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June 11, 2009

UPJ makes 100% effort to help new grads find jobs, grad school

The clock is ticking at Pitt-Johnstown as a summer-long “100 Days —100 Percent” initiative aims to ensure that recent graduates have the campus Career Services office’s undivided attention as they seek employment or further education.

UPJ President Jem Spectar, who touted the initiative in his remarks at the campus’s April 25 commencement ceremony, said, “We are taking proactive steps, in today’s troubled economy, to help our students maximize their potential for being hired into rewarding positions or gaining acceptance into high-quality graduate programs.”

The current effort is putting a special focus on this year’s graduates — not only those who received diplomas in April, but also December 2008 graduates and those graduating in June or August — 517 in all, said career counselor Angela Boyd.

UPJ Vice President for Student Affairs Jon Wescott acknowledged that the current economy prompted the campus’s effort to go the extra mile, even though the services being emphasized really are “not much different with what Career Services does with the overall student population.”

Among the help being promoted to graduates is assistance with resume preparation and interviewing skills, researching job opportunities and job fairs, networking and preparatory workshops for tests such as the GRE, GMAT, LSAT and MCAT.

UPJ spokesperson Bob Knipple said students’ initial reaction was swift: More than 45 responded within the first 24 hours of the program’s announcement, even in the midst of finals and graduation preparations.

Wescott noted that Spectar’s remarks resonated with parents in the audience, who also persuaded some of the graduates to get the ball rolling. Student Affairs staffers were on hand at the post-commencement reception to enable the new grads to fill out a survey about post-graduation plans and whether they were seeking work. For those still looking for work, the survey provided a starting point for career counselors aiding in the search, Wescott said.

Subsequent phone calls and email blasts as well as some good old-fashioned legwork added to the number of students who were offered assistance. Career counselors hand-delivered to campus division chairs a request for their students’ contact information as staffers stepped up their bid to serve as new graduates’ personal coaches and headhunters.

Although UPJ’s Career Services office always has assisted alumni, the 100-day initiative for the first time intentionally targets the students with a specific goal to have 100 percent of them placed by the end of the target period, said Boyd. “It’s an intentional marketing to students who might not have been aware of the services available to them,” she said.

As of Tuesday, 73 students were employed (64 of them full-time) and another 38 were heading to graduate or professional school.

Boyd said 278 surveys have been returned to Career Services. At the campaign’s midpoint, efforts have shifted from getting more surveys returned to focus more on the students who already have shown interest by filling out the forms, she said, adding that once a survey is in hand, she and fellow career counselor Victoria Biter get to work on helping with whatever students need for a successful job search.

Some students come in with well-organized portfolios and a clear idea of what they want to pursue, simply seeking an outside opinion of what they’ve prepared. Others need basic advice in how to write a resume or prepare for an interview. Encouraging all of them is part of the job. “Some are overwhelmed,” Boyd said. “That’s natural.”

Many students hail from outside the Johnstown area, so some help is being provided by phone or electronically. Initially, the career counselors request resumes, cover letters and other materials to critique. “Students may not be getting interviews not because they don’t have the skills or knowledge, but because they’re not highlighting or articulating their skills and experiences in the best way,” Boyd said.

The counselors also remind graduates to conduct some online housekeeping to eliminate anything unprofessional and to establish a profile on the networking site LinkedIn as they make the transition to the professional world.

For their efforts, the staff are receiving positive feedback, Boyd said. “They have been so gracious — saying or emailing, ‘You’ve really helped me,’ or ‘Thanks for finding me this position,’” she said. “It’s certainly rewarding for me to know I may have helped somebody.”

That’s not to say there haven’t been challenging moments.

“Some have a skewed view of Career Services and its power,” Boyd said. “We can’t transform the economy of the U.S.; we can’t make an employer offer a position. We can’t give a student experience they don’t have.” However, Boyd added, they can help students put their experience in the best light or look at the transferable skills they have that could broaden their value as a job seeker.

“Employers don’t care as much about GPAs and awards, but are more concerned with a job candidate’s experiences and knowledge,” she said, adding that part of her job is helping students think about and articulate how what they’ve done might apply to the specific position they’re applying for. How might the skills they gained in an internship relate? How might they prove their communication skills rather than just say they have them?

“It’s helping them to think about job searching in a different way than in the past,” she said.

In spite of dire economic news that can be especially scary for new graduates, Boyd said students aren’t getting discouraged. “What I see is students eager to begin their career. Not so much discouraged, but restless to use what they’ve learned,” she said.

There’s no denying that the economy isn’t as good and employers aren’t hiring as much as in the past. “But for determined, conscientious, flexible students, the job outlook is good,” she said.

Boyd said the 100 percent initiative has called for some additional hours in the office, but the workload has been manageable. “Certainly it’s a large task, but anyone who works with college students is driven by the opportunity to impact the lives of students in a positive way,” she said.

Wescott acknowledged that helping students with future employment is a labor-intensive process, but he expects that at the end of the 100 days, there will be great success stories.

Boyd said it’s exciting every time they hear another student has found a job or been accepted to a graduate program. “We’re anxious to see the results,” she said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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