unemployable. Your background and experience provides much material with which to work. But recasting yourself in a new light requires a different mindset. With focus, preparation and chutzpah, you’ll soon be on your way to a more fulfilling life.

First published in BusinessWeek.com