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Job prospects for grads good, but market has new challenges
Mike Lillich, Purdue University News Service
Posted on Wednesday, April 19 2006

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- While veteran career services officers at Purdue University report a good employment market for new graduates for the third year running, they say companies are using new approaches to make hiring decisions.

The typical employment interview has changed, says Timothy Luzader, director of the university's Center for Career Opportunities.

"The old 'What do you want to be doing in five years?' has been replaced by 'Give me an example of a problem you've faced and how you solved it," he says.

Luzader says this reflects a persistent trend over the past three or four years of an increased emphasis by employers on internships. Luzader reports internships used to be No. 5 or No. 7 on employers' lists, but now experience is a solid No. 1.

"Companies today court interns and provide them with a long-term, positive experience with significant challenges," Luzader says. "The goal is to convert these interns and retain them as permanent employees."

Summer internships for well-qualified Purdue undergrads generally pay about $2,500 per month and sometimes include housing and travel allowances. Internships for MBA students with large, established companies pay $4,500-$5,000 per month.

Patricia Garrott

Patricia Garrott, associate director of the Center for Career Opportunities, explains internships more broadly to students as leadership experience or even "an extracurricular activity that makes you unique so you stand out from the competition."

She says students have gotten the message.

"Our students realize that there are greater expectations and more competition in the job market," she says. "We have students who start coming into our office in their freshman and sophomore years because they realize that more than one good internship will help them get the job they want.

"Students also understand that an internship can help them learn what they don't want to do."

Luzader and Garrott report that there are no sure-fire majors or guaranteed-for-life jobs anymore if there ever were but there is one bankable employment certainty.

"A college education is a rock-solid investment," Luzader says. "The college major is less important than the skills and perspective students acquire along the way."

Employers rank writing and speaking ability as the top skill they seek in new employees, Luzader says. Then comes decision-making, analytical skills and problem solving.

"Hot" fields come and go, say Luzader and Garrott.

"Accounting is red-hot because of the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley law that requires more accountants in the wake of the WorldCom and Enron scandals," Luzader says.

And while employers have hired more accounting grads, they also have purchased new software and outsourced some functions to reduce the need for expensive hires in a tight market.

Then there's the impeding retirement of the huge generation of baby boomers, Garrott says. While this is an undeniable demographic fact, it's not playing out in an orderly retire-at-age-65 fashion.

"Some baby boomers are retiring early, but some are working until they are 75 or 80 years old, either because they don't have enough money to retire or they'd just rather work," she says.

This unpredictability and irregularity feed into the already volatile market for new employees as employers are loathe to take on new hires in the hypercompetitive global economy.

The lesson for graduates is that the employment market is dynamic, competition is high and things are moving fast. Campus career placement centers are responding by working to attract a broader and more diverse group of companies to campus to hire college grads.

"Our office is sponsoring what we're calling a just-in-time job fair in the middle of April, right before finals, and we've got more than 50 companies signed up to come to campus," Luzader says. "Among the employer participants are smaller companies that didn't know what their employment needs would be last fall when employers were on campus in greater numbers."

Garrott says one of the most important messages she imparts to young job seekers may be surprising.

"With all the online resume services, e-mail and commercial job boards, such as Hot Jobs and Career Builder, I tell students to find time to get away from the computer and make some human contacts and phone calls to employers and other contacts," she says.

Luzader agrees.

"This generation that is so comfortable with computers needs to do more face-to-face social networking," he says. "No matter how much technology is available, getting a job will nearly always be what we call a 'high-touch' endeavor."


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