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Good Luck, Grads

Advice for job seekers in tough times

May. 13, 2009
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Every day seems to bring worse news about the economy, both national and local. If Chrysler isn’t shutting down a plant it had just promised to keep open, then the governor and mayor are warning of big layoffs and furloughs.

So what’s the class of 2009 supposed to do?

Be positive and persistent, counseled area employment experts. Job opportunities are out there, even as companies are shedding jobs in all segments of the economy.

It helps if you’re in a hot industry, of course, like software engineering, IT or health care. Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE) Director of Career Placement Mary Spencer said the class of 2009 is faring about as well as the class of 2008. According to MSOE’s preliminary data, 87% of its 2009 grads report that they’ve found employment, compared to 95% last year. Spencer said that’s “slow,” and that grads are fielding fewer offers than in previous years.

Tom Bachhuber, director of the Career Development Center at UW-Milwaukee, said that it’s too early to tell how May’s graduates are doing in the current job market, but the class of 2008 is fine, with 85% employed or in graduate school six to nine months after graduating, and 70% of them saying that they’re satisfied with their jobs. But the class of 2006, which graduated before the economy started sliding, had it even better. Six months after graduating, 92% were employed or in grad school and 86% said they were satisfied with their lot.

One new trend is that fewer employers are doing on-campus recruiting. Spencer said employers may not want to invest in a day on campus if they have few job openings. MATC’s April job fair was canceled, said Joanne Johnson-Clauser, an employment development specialist. “Employers have people banging down the door,” she said, reflecting the high demand for job openings.

UWM’s Bachhuber noted that at a job fair in October 2008, 40% of the employers said they were planning to increase college hiring in the next year and 22% said they were going to keep their college hiring the same. “That dropped at our spring career day, when 22% said they were still going to increase college hiring, and 52% said it was going to stay the same,” he said.

No doubt it’s a competitive job market. But the class of 2009 can follow some of these recession-proof job-search tips from our local experts:

Be Positive

Yes, we’re going through challenging economic times. “But don’t let the doom and gloom get you down,” said UWM’s Bachhuber. “A lot of the data and projections in the media are what we call the 20,000-foot view. They’re looking across industries, across fields, across states, across the whole country. Sure, it’s going to have an impact on your ground-level or personal job market. But that’s the most important thing to focus on: your personal job market. That includes very specifically those opportunities and organizations that will benefit from your skills, and background and major.”

Debra Chomicka, director of the Career Education Center at Alverno College, said that jobs are being created at the same time many companies are laying off workers. “Look beyond the headlines,” Chomicka said. “As baby boomers retire, positions will open up. If you give up on your job search, you are only giving up a position to someone who is more determined and persistent than you are.”

Look at What’s Hot

The obvious hot industries are health care, information technology, water technology, business, accounting and jobs related to the environment. Even if you didn’t major in one of those areas, you may have skills that could be used in those fields. What’s more, jobs in the federal government are also expected to grow. They’re all listed at usajobs.com.

That said, Alverno’s Chomicka noted that “what’s hot” is a moving target. “That could change in two or three months,” she said. Grads should focus on finding a position that allows them to use their skill set and is meaningful, she advised.


Follow That Stimulus Money

Gov. Jim Doyle is requiring that all jobs created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) be posted online at www.recovery.wisconsin.gov.While most of these jobs haven’t materialized yet, Mary Spencer at MSOE said that could happen soon. “I’ve had a few employers call to say they’re anticipating doing on-campus recruiting or have opportunities because the stimulus funds are going to help them out,” Spencer said. Job seekers should also watch the headlines to see which companies are winning ARRA contracts.

Set Yourself Apart

Luke Whitburn, Milwaukee branch manager for adtec Staffing, said the increased number of job seekers allows employers to be picky about their new hires (and offer a lower salary than they had in the past). That means new grads will be competing with laid-off, experienced workers for the same opportunities. “There is a great pool of talent right now,” Whitburn said.

New grads should highlight what sets them apart from other job seekers and also tap into their social networks (including online networks such as LinkedIn), professional organizations and college contacts.

Graduates should be able to explain why they’d be an asset to the company or organization. “New graduates need to understand the relationship between what they know, what kind of skills they’ve developed over four years of education, and their work experience, and how they apply their knowledge and skills to what the organization needs,” Bachhuber said. “And, in turn, how that organization or company can be successful in the industry. That’s tricky.”

Alverno’s Chomicka said resumes and cover letters should be tailored to a specific employer’s needs. Resumes should cite examples of how you positively contributed to a work, school or volunteer project. Since many employers scan resumes for key words, remember to include as many relevant terms as possible.

Volunteer or Serve

Volunteering is a great way to stay busy, meet people, build an off-campus community, keep your skills fresh and fill in gaps on a thin resume. And that unpaid service could turn into paid employment. “I’ve seen people pursue careers in their volunteer area,” said Bonnie Andrews, the Volunteer Center manager for the Nonprofit Center of Milwaukee Inc. She noted that many nonprofits are arranging their opportunities to fit into the needs and schedules of displaced workers.

As part of President Obama’s call for more community service, the federal government has created Serve.gov, a portal for volunteer opportunities across the country. Alverno’s Chomicka noted that the Peace Corps and Teach For America are good options for those who want to make a career out of community service.

Use the Internet as a Tool, Not a Crutch

UWM’s Bachhuber said the Internet is good for two things: finding job postings on reputable sites and researching employers and industries.

“Use the Web to learn about the organizations that are in your field, that are in your personal job market, that are doing well, that are addressing issues and providing services and producing products that are consistent with what you want to do and where your skills apply,” Bachhuber said. “Then you have to get out and network.”

Network with a Purpose

Many job seekers dread networking because it seems so phony. But Bachhuber said networking the right way is invaluable to job seekers.

“Networking is not about schmoozing or being someone you’re not,” Bachhuber said. “It’s about showing people that you’re serious and curious about an organization by asking good questions, well-researched, thoughtful questions about the field and about how the company or organization is positioned in the field.”

New graduates should tap contacts at the university, in student groups and in civic or professional organizations. That may mean forking over some money for a membership, but it’s money well spent.

Get Your Foot in the Door

New graduates can find work in their chosen fields if they are persistent and focused on getting noticed. That might mean working part time or at a paid or unpaid internship so that they’re in line for a full-time position when one opens up.

Flexibility helps, too. Anne Ballentine, spokeswoman for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, said her company has openings for nurses, physical therapists and pharmacists, but new graduates “need to show a willingness to work in a variety of environments and shifts. They probably will not get a day shift right away.”

Work a Job or Wait for a Career?

Experts disagreed on whether new graduates should take a job while searching for a career, or focus solely on their job search.

“The big mistake I see is that new graduates will jump at any opportunity,” said Spencer of MSOE. “If they have to work at Starbucks, they can get stuck because they’re working a job and don’t have the time to search for a career because they’re working. The longer they stay there, not working in the area that they originally sought to go into, the harder it is to find employment in their original area.”

But adtec’s Whitburn said that a 24/7 focus on a career search can make anyone crazy. He said that retail or food service jobs or a volunteer opportunity can build a new graduate’s skills, widen their network and provide a paycheck or even insurance.

“Designate a portion of your day to your job search,” Whitburn said. “Diversify your day. Part of it should be devoted to working or volunteering, part of it to your job search and part of it to networking.”

Comment on this article at ExpressMilwaukee.com.


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