It’s slim pickin’s out there, as Western Carolina University students are finding out. This past weekend, more than 1,100 graduates walked across the stage and into the most unforgiving job market in decades.
The competition is stiff. Fewer companies are hiring — the college reported a 30 percent decline this year in the number of career fairs held for students, said WCU Career Services Director Mardy Ashe. The downturn has hit every field, even traditionally stable ones like healthcare, where recruitment of students is down 16 percent.
New grads are competing with much more experienced workers who have been thrust back into the job market. Alumni contacts to the Career Services office have increased dramatically, as more people in the workforce lose their positions, Ashe said.
Ashe commonly hears students say that they feel finding a job won’t be tough for them, even though they know the market is a challenge right now.
“Many of them are very naïve about what to expect after graduation,” Ashe said. “On the other hand, some of them are also planning. They’re looking at alternatives.”
With resourcefulness and flexibility, some students have been successful. Here’s how a few WCU grads landed a job in this tough economy.
For Amanda Tomlinson, a finance and accounting double major, scoring a job meant doing something she hadn’t planned on. Tomlinson initially wanted to work for a bank — financial planning is her specific interest — but kept hitting a wall.
“I started applying three months ago, and probably applied for 40 positions,” Tomlinson said.
Tomlinson scoured online job search engines like Monster, CareerBuilder, and even Craigslist, to no avail. Without experience in her field, most employers wouldn’t even grant her an interview.
“Businesses sent back replies saying, ‘You’re not qualified,’” said Tomlinson. “But my biggest problem is that they didn’t let me get to the actual interview. I’m a pretty driven person — I double majored and finished in three years. But applying online, they just shut you out of the system.”
Tomlinson got turned down for even the most basic gigs, including a bank teller position.
“They sent me a one line response that said, ‘You’re not qualified,’” she said. “It was really upsetting. With the knowledge I’ve gotten from WCU, I’m qualified, but nobody wants to give me the opportunity. It was very, very tough.”
With no luck in her desired field, Tomlinson began to look elsewhere. The approach worked. She was hired as a clerical assistant for a building materials company. She’ll be handling paperwork as the company gets contracts for jobs funded by the federal stimulus package.
“It’s not really something I wanted to do, but it is something,” Tomlinson says. “I’m going to be out of school, and I have to pay bills.”
Ashe gives Tomlinson big kudos for her persistence, which played a role in her success.
“The more things you send out, the greater the likelihood you’ll be lucky,” Ashe said. “I would be persistent in this kind of economy until they tell you to stop.”
But Ashe says she would be cautious relying too much on job search engines, which, as Tomlinson discovered, don’t always yield results.
“The job search engines are not as successful as students think they’ll be,” Ashe said. “You’re competing with millions of people who’ve got the same things you’ve got.”
Having geographic flexibility is also helpful, Ashe said. Tomlinson narrowed her search to Western North Carolina, since she wanted to stay close to her boyfriend, a football player at WCU.
“Students and alumni with the most problems are those who are inflexible geographically,” Ashe says. “Consider other parts of the state, or even the Southeast.”
Geographic flexibility was key in helping Cara Ward, a theater major, land a prestigious graduate school assistantship.
“I was originally aiming for Florida. That’s where I’d like to end up,” Ward said. “I found things there, but the opportunities were better in other places.”
Those places included Wayne State University in Detroit — Ward’s hometown, and the last place she figured she would end up.
“I swore I would never return to Michigan after I left,” Ward chuckles. “But when they offer you something like that, you don’t say no,” referring to the graduate assistantship she landed at Wayne State.
Going straight to graduate school after college wasn’t in Ward’s original plans either, but she couldn’t let the opportunity pass her by.
“My original plan was after graduation I would get a job, work for a couple of years and make sure this is what I wanted to do, and then apply for grad school,” said Ward. “But I figured I might as well do it.”
Ward also has a summer job lined up at Stagedoor Manor, a theatrical summer camp for kids serious about breaking into the industry. She’s working as a costume designer, and will design six shows over the course of the summer.
How did Ward manage to find such great gigs? Some serious networking. She came across both opportunities at the Southeastern Theater Conference, where she was able to impress potential employers face to face and hand them her portfolio of design work in person.
“Networking is more than essential to theater students especially,” Ward said. “At the conference, I made connections with other people throughout the country and the world and had my portfolio reviewed by all of them.”
In the current economy, networking is the best way to find a job, Ashe affirms, and racking your brain for who you know. Any connection is worth trying, she says, including friends of family, family of friends, former employers, and faculty members.
Free labor, big payoff
It’s not always fun to work for free, but in recent WCU graduate Stephanie Drum’s case, the end reward was well worth it.
This past spring, Drum held a part-time, unpaid internship five days a week at Lake Junaluska in Haywood County. The Lake doesn’t generally take on interns in the spring, but since Drum agreed to work for free, they agreed to let her come on. Drum, who concentrated in professional writing, gained a wealth of experience in her field, creating walking tour and visitor guides as well as web content.
Then, as luck would have it, a temporary communications specialist position opened up at Lake Junaluska. The department didn’t have to look far for a qualified candidate, since Drum had been learning the ins and outs of the business for months. Lake Junaluska officials offered her the position.
For Drum, the internship provided a direct path into her desired field.
“I think I would have had a very hard time if I hadn’t interned,” she said. “I’m glad they make us do it.”
Indeed, the communications and English departments at WCU require students to do an internship as part of their coursework. But mandatory or not, Drum says every student should try to do one.
“If they get offered the chance to take an internship, even if it’s not required, they really should,” Drum said. “It will pay in the end.”
Ashe says finding an internship is one of the smartest moves a student can make when it comes to scoring a job, because employers “want to see directly related experience.”
Now Drum has professional experience in her field, which will come in handy when her job ends in July. Still, Drum isn’t limiting her job search to just one field. She knows the market’s tough, and she’s willing to be flexible.
“I’m kind of worried about getting a job in my field. If I can’t do that, I’m pretty sure I could find a seasonal job,” she says. Drum may even return to the summer gig she’s held for a few years during college — working at Wal-Mart.