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May 3, 2007

Making Pitt work: Career Services adds employer outreach

The tassels have been turned, the Silly String has been swept from the floor of the Petersen Events Center and the University’s most recent graduates have gone.

Those headed for new careers have relied on their education, experiences and skills to impress their new employers and get the jobs for which their years at Pitt have prepared them. More than a few of them had the help of Pitt’s Career Services office to launch them on their way.

Some showed up once or twice to have their resume reviewed; others were regulars who dropped in several times a month for years, said Marvin Roth, who directs the office.

The number of students utilizing Career Services has been rising steadily, with students contacting the office earlier in their academic careers, said Peggy Krall, the office’s business operations manager.

What once was known as the placement office offers plenty more than just matchmaking between students and employers, and more changes are in the works, said Roth.

Full-year statistics are not yet complete, but from July 2006 through March 2007, 4,500 students crossed the threshold at Career Services. That’s more than double the 2,210 who had appointments in the office just five years ago.

Nearly 9,000 students attended career programs or presentations during the 2007 academic year and more than 3,000 attended job fairs.

This year, more than 180 employers visited the Pittsburgh campus and nearly 1,300 students met with employers in 2,100 interviews.

In addition to resume help, job fairs and on-campus interviews, Career Services has a career reference room and a staff that can assist students seeking job-related advice across the spectrum. Staff can help with everything from choosing a major to using a cost-of-living calculator to evaluate whether an out-of-town job offer is a good one. They also teach students how to promote themselves to potential employers.

“Most haven’t really learned how to sell themselves,” Roth observed. “Up to this point, they’ve been evaluated.” Students are taught to view themselves not merely in terms of a major and a grade point average, but as a person with a certain set of valuable skills. “Our students tend to undersell these,” he said.

Career Services also serves faculty, not with job searching, but in the classroom. Career Services’ “Don’t Cancel Your Class” program for professors who know in advance they will need to be absent from a class can provide a speaker to fill in with a program on a variety of topics. Among them are career planning; applying to graduate school; internships; developing a job strategy, resume or portfolio; interviewing skills, and how to navigate online career services resources.

While mid-semester, particularly mid-February to mid-April, is the office’s most hectic time, now that the busy season has passed Career Services staff are taking the opportunity to catch up and prepare for the coming academic year.

Changes already have been made in the way the office works, and more student-friendly options are on the way.

The online PantherTRACS (Tools for Recruiting and Career Services) database for job postings will be replaced July 1 with a new FutureLink program that will give all students an account on which they can place a resume and searchable academic information to help Career Services match them with interested employers.

The Career Services office itself, located on the second floor of the William Pitt Union, will be undergoing some changes this summer to make it more appealing and comfortable.

In response to student feedback, more casual, comfortable seating will be moved into the career reference room and hard copies of reference materials will be removed as more interactive online tools are phased in.

Admitting that the current austere waiting area may feel “kind of like going to the doctor’s office,” Roth said he’s all for doing whatever it takes to draw students into the office. Acknowledging that the mere thought of what to do after college can be formidable enough, Roth said, “If we’re scaring them away, that’s not good.”

Organizational changes aimed at strengthening the office started with the academic year. The 28-member staff has been aligned in three groups.

The counseling consulting group provides direct student assistance services. Each counselor focuses on certain areas of the University and keeps offices in both the William Pitt Union and in their respective schools, Roth said. The second group, administrative staff, answers phones and greets visitors, but also plans events such as job fairs.

The newest group is involved in outreach to employers. Its formation relieved career counselors of the added responsibility of building relationships with employers — a task that often took a back seat to the primary duty of serving students, Roth noted. “Now we really have the capacity to do a more thorough job,” he said.

While career counselors typically have a degree in higher education or student counseling, Career Services looked to business environments including former corporate recruiters to form the new employer development group. “All that together makes us more powerful and stronger,” Roth said.

The changes are timely, because the market for new graduates is booming. The National Association of Colleges and Employers Job Outlook 2007 Spring Update survey found employers plan to hire almost 20 percent more new graduates than in 2006-07 than they did in 2005-06.

A separate NACE salary survey shows that new graduates also have higher starting salaries to look forward to. Average starting salaries for graduates in 26 of 29 bachelor’s degree majors increased, according to NACE’s spring salary survey, released April 10.

Because the economy is good, there’s across-the-board demand for graduates, Roth said.

From his vantage point, Roth is seeing opportunities for students in financial services, health services (particularly pharmacy and nursing), engineering and information technology and computer fields. “We could have five times the students we have and still have opportunities for them,” he said of IT grads.

Teaching positions continue to grow and the non-profit sector has jobs to fill, Roth said. Government, particularly the federal government, also has opportunities in security-related fields as well as others such as business, finance, human resources, communications and technology.

The office’s more focused employer outreach targets not only the regional employers that have been consistent hirers of Pitt grads, but also national and international organizations.

The office’s new employment development manager, John J. Smith, said his group is broadening the approach to corporations that have been open to hiring Pitt graduates. While Westinghouse, Alcoa and USX, for instance, traditionally hire engineering graduates, his group is encouraging those companies to expand their gaze to include other graduates as well. They’re seeing results, Smith said. Recently, USX extended a human resources job offer to a Pitt graduate-to-be.

His group also is expanding Pitt’s reach to other areas, developing relationships with potential employers in Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C, for example. Trips to develop corporate contacts in Connecticut, Washington, D.C, Texas and Virginia are among those on their itinerary this summer, he said.

Like the career counselors, Smith’s group members each have an area of specialty, but they’re also expected to be familiar with the University at large and to collaborate. Mornings typically are spent on the phone with employers or developing contacts within the University; in the afternoons, members of his group typically are out and about in face-to-face meetings with corporate human resources personnel or hiring managers.

Within the University, Smith’s group seeks to build upon existing connections. So far, the biggest success has come through the Alumni Association and corporate and Institutional Advancement contacts. They also tap faculty and advisers who may have contacts within companies that would be willing to interview Pitt students.

Beyond campus, Smith and his co-workers visit companies seeking multiple areas where Pitt graduates might fit the bill, Smith said.

“We’re actively and aggressively going out” with the goal of increasing career opportunities for students, he said.

Related goals are to raise the number of new companies coming to campus to recruit. “There have been dozens since September and October,” Smith said, adding that he also aims to increase the number of companies that put Pitt on their list of regular campus visits.

“For each of our criteria, we’ve been able to hit that goal,” he said.

Looking ahead, he hopes to obtain data on how well the employer-employee matches work by following up at three, six and 12 months to determine whether new grads remain employed or have changed jobs.

Smith said faculty and staff can help Career Services in its mission by sharing leads if they have contacts within a company. Professors and advisers can help by nudging students to attend job fairs and presentations when employers come to campus. A full house at a corporate information session makes the recruiter’s stop worthwhile and encourages his or her company to return.

Faculty and advisers who want to be alerted when employers are coming to campus should contact Roth to be included in the loop.

Noting the office’s primary clientele is Pitt’s undergraduate population, Roth said he sees his office’s role as serving roughly 20,000 potential clients, each with different needs and individual dreams.

“The ultimate goal is to help students find they’re in a satisfying place from here,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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