Graduation bleaker

Employment anxiety running high among the class of ’09—but is panic really in order?

It’s that time of year again, when stressed-out college seniors who didn’t have success early in the spring scramble to find work in fields they enjoy. Job fairs have come and gone. Finals are in the air. Graduation looms.

Unlike the past few years, when the job market was ripe for new blood and it was OK to wait till the last minute, this year the pickings are slim. Students face a recession unlike any we’ve experienced recently—maybe unlike any since the Great Depression.

Only 50 employers showed at the most recent job fair at Chico State, compared with the usual 100 or more. Many had only a few openings, most of those out of town—even out of state. But while some job seekers may be shaking in their boots, others are taking a calmer, more calculated approach.

“It’s a tough job market, but I’m looking at positions in state government, federal government, even the State Legislature,” said Aaron Karp, a fifth-year senior who will graduate this month with a major in history. “I’m also going into my third interview for a grassroots, progressive company that works with the ACLU.”

For Karp, there’s a plan A, B, C, D and even an E for employment; plan F is going to grad school to postpone the inevitable entry into the “real world.”

According to Jamie Starmer, who heads the Chico State Career Center, Karp is doing things exactly right—especially considering he completed an internship at the State Capitol last year.

Another thing the 23-year-old Karp has going for him is his willingness to take jobs in various fields. As a history major, he’s always been interested in entering politics. So, for now, his sights are set on government jobs. But he had no qualms offering this advice to his fellow graduates: “The economy is going to get better. If you have to be a waiter for a little while, do that.”

If Starmer had been part of the conversation, he’d probably have added: “… and be the best damned waiter you can be.”

ALL THE RIGHT MOVES <br /> Aaron Karp says he isn’t stressing graduation too much—he has a number of jobs he’s ready to apply for and is gearing up for a third interview for a grassroots political company.


Echoing the opinion of employment experts, Starmer said, “This is the most challenging market I’ve seen in my 20 years.” Then, he added: “But there are more jobs than people think.”

For a graduating senior, he said, the key to landing employment in these tight times is three-pronged:

• First, you need to show potential employers that you’ve been doing more than sitting on your butt the past four years.

• Second, you need to be proactive—go to all the job fairs, approach companies you’d like to work for, use your connections.

• Third, you have to be flexible.

“Employers are able to be more picky,” Starmer said, “so students are going to have to be more prepared.”

That might mean leaving the comfort of Chico, or home—wherever that might be—and taking a position in a new town. That thought might be scary at first, but being able to tell a potential employer you’re willing to relocate could make the difference between getting a job and not, Starmer said.

“Places are hiring, but it’s tough,” said senior Amanda Bertran, who attended Chico State’s recent career fair—and the two before it. “I’m looking throughout all of California, definitely spreading out geographically.”

People all over are in the same boat.

HOLDING THE REINS <br /> Jamie Starmer, who runs the Chico State Career Center, stands in front of the 50 potential employers at last month’s career fair. Typically, he says, about 100 show up, so this is a lean year.


“Right now, regardless of if you’re graduating or if you’ve got a lot of experience, it’s a really tough job market,” said Marisa Smiley, a human resources coordinator for Staff Resources, an employment-services firm in Chico.

“You can take all the advice of all the employment agencies, but you’re going to have to use your own common sense as to how to find a job. If that’s putting on a suit and tie and pounding the pavement, or networking, you need to be doing whatever you can. This is your time to leverage your contacts with your grandmother’s sister who works at a company you like.”

A poor job market means more than just being open geographically, Starmer said, but also with the kinds of jobs sought. It may well mean being open to taking a position at a company that has nothing to do with the market one hopes to enter.

After a few years of gaining experience, rising in the ranks and proving yourself, the job market will likely turn around; at that point, those who have stepped outside their comfort zones for the time being will be well-positioned to get the jobs they’ve been craving all along.

“Students have to be flexible,” reiterated Jessica Gustafson, a Chico State grad representing Sherwin Williams at the recent job fair on campus. “We have jobs for people like that.”

The auditorium where the job fair was held, on April 16, was sparse compared with previous years. And Starmer, who stood at the entrance welcoming students and employers alike, said he was disappointed with the student turnout as well. But the room was by no means empty. Most of the students were dressed to impress, résumés in hand—others seemed to walk in as if by mistake, wearing jeans and T-shirts, checking out the prospects.

“This is where I found my last job in 2006,” said Gina Danna, a Chico State alumna who returned hopeful to find a new position. “It’s not looking promising. Last time I was being pursued; now I’m the one doing the pursuing.”

The dearth of employer booths was unfortunate, Starmer said, but he remained optimistic—that even during such a bad economy, some companies are hiring.

Bertran, looking for employment, expressed frustration: “This is a very small career fair. I’m excited but nervous. Two of my friends who graduated last semester still don’t have jobs.”

STRESSED TO IMPRESS <br /> Amanda Bertran attended the April job fair but wasn’t too enthusiastic about her prospects.

Photo By meredith j. cooper

At Butte College’s job fair Wednesday (May 6), there was only about half the number of employers as usual, reported Ruth Ann Hansen, employment technician at the school. Her advice, beyond attending the Job Placement & Cooperative Education Office’s interview seminars, is to really punch up the résumé—make it personal and make it stand out from the hundreds of other applicants: “You need to present yourself as someone who they should interview.”

Just about the worst thing a student can do, from Starmer’s perspective, is give up and say that “the economy sucks, I’m not going to get a job anyway, so I might as well just move home with mom and dad.”

In fact, it mostly likely will be those students—particularly the ones who have floated through the past four or five years without joining any campus clubs, taking on summer jobs or internships or volunteering while out of class—who will not have found a job come graduation. Not one worthy of their college degree, at least.

“If the job market is just too stressful, go to grad school, get another credential,” Starmer advised. “Don’t just sit around and whine about not getting a job. The bottom line is that a person cannot let themselves get apathetic, frustrated and not do anything.”

Starmer, a Chico State grad himself, is a firm believer that Chico State graduates—despite any reputation they may have earned to be partiers—have a leg up because employers have had positive experiences with them in the past.

“Employers love Chico State students,” he said, “because of their relatively unique skills living on a residential campus, being part of the community.”

The potential employers at the career fair seemed to support that sentiment, based on the breadth of employers from out of the area and quotes from a few—“Chico grads seem to do pretty well,” said one from Atlanta.

So the future might not be so bleak after all, especially when you throw in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, signed by President Obama.

“We don’t even know what the stimulus package is going to be—work forces are going to change,” Starmer said.

EMPLOYERS’ MARKET<br /> Marisa Smiley, a human resources coordinator in Chico, says the most important things in this bleak job market are to have faith in yourself and to exhaust all resources.

Photo By evan tuchinsky

The jobs he sees most of are in the fields of construction management, engineering, health care (though nursing is not as hot as it was a few years back), accounting and business. “People with SAP [a computer accounting program] knowledge are highly sought-after. There’s also sustainability—it’s reaching out into every industry.”

Looking a few years down the line, Starmer sees change that will bring more jobs, both to new college graduates—today’s sophomores and juniors—and those who have gotten work experience since graduation.

“The baby boomers are going to start to retire,” he said. “We’re going to see that across the work force.”

Agreed Hansen from Butte College: “It will get better.”

So, for young adults readying their graduation gear—plus prepping for their move out of campus housing, a possible stop-gap job or impending interviews—all is not doom and gloom. In fact, Starmer (who says not nearly enough students utilize the Career Center) believes there are jobs out there for the proactive, qualified students.

By and large, the major shouldn’t matter. Most of the skills learned in any field can cross with others. For example, while the newspaper industry is in dire straits, Starmer asks, “What can’t a journalism major do? They know how to adhere to deadlines, they can research, they can write, they have good people skills.

“Most of the time, most majors have transferable skills. Like in the hotel industry—right now it’s having a tough time, but do customer service somewhere else and position yourself for when the market opens back up.”

Until the recession reverses, experience is key. Ramping up that résumé with internships, job experience, joining—and running—campus clubs all will help provide an edge once the job market bounces back.

“You need to have your own stamp out there,” added Smiley of Staff Resources. “Employers are really checking references. It’s the employers’ market. Even something as small as having a slightly racy photo on Facebook, that can make the difference right now—clean those things up if you can.”

Specifically for this month’s grads, a summarizing message would be: Don’t freak out. Don’t be apathetic. Get off the couch, find a job, and feel confident that things will get better. They always do.