It had to happen: with the end of the long free ride of the bull market, the national jobless rate rose to 4.5 percent this spring, the highest level in nearly three years. The most recent crop of college grads netted an average of half the job offers they did last year: 1.7 vs. 3.3, according to WetFeet.com, an Internet job-search firm, and many more grads are taking jobs they don’t want. “Students are no longer in the driver’s seat – they’re getting fewer interviews and even fewer offers,” says Bill Coleman, a senior vice president at Salary.com.
Many more recent and nearly grads are bracing themselves for a less-than-ideal work experience. A monster.com poll found that forty-eight percent of young job hunters today expect to settle — and “perform many menial tasks” in their first post-college job. “I applied for about twenty or so jobs, and didn’t hear back from anyone,” says Ellen Mendelsohn with a sigh. She’s a twenty-two-year-old sociology major who graduated from Emory University in Atlanta in May. “At the end, I felt like I had to take something, because I didn’t want to sit around all summer watching TV.” Interested in real-estate development, Mendelsohn took a job working for the company that owns her apartment complex doing sales and marketing. “The money’s actually pretty good, but it’s not really what I want to be doing.”
But despite reduced expectations, there are plenty of ways to stand out and increase your odds of getting hired. It’s never too soon to start learning how to network without being obnoxious, land the right internship, sell your experience and make contacts that last. What’s more, there are a number of industries that are not only doing heavy hiring but are also paying significantly more this year to graduates than last year. Donna Harner, co-director of career services for Duke University, notes that “if our students have any brains at all, they’re going to look much more broadly than they have in the past few years.” More broadly and, increasingly, more traditionally.
“I hate to use the word old-fashioned, but those are the sorts of fields that are doing heavy hiring,” says Coleman. Schools are clamoring for teachers and are expected to hire upward of 2.2 million in the next decade, thanks to an echo baby boom that will mean an increase in school-age kids, as well as legions of teachers rapidly reaching retirement age. “School districts can’t get enough teachers,” says Carol Lyons, dean of the Department of Career Services at Northeastern University in Boston, who notes that as of late summer, schools across the country were still scrambling to fill thousands of teaching positions. “They’re offering all sorts of incentives for teachers to sign up,” she adds, including signing bonuses, student-loan forgiveness and even help with house down payments.
The health-care industry, too, is heating up. With managed-care companies’ voracious need for staffing, the demand for nurses and physician’s assistants is projected to increase nearly fifty percent between now and 2008. “We just can’t recruit people fast enough,” says Christopher Hoyt, recruitment manager for the nonprofit health-care giant Kaiser Permanente. “The demand for health professionals is so strong that we’re already seeing a raise in compensation in these fields.”
And accounting majors are not only in demand but are also getting paid even more this year than last; their starting salaries this year increased 6.9 percent from 2000. In a recent survey by executive-staffing service Robert Half International, nearly one-quarter of the CFOs polled recommended that undergraduates pursue majors in personal financial planning. Another twenty-one percent suggested specializing in tax accounting; seventeen percent recommended e-commerce strategy as more important than ever as companies recuperate from the dot-com bust; and twelve percent favored specialties in auditing, or “assurance services.”
The same salary trajectory holds true for engineering majors. The average offer to computer-engineering graduates, for example, jumped 8.9 percent between 2000 and 2001 to $53,924, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Compensation for electrical-engineering majors jumped seven percent, and petroleum-engineering graduates are now among the highest paid in the industry. “All engineering skills are still very much in demand,” says Judie Lange, who helps handle university recruitment for IBM. But she warns that “GPAs are critical — our best candidates have a 3.4 and above.”
Biotechnology and pharmaceuticals marketing are also hot fields, says Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute. “Companies like to get their hands on people with a science background, because it’s easier to teach them to understand the products,” he adds. “And if you have classes in sales and marketing, too, then you’ll be doing very well.”
Interested in delving into a career field that boasts less-than-stellar prospects at the moment? Keith Luscher, author of Don’t Wait Until You Graduate!:How to “Jumpstart” Your Career While Still in School, says that you’ve got nothing to lose by calling up a place you’d like to work and offering your help, perhaps in exchange for college credits. Taking the initiative to create your own internships also serves as a guard against a common practice, he adds: “A lot of companies set up an internship program when they have grunt work to dole out.” He also suggests tackling a specific project. “It’s a better use of your time and resources, because you can fit it into your own schedule, and you’ll have something to show for your work in the end.”
Ray Marquette graduated from Princeton University this spring, but his job search started years ago. The mathematics major started locally, with a summer job analyzing investments for a life-insurance company in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. He took the spring semester of his sophomore year off and headed to Australia. In Sydney, he worked as an intern for two months doing corporate finance consulting for the accounting firm KPMG. That summer, he headed north, to the Great Barrier Reef, where he worked as a scuba-diving assistant.
His experience, as it turns out, helped him land his current job, though not for reasons he would have guessed. “Scuba diving was definitely a conversation starter,” says Marquette, who began working as an investment banker at JPMorgan H&Q. “You’d be amazed how many investment bankers scuba-dive.”
A penchant for adventure and risk-taking is never a bad thing, says Bruce Tulgan, author of Managing Generation Y, but “if you spend a summer digging ditches, well, you know how to work. And that’s what they want. They’re not hiring you to be an adviser to the CEO. They’re bringing you in because they have a lot of work to get done, and they’re hoping you might help.”
To get companies to take a close look at your résumé in the first place, it never hurts to make some connections. When contacting your ideal workplace, start building relationships with the “gatekeepers” – the assistants and others who work with the person in charge. “Treat them with tremendous respect when you call,” says Tulgan. “Be sure and think of them as equally important as the person you’re trying to reach.” Once you get your contact on the phone, “the first question out of your mouth should be, ‘Do you have a second?’ says Luscher. “There’s nothing more annoying than someone who launches into their story, assuming that this person can hunker down for a forty-five-minute conversation. Asking first is a subtle and simple way to show respect.”
Arranging a meeting is no small feat these days — undergraduates interviewed with far fewer companies in 2001 — an average of 5.9, down from 9.6 in 2000. After landing an interview, do some homework. Camille Luckenbaugh, an employment-information manager at the National Association of Colleges and Employers, says, “Every year, employers tell me the same thing:Tell the kids to do a little research. It’s such a let-down to them when it’s clear that an applicant knows very little about what they do. So be sure and throw in some tidbits that let them know you do know a bit about their history.”
After his research, it was clear to Marquette which companies placed a premium on candidates with original ideas, and which were more concerned with a traditional work ethic and respect for authority.
During the interviews, Marquette also took pains to show his potential employers that he was interested in the work they were doing. “One of the things that really seemed to impress the interviewers was dedication to the industry,” says Marquette. “They wanted to know that I was committed and had a sense of what it’s like to work in the field.” This made a difference when they noticed his GPA. “Mine wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t what these big-name investment banks love to see, either. But by the end of the interview, they were telling me not to worry about it,” he says. There are a few ways to show you’re listening carefully during the interview and that you’re an aggressive learner. “If you’re blanking on a question, or need time to think of a coherent answer,” says Tulgan, “you can show you’re responsive and thoughtful if you say, ‘OK, I want to make sure I understand: Do you want me to discuss — ?’ and then name the topic. Very often, your interviewers will clarify the question for you, and you’ll get credit for being a good listener.”
There are also right and wrong questions to bring up during job fairs and interviews. Ask how the organization works and what skills the company hopes their employees will bring to the table – not how much vacation time you’ll get, how long your workday will be or how often they give raises. “Those are great questions; just save them until you actually have an offer,” says Tulgan.
Schedule as many interviews as you can. Not only do you get practice, you’ll also get a sense of what the corporate culture is like at each firm. Marquette found that not only did the personalities of the individual investment banks emerge but also the personalities of the work groups within the firms. “The consumer-relations people were outgoing and friendly; the asset-backed securities group was very no-nonsense; and the equity syndicate was very loud and old-school martini-drinking types.” And if you get the sense that your interview hasn’t gone as well as you’d hoped, “ask if there are other opportunities at the company that might be more appropriate for you than the one you’re inquiring about,” says Tulgan.
Worst-case scenario? “There’s always graduate school,” says Coleman. “It’s probably a great strategic move and will give you some good skills in a tough market.” The downside: Applications to business schools alone are up forty percent this year. The plus: The same skills apply to grad school interviews, too.