College Career Centers Offer More Aid To Anxious Students

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CounselingFairleigh Dickinson University has increased efforts to coax students into its career services offices. Montclair State assigns students career-specific mentors as soon as they declare a major. And Rutgers University advisers encourage students to attend career fairs as early as their freshman year.

Four years into the economic downturn, career-services departments have stepped up the programs they offer students facing a new job market.

Each of them are sending students a similar message: Finding a job will take more time, more work and more focus than it used to — making university career services departments more important than they have been in decades.

“We’re doing more hand-holding; we’re doing more outreach,” said Cathy Love, director of career development at the Fairleigh Dickinson metropolitan campus, in Teaneck, adding that much of the effort is focused simply on getting students to overcome their fear of starting a job search.

To get students to come to the office, where they can get one-on-one counseling and advice, the department has been running notices in the student newspaper, publishing student success stories on its website — Love even invested in a life-size cardboard display of a policeman and a figure in a spacesuit to attract students to the office.

“They hear it often enough, and see it in the paper often enough, that the employers aren’t looking,” she said. “Therefore they don’t look. I don’t think they understand they have that opportunity. It’s there. But they have to be tenacious about it.”

Students graduating in 2012 — this year’s senior class — started their freshman year shortly after the economy tumbled in the spring of 2008, putting their careers at the mercy of the toughest job market in at least a generation, according to researchers at Rutgers University. In the time it took for them to progress through their undergraduate years, the career services process has changed to address challenges the classes who graduated before them never had to contemplate.

The Rutgers study, “Unfulfilled Expectations: Recent College Graduates Struggle in a Troubled Economy,” from the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, outlined their plight. It found that graduates during the recession faced a 10 percent salary penalty compared to their peers who had graduated just three years before.

In order to get their first job, the study found, recent graduates had settled for lower pay, jobs they considered beneath their education level or jobs outside their area of interest.

Even with those accommodations, post-recession college graduates have needed more time to land their first job, the study found. When it was released in May of 2011, just 56 percent of 2010 graduates reported having at least one job since they graduated, compared to 80 percent who graduated in 2008 or 2009 and 90 percent of those who graduated in 2006 or 2007.

Students at a recent Rutgers Engineering and Computer Sciences Career Day said they were well aware of such stark statistics, and they were doing everything they could to try to buck the low-employment trend.

Roughly 1,000 students put on their business suits and brushed up their resumes for the occasion — about 200 more students than last year.

Organizers attributed the increase in interest to professors who were encouraging students to start looking for internships early.

Attendants spent hours on a rainy Friday morning shaking hands and flashing confident smiles in a crowded, sweaty annex of a university student center. But students said much of the self-assuredness was faked.

Fifth-year senior Samuel Lopez of Clifton, N.J., said that, as a freshman, he had assumed his biochemistry and toxicology degree would make it easy to get a job. But now, like many of his friends, he is considering waiting out the tough times in graduate school or the Peace Corps, he said.

“After 2008, I lowered my expectations,” he said.

Other students said they were feeling pressure from their peers.

Less than a month into her sophomore year, Raan Kim of River Edge, N.J., was scoping out employers for potential internship possibilities, she said.

“I think if the economy were strong, I would have laid back a little bit,” she said. “But now I need to step up on my game, because everyone else is.”

Richard White, director of Rutgers Career Services, said the university is pushing students to think about internships earlier, part of an overall focus on career planning for undergraduates and alumni.

“It remains both impressive and startling to me how much, how hard we’re working and what we’re putting out there for our students,” he said.

The department will offer about 500 workshops, seminars and panels on career preparation and job seeking this year, up from about 300 five years ago, he said. More students are paying attention as well, he said: 4,100 students attended career counseling sessions last year, compared with 3,700 students the year before.

Adam Mayer, director of career counseling at Montclair State University, said his department has seen a similar uptick, partly because the university has overhauled its career planning program to give students more career-specific advice, and partly because the students are asking for more help.

“When things started to turn sour, students weren’t as aware of what they needed to do in terms of direction,” he said. “Now we have students continually coming to the office to get internships, because they realize that getting experience prior to graduation is absolutely essential.”

But the outlook isn’t completely bleak, White and other career counselors said. The good news is that students today are more focused than their predecessors, and universities are more prepared to help them with services that will likely outlast the economic downturn.

“Students know the unemployment rate is quite high,” Mayer said. “There is definitely concern on their part. But what’s heartwarming is that they’re seeking services to change that.”

Source: MCT Information Services