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College graduates find new dynamics in job market

  • Ursula Olender, right, is the director of the Amherst College Career Center.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Ursula Olender, right, is the director of the Amherst College Career Center.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Candice Serafino is the interim director of Career Services at the University of Massachusetts. She is in an interview room near her office in the Goodell Building. JERREY ROBERTS

    Candice Serafino is the interim director of Career Services at the University of Massachusetts. She is in an interview room near her office in the Goodell Building. JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Candice Serafino is the interim director of Career Services at the University of Massachusetts. She is in an interview room near her office in the Goodell Building.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS

    Candice Serafino is the interim director of Career Services at the University of Massachusetts. She is in an interview room near her office in the Goodell Building.
    JERREY ROBERTS Purchase photo reprints »

  • Amherst College Career Center director meets with Amherst sophomore Jacob Shuman.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING

    Amherst College Career Center director meets with Amherst sophomore Jacob Shuman.
    KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

  • Stacie Hagenbaugh the director of the Lazarus Center of Career Development at Smith College, meets with student Shama Rahman Tuesday morning.

    Stacie Hagenbaugh the director of the Lazarus Center of Career Development at Smith College, meets with student Shama Rahman Tuesday morning. Purchase photo reprints »

  • right, Stacie Hagenbaugh the director of the Lazarus Center of Career Development at Smith College, meets with, left, student Shama Rahman Tuesday morning.

    right, Stacie Hagenbaugh the director of the Lazarus Center of Career Development at Smith College, meets with, left, student Shama Rahman Tuesday morning. Purchase photo reprints »

  • Ursula Olender, right, is the director of the Amherst College Career Center.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Candice Serafino is the interim director of Career Services at the University of Massachusetts. She is in an interview room near her office in the Goodell Building. JERREY ROBERTS
  • Candice Serafino is the interim director of Career Services at the University of Massachusetts. She is in an interview room near her office in the Goodell Building.<br/>JERREY ROBERTS
  • Amherst College Career Center director meets with Amherst sophomore Jacob Shuman.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Stacie Hagenbaugh the director of the Lazarus Center of Career Development at Smith College, meets with student Shama Rahman Tuesday morning.
  • right, Stacie Hagenbaugh the director of the Lazarus Center of Career Development at Smith College, meets with, left, student Shama Rahman Tuesday morning.

News stories during the past few years have painted a grim picture of job prospects for recent college graduates. Blaring headlines have declared that across the nation as many as half of the members of class of 2012 are looking for work, working part-time, or scraping by in lower-paid jobs unconnected to their degrees.

A closer look at the issue suggests the story may be less dramatic. For all the difficulties college graduates have faced in a sluggish job market, things have been much tougher on those with less education. A study last fall by Georgetown University, for instance, said college-educated workers had regained about 91 percent of the jobs they had lost since 2008, while many of those with only a high school diploma were still unemployed.

Career counselors at area colleges say the recent recession has definitely changed the dynamics of looking for work. The job market has tightened considerably, and students must prepare earlier and more seriously for entering it — doing internships to acquire practical experience, networking with alumni and other contacts, and learning how “to best present themselves,” as one school official puts it.

That said, career specialists maintain that with proper preparation, students can find a job that’s commensurate with their degree, although some may find the road a little harder than others.

And that first key job may not come immediately, said Ursula Olender, director of career services at Amherst College. “Think of this as the first step you’re taking on a long trip,” she advised.

Olender and Stacie Hagenbaugh, director of the career development office at Smith College, also believe that the liberal arts degrees offered at their schools give students the kind of varied skills that enable them to succeed in a number of areas, though there’s some argument among labor market analysts that more specific vocational degrees — engineering, say — give students an edge.

“Our emphasis is on helping students learn to present themselves well, to show (employers) what’s unique about themselves,” said Olender. “Between that and the problem-solving and critical-thinking skills they develop at Amherst, we think it’s just a matter of time before they find their place” in the working world.

Hagenbaugh concurs. “We believe the skills students develop here can translate across the board — in finance, education, communications and any number of areas.” She agreed that in some cases a specific degree may be more transferable to certain jobs — a chemistry major securing an entry-level research job with a pharmaceutical company, for instance — but believes a student’s marketability is based on much more than an academic major.

“If you do the work ahead of time — do your internships, make connections, take advantage of the services we offer here — you can put yourself in a position to succeed,” said Hagenbaugh. “You have to be proactive in your job search. You can’t just click and send” a resume.

“It takes courage and a leap of faith to be more assertive,” she added. “That’s one of the biggest challenges students face — developing confidence in job interviews and a job search.”

Hagenbaugh said about 75 percent of Smith graduates generally report finding a job within a year, while a “significant” portion of the remaining 25 percent go to graduate school or do some other kind of study. Within two years of graduation, about 53 percent of students are doing work connected to their major, Hagenbaugh added, with about 29 percent of those in the private sector, 19 percent working for nonprofit groups, and 25 percent in education.

And at Amherst, according to a survey of the class of 2011, 65 percent of respondents had found a job within a year of graduation, while 17 percent had gone to graduate school; another 8 percent had received scholarships for independent study or were traveling.

Of those Amherst students who had found work, Olender said, some 23 percent were in education, 18 percent were in banking and finance, and 14 percent were working as consultants in various fields. Smaller percentages had found work in areas such as law, science, energy and conservation, and government.

That left about 10 percent of the 2011 graduates indicating they were still looking for work, and Olender said she believed those former students would land — or subsequently had landed — on their feet.

“Developing a career is like a marathon,” she added. “It’s not a short sprint.”

Signs of improvement

At the University of Massachusetts, interim career center director Candice Serafino said gradual improvements in the economy seem to be reflected at the university in a number of ways. In February 2012, she notes, about 98 employers signed up for a campus job fair; this month 138 employers plan to attend the fair.

“We’re very, very encouraged,” said Serafino, who expects about 2,000 students to attend the fair.

As a university, UMass also features more specific and technical degrees that can give students a leg up in a competitive job market. Engineering remains “a very good ticket,” said Serafino, while students from the Isenberg School of Management also do well in fields such as accounting, marketing and finance.

And Isenberg also offers graduate degrees for in-demand fields such as civil and mechanical engineering.

Technology and health care are two of the faster-growing job areas both nationally and in Massachusetts, Serafino said. UMass offers degrees in related fields such as computer science, nutrition, nursing and public health; one degree program in the University Without Walls program can be tailored for work in a number of fields, including substance abuse treatment and community health education.

Health care “is definitely an area we’re seeing more people go into,” said Serafino.

Nationally, some studies have reported that certain bachelor degrees correspond to better initial chances of finding a job. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment last year for young people aged 22 to 24 with degrees in fields such as health care administration and economics was about 5.5 percent, whereas about 10 percent of graduates with degrees in architecture, art history, philosophy and anthropology were unemployed.

Overall, according to a study done in part by researchers at Northeastern University in Boston, the percentage of unemployed bachelor degree-holders under age 25 was at its highest level in 2012 since 2000, when the dot-com bust eliminated many jobs for college graduates in the telecommunications and information technology fields.

Yet other studies suggest the reports of unemployed and underemployed college graduates — the physics major tending bar, the history major waiting tables — may be overstated, and that the value of a bachelor’s degree remains strong. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce reports that over their careers, full-time workers with a BA earn 74 percent more than those with only a high school diploma.

And, the Georgetown researchers say, employment of those with at least a BA actually increased by 2 percent from 2010 to 2012; during that same period, employment for high school graduates dropped slightly.

Internships, networking

Yet Serafino, like Olender and Hagenbaugh, advised that students today must do considerable legwork to get their foot in the employer’s door. Internships — more than one, preferably — are critical, and students should also join online professional networking sites such as LinkedIn, cultivate contacts with alumni and follow up with employers they talk to at campus job fairs.

“That’s the new normal,” said Hagenbaugh, who pointed out that Smith graduates from the classes of 2007 to 2009 had more of a shock when they entered the job market during the depths of the recession. Current students, she added, “know they’re facing a more difficult time and are acting accordingly.”

Kathy Maisto, the transfer coordinator at Greenfield Community College, said students there who earn degrees in specific fields such as nursing and web design and development can generally advance more easily into the work force. But a majority of the college’s graduates transfer to four-year schools, Maisto added, and she works with them to prepare early for job searches.

“We try and help them find out what they’re good at,” said Maisto. “Then they need to start researching the places and employers they might want to work for, and they need to be persistent.”

Career counselors said they also do outreach to get younger students, even freshmen, to their offices to discuss potential careers. “Our goal is to see each student about four times a year,” said Olender. She adds that many Amherst students also take double majors and do at least a couple of internships to increase their marketability.

As well, Hagenbaugh said students should consider not just what field they want for work but where they’re willing to live. “If you’re interested in health care or biotechnology, Massachusetts is a good place to be — you might not find the same opportunities somewhere else” — while students interested in the arts might want to look at locales such as Washington, D.C., she added, which has a “wealth of museums” and likely less job competition than in New York, a more typical destination for the arts-oriented.

Finally, students must use common sense — like not posting embarrassing pictures of themselves on their Facebook sites or elsewhere on the Internet where prospective employers might find them. That might be stating the obvious, career counselors said, but it’s still advice they include in their workshops for students.

“Most students recognize the importance of this — but some still need a reminder,” Hagenbaugh said with a laugh.

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