Career Builders

The cocoon of college can be difficult to leave in the best of times. The idea of trading the work of studying for exams for job hunting when the U.S. unemployment rate hit a 26-year high of 9.7 percent in August is enough to make a graduate roll over and go back to sleep for another four years.

Most colleges and universities offer job-placement assistance to grads and alumni, including the basics of career counseling and coaching, interview practice, resume development and job/employment fairs. But Greater Cincinnati area universities are giving those traditional programs a facelift during these tough economic times.

"What we try to do is create as many opportunities as possible for our students to connect with employers by creating programs where employers are on campus - to give them mentoring and feedback," says Keley Smith-Keller, director of Northern Kentucky University's Career Development Center. "We've really ramped that up over the past year."

If they're paying attention, seniors have heard it all before and more than once. So it's inevitable that yet one more piece of advice, no matter how well intended, will push frustration and annoyance buttons: Enter the Student Ambassadors program. This peer-to-peer experience is an effort to combat the eye-rolling that follows yet another class or practice interview session.

"Two of our current student worker specialists are designing that program," Smith-Keller says. "They created a Minute-Clinic program - really short programs that highlight the career development center and all the things that we do. They present these to classes and student groups."

NKU is also tinkering with a more traditional path to finding a job - cooperative (co-op) education. Students typically alternate semesters or quarters of taking classes and working full-time in the field of their choice. But not all students fit into that prepared program mold.

"If you're a working student, giving up whatever job you have to squeeze in an internship or cooperative education program that will really help you when you graduate is a tough decision - when it puts you at risk of losing your bread-and-butter job," Smith-Keller says. "For that reason we have created a variable credit cooperative education program where we can get our students into cooperative education experiences where they can work as few as eight hours a week and get a little bit of experience."

Experience is key so Xavier University is accessing real-world expertise in a new way.

"We are really working hard at becoming a mentoring campus - connecting students to professionals who have been out of school seven to 10 years and have a lot of advice, a lot of great information that they can share with the student," says Sheila Spisak, director of XU's Career Services Center. "If the student is questioning their field they can say, 'Tell me a little bit about what you do on a daily basis.' They can ask questions about connections to other professionals in the field, they can have assistance on their career aspirations, career planning."

Looking beyond campus to find those all-important job openings is also essential, according to Spisak. In cyberspace that's an Internet job board accessible only to those with a connection to XU. Students, graduating seniors or alumni are available to employers through the job postings on the board, which creates exclusivity for Xavier's people.

That said, cooperation is also on the agenda.

"This past year we collaborated with other area career centers at schools in and around the Cincinnati area to offer an education career fair to all of our teaching candidates, maximizing the number of employers we could draw," Spisak says. "We had over 400 teaching candidates who came to the fair, networked with employers and participated in interviews with school corporations. There are a lot of states and regions who collaborate on job fairs, so this is not unique. It is somewhat unique to Cincinnati."

Then there's the military twist with the Job Search Boot Camp at the University of Cincinnati for soon-to-be graduates still looking for employment.

"There are employers who come and participate as expert resource people who can talk with the students and try to help guide them through this process of preparing themselves for this very challenging time," says Katrina Jordan, associate director of UC's Career Development Department.

UC is also using technology to assist students. In addition to posting 'Hot Tips on Conducting a Job Search' and offering seminars on entrepreneurship on the department's website, a computerized interview practice program is designed to help eliminate performance anxiety.

"One of the things we have as a tool here is called Interview Stream," Jordon says. "If students have anxiety about sitting with an employer doing a mock interview, this might help them get over the jitters, to help get out some of the nervousness."

"The software allows them to answer questions from an online interviewer. We encourage students to do this so they can see themselves (on the recording); they can see their body movements and how they're coming across."

At Cincinnati State Technical and Community College the emphasis is addressing obstacles to the job search.

Getting students to graduation can be the first step to job placement. Over 30 percent of students leave college after the first year and almost 50 percent never graduate, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Staying in school can be even more difficult for someone who has more challenges.

"The Black Male Initiative was set up to help black males find other people both on the student level and on the faculty/staff level who are supportive and who can help them get through some of the things that they need to be successful," says Bari Ewing, College Access Programs Director. "When we looked at the data at the school, black males had the lowest retention rate. So the main goal is to let the students know that there is help and where it is."

Co-op programs are also a popular alternative at Cincinnati State. Once established in a program, co-op coordinators have a wealth of resources to offer all students including their own networks.

"If you're in the technical programs, the co-op coordinators are working with maybe five programs so they have strong relationships built up with so many of the employers in those fields that when they get a graduate they can say, 'I just talked to so-and-so, they're hiring,' " says Linda Romero-Smith, a co-op coordinator. "We do get calls from employers who are specifically looking for graduates."

Romero-Smith says her staff networks constantly with each other to share job leads, information and contacts. They also stay in touch with students who complete an associate's degree and go on to a college or university for a bachelor's degree. Even though they have access to different career assistance, some come back to their roots at Cincinnati State.

"I had a student who called the other day and said, 'I just graduated. What's out there?' So we sat down," Romero-Smith says. "I have a book that has pages and pages of business cards and we were brainstorming about some things she wants to do - who I know who is doing some hiring."

Maybe digging out from under the covers doesn't have to be such a miserable idea after all.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Xavier University, D'Artagnan
Student production, XU
Balance, XU
Tangeman University Center, University of Cincinnati
Cincinnati State graduation, provided
Northern Kentucky University campus

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