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Minority-Serving Schools Report Working Harder To Connect Students With Jobs

When college placement officers talk of helping students and alumni find jobs today, they cite many new hurdles and challenges stemming from the nation’s economic slump and dramatically changed job market.

 Gone are the days when even the best candidates at the best schools can be picky. College job fairs and career days, popular recruiting tools since the 1980s, are having a hard time drawing recruiters as their ranks thin. Signing bonuses and relocation allowances are now few and far between, if offered at all. Generous vacations and attractive employer-paid health and savings plans are a thing of the past.

“It’s a difficult market this year,” says Dr. Edwin Koc, director of strategic and foundation research at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which surveys some 1,800 colleges and more than 900 employers for its Job Outlook survey. The outlook for 2010 graduates, says Koc, is about the same as that for 2009 graduates. There are some signs the jobs slump may be bottoming out, he says, hastening to add, “If we’re going to turn around, it’s going to be relatively slow.”

 Indeed, the new world of work in America – which is expected to sustain a national unemployment rate of roughly 10 percent most of this year – is characterized by fewer recruiters and smaller recruitment events for colleges, fewer offers of full-time jobs, and more modest pay than before the nation’s economic slump began two years ago, career counselors say. Depending on region, even reliable sources of employment, like education and nursing, are tough job markets these days. Jobs in architecture, engineering, law, media and marketing are expected to be soft throughout the year, say career counselors and NACE studies, noting finance management and chemical engineering as exceptions.

“We have definitely seen a change in the recruiting patterns,” says Dr. Joan M. Browne, director for career services at Howard University in Washington, D.C. “Even with the benefits of being an institution positioned to be able to provide outstanding entry-level and internship talent to our employers, there has still been some decrease in the number of employers on campus and the type of jobs being offered.”

 “Students need more help now than they ever did,” says Linda Bowie, director of the Career Services Center at Coppin State University in Baltimore. “We are trying to be more proactive in encouraging students to be more active in their jobs search. Some of them (students) are listening to the news and understand the need to do things differently.”

 At California State University, Dominguez Hills, one of the numerous colleges in the Los Angeles area of economically pressed California, “hiring has gone down and some of the traditional models that have served us in the past aren’t working,” says Carol Bossman-Anderson, interim director of student development. Job fairs, on-campus interviews and posting jobs on campus jobs boards are in the rearview mirror, she says.  

 Employers are less inclined to make campus visits, and the hiring “trend” is toward internships, Bossman-Anderson says. “The employers are looking at this approach more closely.”

 At the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, most of the job offers coming in are for internships, says Shirley Cherry, assistant director of career services. “So, we are working harder to get students ready with networking, interviewing skills and getting in touch with alumni.” 

 Ditto, says Kellye Blackburn Eccles, director of career planning and placement at Morehouse College in Atlanta. “There is a definite increase in the number of summer internships being offered by companies to sophomores and juniors and a decrease in the number of companies offering full-time positions.”

 Courting Recruiters

 The recruiting trends that have evolved over the past 18 months have college placement officers scrambling to come up with ideas to better prepare their students and alums for the increasingly tough employment market.

 Some career counseling centers have to work harder to get longtime employers who were regular recruiters before the economic slump to remain on board. Some call on employed alumni to come to the campus and prop up student morale about the prospects of employment during and after college. Some retool their career days and job fairs to salvage recruiter interest during the downturn.

 “(Career centers) have to engage (employers) in a way that shows them you’re just as interested in recruiting them as having them recruit you,” says Harold Bell, director of career planning and development at Spelman College in Atlanta. Big-name employers “are not coming as much and they may do just the career fair then post the job,” says Bell. “Their (recruiters’) trips are shorter.”

 At Detroit’s Wayne State University, career services director Ron Kent says, “We’re having to shift the paradigm of what we do. We don’t have a crystal ball, but we have to be open to explore new ways of doing things.”

 To address the changing job environment, schools have retooled their career placement strategies. Wayne State is offering to “customize” its job seekers database. Rather than give recruiters lists of prospects that include various candidates, lists can be tailored to allow employers to do “targeted recruiting.”

 Savannah State University in southeastern Georgia has began to waive the $85 recruiter fee for many employers after recruiting participation in its fall jobs fair held in conjunction with nearby Armstrong State University fell by nearly half. At the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, alumni “consultants” are scheduled to visit the campus to coach students on presenting themselves in “diverse” environments. In California, several schools plan to consolidate their spring jobs fair to “double” their appeal to potential employers. Howard’s career center is recruiting employers to do “day visits” during which they conduct resume critiques.

 “Employers are looking for students with skills agility, such as double majors, extra-curricular activities not as closely related to majors, and flexible objectives,” said NASA Recruitment Manager Richard Gudnitz during a break in a recent interview-coaching session he conducted at Howard. 

 Amid the individual strategies, several common themes have emerged from the schools. New emphasis is being placed on student networking, internships, improving resumes and polishing interview skills.

 “We’re strongly encouraging students to network and join professional organizations,” says Bowie. “We’re telling them internships now are an absolute necessity to meet people in the industries they are interested in and getting some hands-on experience.”

 “Resumes have to be spectacular, and their interviews have to be polished,” says Bossman-Anderson.

 Career counselors say they are also having to fight a growing feeling among students that there is no use in trying to find a job, that there are no good jobs open in the marketplace.

 “Even though we are in a recession, employers are still hiring,” says Dr. Delores Dean, director of the career center at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. “It may not be the ideal job you want, but companies are still hiring. The students are believing the hype that ‘it’s useless to come to career services. They don’t have any jobs.’”

 At California State, Dominguez Hills, Bossman-Anderson voices a similar concern. She says many students don’t want to leave family, friends and the Southern California climate in order to get a job. She and her staff are telling students “job hunters are having to be more flexible with our goals, like being willing to relocate.”

 Job Cuts at Job Centers

 While facing the new job counseling and placement landscape, nearly all career counseling centers say they are doing so with smaller staffs and fewer resources than they had before the economy began taking its toll on school income and budgets.

 Strained state resources and college budget cuts have forced the career counseling service at California State University, Dominguez Hills to close for several days this winter and spring as it operates with 21 fewer paid working days this school year. At FAMU, graduate assistants and temps do the work of the four career center staffers lost and not replaced in recent years.

 “We’re being stretched, trying to provide the same kinds of services with fewer people,” says Cherry at the University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff, where the ranks of the small career counseling and placement staff have been reduced. “Our strategy right now is trying to get above water.”

Despite the slowdown in traffic and their own internal budget cuts, most career counselors seem undaunted.

 “We have to be positive,” says Bossman-Anderson. The job market “is not good but it’s not hopeless.”

  The one bright light on the horizon in recent weeks has been recruiting and hiring by federal agencies, some counselors say.

 Morehouse reports an increase in federal government agency recruiting, slightly offsetting the slowdown in private employer presence. Coppin State reports a “bump” in recruiting by such federal agencies as the FBI, IRS and Social Security Administration. Last fall, the Department of Energy hosted a daylong The National Energy and Career Expo, its first, at the Marriott LAX for students and faculty at Los Angeles-area colleges. The goal was to showcase green energy jobs and careers.

 The only downside of seeking a federal job, says one counselor, is the paperwork, and the application process can overwhelm some students.

 “Fewer jobs are out there; however, jobs are being offered,” says Bowie. “We’re urging them (students) not to give up.”

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