Getting Our New Graduates Employed

Tim Goral's picture
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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Now that we have waved our Classes of 2012 on their way with pomp and circumstance—and hopefully with sunny Graduation Days—it’s only natural to turn our attention to the Classes of ’13, ’14, and ’15 left behind.  But to read the headlines of the past few months, there’s still plenty to worry about concerning the graduates who are just entering the work force and for whom the forecast is considerably cloudy.

Among the bad news, the Associated Press reported last April that almost 1.5 million young adults 25-years-old or younger with bachelor’s degrees—almost 54 percent—were either unemployed or underemployed.  That number, which didn’t include the most recent cohort of college graduates, represented an eye-opening increase from 41 percent in 2000.

Those underemployed—some of whom do find part-time positions in their chosen fields—otherwise toil in a range of jobs, from receptionists and cashiers to baristas and retail clerks, that require little more than a high school education.  To add pressure to injury, many of them are feeling the additional pinch of paying off the loans for four years of higher education.

We at the institutions that sent them forth can agree that those results are not what we had in mind, even for the relatively short term and despite the sputtering national economy and sagging labor market.  Certainly, parents of these young graduates are expecting a different career track.

There is some good news, however.  There are career-oriented jobs to be had out there.  And colleges can actually make a difference in how well their graduates fare in the increasingly competitive job market.  I know, because I’ve seen it firsthand here at Nichols College, and at other schools.

In our survey last November of the Class of 2011, almost 92 percent of the respondents indicated that they were employed full-time within six months of graduation.  That number was a one-percent increase over the 2010 graduates, and the rate over the past five years has averaged 94 percent, hard economic times notwithstanding.

At first glance, those numbers—and their incongruity with the aforementioned rates of unemployment and underemployment—might be attributed to the majority of our graduates leaving with business degrees.  That explanation might hold for those majoring in accounting, where demand routinely exceeds supply. 

For the great many of our other students—whether they have majored in general business, marketing, or finance (they also take an array of liberal arts courses. and we have our share of economics, English, psychology, history, and education majors, as well)—other forces in career preparation are hard at work.

It’s worth noting that our student body, about 1000 strong, arrives with modest scores on standardized tests and often unremarkable grade point averages.  Still, while we are only moderately selective in the admissions process, we turn out high-achieving graduates. 

The ingredients which aid that transformation are available to most four- and two-year colleges, liberal arts or otherwise, and they center around providing job-friendly skills and experiences that employers value.

Professional Development from Day One

From freshman through senior year, all of our students are required to take a weekly one-hour, one-credit course dubbed the Professional Development Seminar (PDS).  At the freshmen level, that course stresses improved communication skills, orally and in writing, but in subsequent years the PDS courses encompass the major challenges of facing the work world, and searching for a job.  

This past year, the PDS experience even extended to a “business attire” fashion show held in the campus dining room during lunchtime.

Skills such as resume writing, interviewing, researching potential employers, developing a personal portfolio, and looking the role of serious job applicant are on the menu of almost every college’s career services office. They are less frequently made mandatory or taught for college credit.  There aren’t many schools in which these career imperatives are woven into the curriculum.

In fact, many colleges run the risk of ignoring career readiness.  Their challenge, whether they are turning out English, political science, or sociology majors, is balancing student readiness for life with preparation for a job.

Besides their major areas of study, college graduates must be able to articulate the value—in terms of skills, abilities, and attitudes—that they bring to the table when they apply for a job.  This approach is especially important when there is a gap between the job and the applicant’s degree, such as a philosophy major applying for a position in events management at a hotel.

With the current economic climate and unemployment rate, it is clearly a buyer’s market, so graduates must be able to sell themselves and articulate why they are the best candidates for the position.  In this way, students need to think of themselves as a product with unique characteristics and special functions/abilities.  And their cover letters and resumes should scream, “I can do THIS job!”

To do so requires flawless and specific application materials.  If you send 50 identical resumes and cover letters to 50 different positions, odds are you won’t get any interviews.  In one PDS class for juniors this past semester, a marketing director for a major retail chain (who also addressed a larger audience on campus that evening) spent the hour enlightening students on how to make their resumes stand out, in everything from using the right key words to including effective graphics. 

Enhancing the Larger Curriculum

According to a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers for the publication “Job Outlook 2012,” the top five attributes valued most by employers included the ability to work in a team, leadership, written communication skills, problem solving, and a strong work ethic.  It is notable that the technical knowledge related to the job ranked lower on the list.

Those findings argue that job readiness involves more than content-based learning—and more than what a one-hour, weekly career skills seminar can provide over a four-year span.  At Nichols, we are taking a next step to ensure that abilities such as critical thinking, quantitative analysis, effective communication, leadership and teamwork, and ethics and personal accountability appear across the curriculum.

Besides formalizing these skills into the college’s official statement of Educational Goals and Outcomes, we have begun mapping our entire curriculum, and determining where they are taught and how they can be measured.  We also are developing a syllabus template in which faculty identify particular skills and outcomes upfront.

These so-called 21st century skills reside, at least in part, in many a college syllabus.  To identify them, practice them, and then teach students to map them to a set of job requirements are steps that will better equip prospective graduates for 21st century jobs without substantively changing the way courses have always been offered.

Prospective college grads need specifically to map their skills and abilities to the job descriptions at hand, a process that can be easier said than done, and in some places is not done. 

Making More of Internships

While there’s been some debate lately over the value of unpaid internships after graduating college (an article in the New York Times last May cautioned that such work may not pay off), there’s not much dispute over students getting unpaid experience in their field during their college careers.

In fact our neighbor in Boston, Northeastern University, has built a national reputation for their Cooperative Education program, which stretches the average college career to five years so it can include extended work experiences before graduation.  Well-designed internships within the structure of a traditional four-year career can provide much of the same real-life job experience.

At Nichols, many students do internships early and often.  Even though they may count only one for course credit, the experiential value of additional internships has proved a real attraction.  At a panel of recent graduates from our sport management program, one young alumna noted that she had interned four times during her Nichols career—from the local minor league hockey team to the Boston Red Sox.

While the settings for our student internships have ranged from small companies and organizations to Fortune 500 corporations and big league teams, they share some common outcomes.  Often, our students report that they have been able to see a wide swath of how the organization or business functions and they comment that they are given important work to do and problems to solve.

That’s no accident.  Our professors, from accounting to sport management, make sure that the internships posted are meaningful, and they negotiate with the companies or organizations as to what our students will be doing.

That approach is one more way in which we combine our academic integrity with an awareness of what the immediate and long-range future will demand of our graduates.

—Susan West Engelkemeyer is the president of Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.