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Job Outlook Brightens for Graduates … Who Have Planned Ahead

College Try

College Try

In decades past, getting a good job was often a matter of choosing a hot career field and getting into a well-regarded college program, and offers would follow. But in recent years, amid a crushing recession, new graduates have encountered a far more competitive job market. Prospects seem to be improving for the class of 2011, however — especially graduates who have paved their path with a steady diet of work experience while in college.

College used to be a time to prepare for the work world. These days, the lines between the two have been blurred, with work experience becoming a more prominent part of one’s education.
And those who graduate without that experience are finding themselves at risk to a greater degree than ever before.
“It’s become more competitive,” said Deborah Pace, director for Employer Relations at Western New England College, “and if an employer looks at a student with a business background who interned for a semester or two, and then one who didn’t, and they both interview well and present themselves well, more than likely they’re going to hire the student who did the internship.”
Internships are nothing new, but they’re an especially hot topic today, as a still-tight job market has allowed employers to be choosier with applicants, and they’re increasingly focusing on the volume and quality of work experience a college student has amassed before donning that cap and gown.
“Multiple internships are becoming very important now,” said Nicholas Wegman, executive director of the Chase Career Center at UMass Amherst. “It used to be that having an internship would get you an edge; now, it’s almost assumed that business students will have an internship, and the buzzword is multiple internships.
“There are lots of opportunities for experiential learning — doing a project for a small business or going out to a manufacturing site or a distribution center, or doing Web-based projects, interactive marketing, or social-media marketing,” he added. “These are things you can reference on your résumé and that give you something positive to say in an interview.”
Most observers of the employment landscape say things are looking up for the class of 2011, at least compared to the past two years. But progress in the marketplace has been gradual, and the recession has in some ways forged a new reality: yes, jobs might be available for new graduates, but the days of taking them for granted are, at least for now, a thing of the past.
First, the good news: even amid the persistent stagnancy of the job market, this year’s college graduates seem to have more options than last spring’s crop. According to the Job Outlook 2011 survey conducted by the National Assoc. of Colleges and Employers (NACE) last fall, companies anticipate hiring 13.5% more new college graduates from the class of 2011 than they hired from the class of 2010.
However, the improved expectations are not across the board; in fact, only 48% of responding employers expect to increase hiring at all. Meanwhile, 40% plan to maintain last year’s pace of hiring new graduates, and 12% anticipate reducing hiring among this age group. The odds of landing a job vary by region of the U.S., too; according to NACE, Pace pointed out, the Midwest promises to be more fertile ground than the Northeast when it comes to hiring graduates.

Pamela White

Pamela White says she has seen interest in internships rise over the past few years, among both students and employers.

“I think it’s going to be challenging,” said Pamela White, director of Cooperative Education, Career Services, and Transfer Affairs at Springfield Technical Community College. “For some fields, it seems to be a little better. Obviously, in health care there always seem to be more opportunities, but even in that field we’ve seen some challenges.”
For this issue, BusinessWest gazes upon the landscape being contemplated by the collegiate class of 2011, why there’s reason for optimism, but also why students who have not adequately trained for their future might be nervous about what awaits them this spring.

Looking Up
The Chase Career Center, as a department of the Eisenberg School of Management at UMass, serves about 3,400 undergraduate students in various business fields, from accounting and finance to management and marketing, so Wegman has the pulse of a variety of fields — and he likes what he hears.
“The indications I have are that the market is going to be a little better than it was last year, and certainly much better than it was the year before that,” he told BusinessWest. But there’s a caveat, one that can be frustrating for students anxious to line up jobs for the spring.
“I think the market is developing a little later,” he said, explaining that, in the past, recruiters would descend upon campus early each school year, in the fall, because competition for top students was high, and they wanted to get offers out as soon as possible. Now, companies are waiting until the spring, in many cases, because they don’t want to commit to new staff seven or eight months out, with their own balance sheets in flux due to an uncertain economy.
“When so many offers were made in the fall,” Wegman continued, “there was an expectation — even a little subtle pressure — for those students to commit. Their parents liked it, and the companies liked it. Now, they’re cycling back and making job offers more closely aligned to their market situation. They’re not as anxious to make offers in the fall.”
Pace — who regularly tracks information from NACE, and has also been involved in many job fairs, including last fall’s regional College 2 Career Expo — sees a mixed picture for graduates.
“We had about 50 employers [at the expo], and they were looking for students with all backgrounds — arts and sciences, business and engineering majors. And jobs are still available. But in the Knowledge Corridor, we’ve seen some decreases.”
She pointed to population growth in Massachusetts that has trailed behind other states, and anecdotal evidence, such as fewer companies participating in local chamber of commerce breakfasts, as signs that graduates may have to set their sights on other regions of the country where business is expanding more rapidly. But some fields remain strong in Massachusetts. She told of an accounting student who began doing projects for a local firm before graduation, and recently received an attractive job offer.
“They weren’t going to let him get away,” Pace said. “If you have an accounting or financial background, a good GPA, and excellent interviewing skills, they’re going to scoop you right up. Those graduates are still in high demand.”

Test Drive
But in that case and so many others, gaining real-world experience is key — moreso, perhaps, than ever before, White said, as employers seek to test-drive potential employees before making a commitment. Of course, internships also benefit companies in the short term.
“Many have some projects that need to be completed,” she noted, “but they don’t have funds in the budget to hire someone, so they’re seeking out college students to help fill that gap.
“I’ve seen a real increase in students seeking out internship opportunities,” she added. “More and more employers have been requesting interns than in the past. Given our population [at a two-year college], the majority of students are either working or need to work, and they’re receptive to the idea. I’ve had more and more students coming through who want to find internships, just to have that competitive edge, something on the résumé. They clearly understand the level of competition right now, and they’re doing what it takes to get experience.”
Pace agreed that internships have become more prominent over the past three years or so. “Definitely, employers would like to see internships on students’ résumés, and then be able to talk about that experience,” she told BusinessWest.
And for most students, she noted, getting that sort of experience shouldn’t be too difficult. “There are more than enough employers in the region for students to do internships.”
Given the opportunities available, Wegman says today’s business students are encouraged to start building a portfolio of these work-related experiences, transferable skills, and leadership roles starting freshman year — and they’re arriving on campus willing to do just that.
“We are finding that students are more invested, more interested” in their long-term outlook, he said, and parental encouragement to set career goals early and work hard to reach them seems to be a factor.
“They’re thinking about internships earlier, understanding some of the language of corporate America earlier, interacting with recruiters and companies earlier,” Wegman added. “They know they have to do that; it’s not such a big surprise to them anymore. And we’re trying to get our students involved with corporate recruiters and business representatives, and into internships, from their freshman and sophomore years.”

Attitude Adjustment
Considering the challenges they’re facing in a somewhat reordered economy, Pace was frank about the fact that many Millennials, the generation that includes the class of 2011, need an attitude adjustment before entering the work world, having grown up hearing stories of Silicon Valley employees kicking back at work in pajamas and slippers.
“Most industries aren’t like that,” she laughed. “Companies expect you to show up on time, fully clothed with a nice suit, with a service-minded attitude.”
What does that have to do with graduates’ employment outlook? Simply put, perceptions of this generation as entitled and transitory — earned or not — could be suppressing the number of entry-level jobs available to them.
“Some companies are hiring older people because they know they come to work on time and respect the workplace,” Pace said. “They know younger people take a job for a year and leave — they job-hop; they don’t want the onus of staying on a job for at least five years. That creates problems for employers, who need to spend money recruiting and then retrain and acclimate a new employee to the company.”
That presents opportunities for applicants who are able to project the right combination of maturity and experience, regardless of their age, and often community-college students fit that mold, STCC’s White said.
“We think our students are really qualified and able to compete for a lot of opportunities with people at four-year colleges,” she argued. “Employers know that these students are just as able to compete one-on-one with other students at four-year schools.”
For graduates with an adventurous streak, Pace said, the world of entrepreneurship holds promise, although their path carries more risk. Western Mass. has long boasted a strong tradition of business startups, and uncertainty in the employment market may be persuading some to create their own jobs.
“Here at Western New England College, that’s built into the curriculum — doing a business plan,” she said. “A lot of students say they want to get a business degree, then start their own business after they graduate, especially if the startup costs are low.”
But that general feeling of uncertainty in the job market may be lifting just a bit. Wegman has noticed a little more restlessness in his school’s graduate students after a few years in which workers not satisfied with their careers have often been unwilling to make a move and sacrifice their current job security.
“My sense now is that, after several years of being static, people are re-energized about making a change of company, or retool and move up, as opposed to the sense that, ‘this is a good job; I should stay focused on this.’”
And so the employment cycle continues — upward, by most accounts. But just in case, it wouldn’t hurt to pad that résumé a little more.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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