by Jennifer L. Nelson

Who’s hiring our college grads?

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Putting a child through college is a stressful, frustrating, financially draining experience. Parents able and willing to do so deserve a medal. What do they receive? According to a poll by the research firm Twenty-something, Inc., 85 percent get their kids back. Of all the economic numbers confronting moms and dads these days, that one may just be the most deflating. In many cases, the newly minted grad comes home to roost until his or her employment picture gains some clarity.

Though the economic climate may have improved since the worst of times in 2008 and 2009—which marked a loss of more than eight million jobs nationwide—college graduates and displaced job seekers continue to face a less-than-welcoming marketplace in the Garden State. A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) indicated that just about 25 percent of 2012 diploma recipients had jobs waiting for them upon graduation. “While this number represents a slight increase from recent years, it’s still far from healthy,” says Greg Mass, Executive Director of Career Development Services at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) in Newark. An even more disconcerting reality for recent grads: this past summer, New Jersey’s unemployment rate climbed to nearly 10 percent, the highest it has been since 1977.

Fortunately, it’s not all bad news. Representatives of the state’s colleges and universities say it isn’t necessarily that jobs are unavailable in New Jersey, it’s that job seekers simply need to know where—and how—to find them. They point to emerging trends that shed some light on which industries may be bouncing back better than others. Not surprisingly, students who are proficient in the latest technologies will find the biggest pool of potential jobs across the state—and they know it. This year, Computer Science, Information Technology, Engineering, and Information Systems were among the most sought after disciplines, Mass says.

SOCIAL MEDIA BOOM Any parent concerned that their college-aged child spends too much time on Facebook might breathe a little easier knowing that this shift in the way people communicate has actually led to a slew of career opportunities in social media. According to Ryan Stalgaitis, Career Counselor and Internship Coordinator at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison, companies are actively recruiting employees who have the know-how to manage their presence on platforms like YouTube and Twitter. “The number-one industry for jobs in New Jersey is anything that deals with social media,” he says, noting that the university is responding to the demand with courses that allow Communications students to pursue a concentration in social media. Likewise, the university’s marketing programs are also experiencing an uptick in enrollment, he adds. “No matter what industry they’re in, all businesses have a need for an online presence today,” says Reesa Greenwald, Interim Director of the Career Center at Seton Hall University in South Orange. “And they need new employees who will be able to help create a stronger Facebook presence, or to properly manage a LinkedIn account,” It’s also an area where recent grads have a leg up on displaced job seekers who have been out of college for a decade or more, she notes.

Even so, students still need to possess traditional communication skills. “We’re still hearing from employers that students need to have stronger writing and interpersonal skills,” says Dr. Joyce Strawser, Dean of the Stillman School of Business at Seton Hall University. The state’s institutions of higher education are trying to stay ahead of the curve in their quest to prepare students for the new demands of the workforce. “Colleges have been responding to developments in technology and business by creating majors that hardly existed five or 10 years ago,” Mass explains. Indeed, many colleges are ramping up their new media offerings to prepare students for careers in cutting-edge industries like game design, animation and programming, graphic design, and e-text and web publication.

9/11 KIDS New Jersey’s college students literally grew up in the “shadow” of 9/11. It changed their world view as kids, and now it’s starting to change their post-graduate careers in interesting ways. Many are finding employment daylight in security-based careers such as information assurance, cybersecurity and homeland security. Others feel compelled to give back to local communities by seeking employment in the non-profit sector. “When we look at the entire spectrum of employment over the past four graduating classes, we see that nonprofit consistently emerges as the top industry of choice for our graduates,” says Beverly Hamilton-Chandler, Director of Career Services for Princeton University. There are some careers that have continued to remain in demand in New Jersey for decades.

Accounting remains on top of the list of fields actively recruiting new employees; positions in the healthcare industry have remained steady even throughout the worst of the recession. According to Kim Crabbe, Director of the Center for Career Development at Drew University, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech firms remain among the top sources for jobs in the state. Yet even in a field like healthcare, where jobs are relatively plentiful, many potential employees are finding that flexibility is key when it comes to channeling their skills and education into a career. “They may have earned a major in a particular field, but students need to know there are lots of things they can do with their skill set,” points out Carolyn Jones, Executive Director of the Center for Career Services and Cooperative Education at Montclair State University. “One of our goals is to help students understand that not everyone in the pharmaceutical industry wears a lab coat.” “Job seekers have to be open to pursuing opportunities that may not be their dream career, but that will at least get their foot in the door,” Stalgaitis adds.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Thinkstock

DOG EAT DOG EAT DOG In many cases, it’s not the career path students choose to pursue, but the steps they’re taking to land coveted full-time positions. Today’s graduates are finding that some tried-and-true methods of job searching—like mailing out résumés and waiting for a response—may no longer pan out. Networking both in-person and online remains the most successful method. “Students have to be assertive,” Strawser advises. “They have to be hungry for that job. They have to learn to follow up, and know how to take networking to the next level.” Not only are New Jersey grads competing with one another for full-time work, they’re also finding themselves up against older workers (who are more credentialed and experienced) due to layoffs, as well as graduates from the last several years, who are still seeking gainful employment.

Some students are even opting to leave the Garden State in search of that first full-time gig. “Graduates are willing to travel further for the right position,” Mass confirms. The competitive nature of the marketplace has also forced many job seekers to chart a less-direct path to their chosen careers. Suddenly, they need an increased level of experience just to compete for what were once entry- level positions. “The career ladder has changed,” Crabbe confirms, adding that sometimes the first step is an internship, not the entry-level job. Those who do snag a good job right out of school face a different work environment than their parents. Twentysomethings find themselves thrown right into the fire as soon as they’ve settled into their cubicles. “I think the greatest challenge is the shortened learning curve for new hires,” says Lynn Insley, Director of the Office of Career Development at Stevens Institute in Hoboken. “Companies expect students to provide value as soon as they join the company, and that’s not something we were seeing prior to the recession.” Job seekers are also navigating an increasing number of positions without benefits—or “consulting opportunities” with no guarantee of conversion to full-time jobs.

Janet Jones, Interim Director of Career Services at Rutgers University, notes that some young people are even opting to bypass the traditional job search by going right into business for themselves. “The students who are most successful are those who have an entrepreneurial spirit, and are able to navigate the opportunities that are open to them,” Crabbe observes. She is speaking for Drew grads, of course. However, this view was shared by all of the college placement professionals interviewed for this story. And for the record, those professionals all represent institutions of higher learning in the Garden State. Their observations and advice are just as relevant to students attending schools outside the state. Indeed, let’s not forget that New Jersey’s greatest export is college students—and that the vast majority will be coming back. We’ll give them a reassuring hug, stuff a few dollars in their pocket, provide meals and laundry service, and offer them a place to rest their heads. And do so gladly. We just don’t want that situation to become a permanent one.