From Commencement To Career
Local Experts, Graduating College Students Discuss Successes, Frustrations Of Hiring Process
Posted: May 10, 2014
By Candace Sipos
(Photo Illustration by NIKKI FOX / DN-R)
Colleen Dickson has applied for more than 150 jobs since July.
Of the applications sent, the Bridgewater College graduating senior received a response — as in, any response at all — from about a quarter.
She had three phone interviews, none of which panned into an offer.
She applied for positions across the globe — including one in Iraq — and eventually tried for internships and a slot with Teach for America when she wasn’t hearing back from any employers in her field.
“It was very distressing because, since February, people started to get accepted to Master’s degree programs and some people had found jobs,” she said. “I knew I had the skill and I knew I could get a job, and I felt like I was almost being cheated.”
The process, at times, seemed to be an endless cycle of letdowns that caused her to “slowly slip into depression,” a reality she can joke about now that she’s escaped it.
Just before Easter, Dickson finally heard back about the one job for which she had landed an in-person interview.
iJET International, an Annapolis, Md.-based international crisis management company offered the 22-year-old global studies major a full-time position, with benefits to boot.
“I am so happy,” she said in staccato fashion. “I can’t imagine a better starting job.”
Her advice for other graduates working on their fifth or 105th application? Don’t give up.
“It can be done, but it will take a lot of effort.”
It’s Not Fair, But Take Heart
Inevitably, some of the thousands of college graduates infiltrating the job market this season will slip right into a position, no problem.
For others, the road will be long and rocky, and it might just lead to a dead end.
An increasing number of graduates seem to skip that path altogether and choose instead the one that leads to another brick-and-mortar, and another degree; as mundane as grad school might sound to a recently-freed scholar still shaking from finals, at least it means security for awhile.
“Job hunting is not fair,” Dickson says simply, following it up with a reminder: “Life isn’t fair.”
Local employers and hiring experts acknowledge that there is no magic word to earn yourself those shiny new business cards, but take heart: There are some tricks to the selling-yourself trade.
What To Do, Who To Be
According to Stephen Riddlebarger, he has interviewed several thousand applicants in his 40 years in the Human Resources field.
The current director of HR for Rockingham County interviewed applicants for a couple of open positions this week; the county hires about 30 to 40 people every year to round out its roughly 550-person staff, he estimates.
Several times a year, a position in the county opens requiring a college graduate, so he’s interviewed his fair share of recent grads.
He has some general advice: Keep the cover letter short, keep the resume specific to your strengths related to the position you’re applying for, and make sure you understand what that position is.
“Over the years, I’ve had college graduates come in and they’ve had no idea what the job is all about,” Riddlebarger said.
Present yourself well and be ready to ask some questions of your interviewer, he says, but don’t focus on the salary.
And don’t be late to the interview.
“That’s the deal breaker, in my opinion … depending upon the reason,” he said.
Andrew Ansoorian, the executive director of HR for Harrisonburg City Public Schools, has also had a long career in his field; this year will be his 17th.
He reaffirms the typical advice — look professional, be prepared, composed and honest and study the position — while also emphasizing the importance of certain character traits.
“We’re looking for people who present themselves in a way that’s very coachable,” he said. “[People] who have an ability to collaborate with others, people who have a growth mindset, someone who’s always very eager to learn and develop … professionally.”
The school system wants applicants who don’t get deterred by minor setbacks and who “aren’t going to crack just because things didn’t go their way,” as well as people who are aware of how their behavior affects others.
This, Ansoorian says, is the “secret sauce” to the right candidate.
He’s using a new behavioral interview system this year to fill the 50 or so positions that will likely arise. Most of those positions will be teaching slots, of which recent college grads will fill the majority.
More than 60 percent of the school system’s teacher hires come from James Madison University, Eastern Mennonite University or Bridgewater College graduate pools, and this — graduation time — is the beginning of HCPS’s peak hiring season. He got an early start this year; he’s already three-weeks deep in the hiring process for next school year’s positions.
Like Ansoorian, Denise Rudolph, assistant director of employer relations and recruiting services at JMU’s Career and Academic Planning office, emphasizes the importance of technical and non-technical skills when it comes to hiring.
“Employers are interested in the well-rounded type of applicant,” said Rudolph, who works with both employers and students, in an attempt to match the needs of one to the other. “That’s really across the board; that’s not industry specific.”
Successful applicants should have the right mix of academic achievement, leadership know-how and work experience, and they should be actively engaged in the hiring process, she says.
Sure, you have more employers seeking you out as a computer science major than as a, say, journalism major, but all majors should put in time searching for the right position, she added.
“You’re not going to have a problem finding a developer or programming position, but are you finding that opportunity in an organization that’s really going to fit well with you?”
Though she acknowledges that 2008 and 2009 marked a tough time for the economy, and therefore jobs, “our issue has primarily been really having more employers than we [do] students.”
JMU students have access to the Recruit-A-Duke system indefinitely, which links them with employers specifically looking for JMU grads, Rudolph explained. Currently, more than 160 job positions are posted just within a 50-mile radius of Harrisonburg, with at least 1,000 openings posted in general.
Kyle Laver, the woman behind Harrisonburg Career Coaching, points out that 80 percent of jobs are never even listed.
“It’s important to network,” she says. “Constantly talk to people about what’s out there. You need to dream up what your ideal job is, and either work toward that goal or actually talk to people who have that job.”
What’s Going On With This Generation?
For someone who believes in the power of networking and face-to-face conversations, the fact that many recent college grads stay behind a computer screen is alarming.
“I think the biggest struggle, honestly, is social media has made us a lot more antisocial,” Laver said. “The struggle that a lot of new graduates have is just not being able to use their interpersonal skills to connect to people. The people that are hiring are in their 50s or 60s, and that’s really important to them.”
Twenty-something-year-old college grads have the potential to be “exceptional communicators,” Ansoorian said, because they just interact more than previous generations, but they do it differently.
“They do it obviously through digital mediums, sometimes a little less formal [and] can come off as being flippant at times,” he pointed out.
They’re more result-oriented, in general, he added, but they also want immediate gratification. They embrace coaching and feedback, but they’re less loyal to one organization.
One key element he’s realized about that demographic the past several years is that grads are more culturally aware and better at working with people of diverse backgrounds. In fact, they crave diversity in the workplace, he says.
“They’ve been raised in a global world,” he explained.
For Riddlebarger, college graduates, in recent years, have just been better at the hiring process in general.
“Most students are better prepared today than what they used to be,” he said. “I think it’s attributable to the information available and the internet, and also I think colleges have emphasized being prepared more so than they used to.”
‘Don’t Give Up’
Ross Foster, for one, believes his program at JMU has set him up well for a successful job search.
The 23-year-old Bridgewater native is on track to graduate from a five-year middle school education Master’s degree program next year. It requires him to undergo two eight-week-long student-teaching experiences, which are perfect for networking, he said.
On top of being a male in middle school education, Foster will be certified to teach math and science — both areas in the field not as many candidates gravitate toward, he explained.
“I feel like [the job search] won’t be super difficult,” he said, acknowledging that it’s always a challenge. “I think JMU does a great job preparing its education majors.”
Lilian Dolgolenko, also a JMU student, fully admits her faults leading up to the job search process and she credits the university’s Career & Academic Planning office with helping her find the right job.
The 21-year-old graduating senior from Alexandria has secured a position with consulting firm McGladrey, even though her GPA was far from perfect.
Donna Pettit, administrative assistant with the CAP employer relations sect, helped Dolgolenko through the process the student said: Pettit even arranged a mock interview for her.
Halfway through the experience, the recruiter told her the interview was real, and she wanted Dolgolenko to visit the firm for another round.
“I actually ended up getting my dream job,” she said, adding that she has friends who are still struggling to do so.
“At the end of the day, it’s not the GPA that they hire; it’s the person. There’s so much more to it than just a number on a piece of paper. Don’t give up.”
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or firstname.lastname@example.org