The Job Market for Midd Grads
With the national unemployment rate at 8.5 percent as compared with 9.9 percent two years ago, what’s the outlook for Middlebury graduates? What attributes are potential employers looking for? How have job-search techniques changed in recent years?
A survey of the Middlebury Class of 2011 conducted six months after graduation generated responses from 46 percent of the class. It showed that 62 percent are employed, 17 percent are attending graduate school, nine percent are engaged in post-grad internships or fellowships, six percent are traveling or volunteering, and another six percent are still seeking employment. (For the Class of 2010 six months after graduation, the numbers weren’t as positive, with 52 percent employed and 15 percent still seeking employment.)
Also in 2011, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) surveyed 244 hiring organizations, from Proctor & Gamble and American Airlines to Dow Chemical and Ernst & Young, about whether they are hiring, who they are hiring, and how they are screening candidates for jobs.
In light of the available data, middmag.com visited Middlebury’s Center for Education in Action (EIA) and sat down with its director of career services, Don Kjelleren, and associate director, Susan Walker, for a conversation about today’s job market for recent college graduates.
According to the NACE survey, the number one attribute employers are looking for is a candidate’s ability to work as a member of a team. How are Middlebury students responding to that reality?
Walker: We know that potential employers look at teamwork as a critical skill. One of the roles we play [in the career services office] is helping students translate the skills that they don’t necessarily see as job-related into entries on their resumes and narratives for their interviews. And one of the major skills, especially for athletes, is the transferability of what they do on the playing field, in practice, and in traveling as a member of the team. Most students will not be playing organized football after graduation, but as we see on the NACE survey they will likely be working with other people to solve problems.
Kjelleren: The ability to work effectively as a team member is certainly in our students’ DNA, and it tends to be an interview question that they handle very well. We work with students to practice their pitch. They tend to have an abundance of examples of their teamwork at the ready. Middlebury students live and work in teams, and not just on the athletic fields. There’s teamwork in the classroom and in student organizations too. It’s a really strong card for our students to play.
Walker: I may be extrapolating here, but forming teams is a way for employers to encourage out-of-the-box thinking. When you have four people working on a problem or a project instead of just one, there’s always going to be interplay among those people. Change is happening so rapidly in organizations today that teamwork is essential. It can create the best conditions for creativity and maintaining a competitive advantage.
Kjelleren: We were not surprised when teamwork came out on top [in the NACE survey.] Yes, usually communications skills are number one, but maybe the emphasis has shifted because it’s now all about communications within a team setting. Communications has not gone away, but now companies are looking for candidates who play well, who have emotional intelligence, have relational skills, and have that ability to deliver group performance versus individual performance. Maybe in the old days companies wanted to hire individual, sharp maverick players. Now you have to have that plus the ability to fully execute in a team setting. It’s all about the team’s success.
After the ability to work on a team, the most-sought-after attributes on the NACE survey were leadership ability, problem-solving skill, and communications competency. How do Middlebury’s graduates fare in that regard?
Kjelleren: In most interviews now employers are asking specific questions that go right to the heart of our students’ problem-solving skills. These behavioral-based questions have increased over time in the interview process. Employers won’t just say, “Tell me an example of a time when you faced a challenge,” they will get more specific than that, more granular, and they’ll ask, “Give me an example of a time when you were a member of a team in a leadership position in which you faced a challenge.” These questions test our students’ ability to dig in and think about how they structure and solve real world problems.
Walker: We see these problem-solving questions in the not-for-profit sector these days too. One of our students recently had an interview with a major non-profit in Washington and said the interview was far more rigorous than expected. It turned out to be very much like a case interview that you’d see in the for-profit sector. This is important information for us to have because we found out the type of questions being asked in other environments. It all comes down to being fast on your feet and a quick thinker. And we practice this with Middlebury students before they go out for an interview.
Kjelleren: The College is doing a really fine job in recognizing the need for increasing the surface area around problem solving. Just look at MiddCORE, look at the Projects for Peace, look at the Solar Decathlon, and many of the projects and internships funded through EIA. These experiential-based programs are all about taking theory into the context of a problem and then solving the problem. It’s an area in which our students really shine.
Walker: A lot of times it’s our students who are the drivers in search of these experiences. It’s not that the College is dictating experiential education to our students; it’s more a case of the College responding to the creativity and desires of its students.
Kjelleren: At Middlebury we help students learn creative, out-of-the-box ways of solving a problem by getting their hands on it, which greatly augments traditional academic learning. Here students are actually out in the community or in Washington or internationally having impactful experiences that they can also talk about in an interview.
Are traditional skills like writing and computing less important to potential employers today?
Kjelleren: Our alumni tell us that their writing ability is a huge value-add to them on the job because many employees struggle today to write a cohesive statement. And when it comes to the technical side and basic computing skills, it is assumed now that candidates will have those. Where it used to be novel to have competency using Excel, Word, PowerPoint, etc., now it’s a minimal threshold for employment and that’s why it hardly registers on surveys any more. But when a student’s technical skills are relevant for a particular position, say GIS skills for an urban-planning position, then we advise them to showcase that right at the top of the resume.
What about internships? They seem to be the norm now.
Walker: Phil Gardner, the employment trend guru at the University of Michigan, makes the case that the internship is really the equivalent of the first job now. He said, “The internship has become a high-stakes event because it is the starting job of today.” And why is that? Well one reason is that the college experience today is more wonderful than it’s ever been. It’s richer, more stimulating, more varied, more engaging than it was, say, 30 years ago. So the transition from college to the workplace is a ruder awakening than it ever was. But for students who have completed internships and had actual experience in the world of work, they get it. They are better prepared to make the transition.
For students in the job-search process, how important is it that they manage their online identity?
Kjelleren: It’s critically important. I recently read that the majority of employers are now researching online information that’s not submitted by the applicant, which is very easy to do through search engines like Google. Suddenly there’s this whole new sphere of impact that can be very influential in the mind of a potential employer.
Walker: I see it as part of a broader transition that students face when they are in the job-search process. For example, we ask them to dress for their mock interviews here, and to bring their portfolios and several copies of their resumes. We had a student who was actively being interviewed who commented on “the wearing of the suit” and “the carrying of a briefcase,” like it was a whole new dynamic for him. And when students do internships, this comment always comes back to us about how different their lives become. They actually have to be in the same place from 8:30 in the morning until 6 o’clock at night. In fact, we just got a card from a well-beloved former student worker of ours who got a job in Boston and said, “Tell the students there’s no such thing as winter break!”
What’s the employment outlook for the Class of 2012?
Kjelleren: I would say we are cautiously optimistic. The domestic unemployment numbers are coming down right now, the market is up, and NACE projects job growth for college graduates. Most of their projections are for more vocational majors than we have, which is why the latest six-month, Middlebury-specific survey data is so compelling. While we are in recessionary times, and it may take both longer and more networking to land that choice job out of college, the outcomes data suggest that there exist significant opportunity for those who are persistent and strategically seek it. I believe that Middlebury graduates are successful in times as challenging on the national scene as these because of the tight network that Middlebury provides. Referral-based networking is the key to success in this market, and Middlebury provides the infrastructure for this to take place via faculty, alumni, and parents.
Don Kjelleren has a bachelor’s degree from Dickinson College and an MBA from the University of Pittsburgh. He has prior experience in the consumer food, advertising, and retail industries to complement his 12 years in career services. Susan Walker has a BA from Bryn Mawr and two master’s degrees in teaching. She has a combined 17 years of experience in career services and outplacement consulting, and direct experience in publishing, marketing, and education.