Fresh and eager college grads are pounding the pavement looking for work, despite grim odds. The unemployment rate for recent grads hovers at 53 percent, the highest in 11 years, according to research complied by the AP. Students at our three local colleges—New Jersey City University (NJCU), Hudson County Community College (HCCC), and St. Peters College—reflect the trend.
Jane Sepulveda, a Greenville resident and recent NJCU grad who now holds a Bachelor’s degree in geoscience, is trying to be patient.
“As I have been applying to jobs this spring, I have found that they are looking for professionals with five or more years of experience,” she says. “So I changed my strategy and I am now looking for jobs that might pay less in order to gain work experience and skills to help me land a better job later on.”
She is considering applying for her Master’s degree in sustainability management, health administration, environmental management, or environmental education.
“Going back to school will help me gain a more advanced skill set and add another dimension to my education, making me more marketable,” she says. “My long-term goal is to get my PhD and to be involved in sustainable community development and urban planning.”
There are job opportunities in her field in the Midwest and Arizona, but she isn’t willing to relocate.
“I can work as a bank teller,” she says. “At first, it appears I am stepping out of my field. But I can gain a great skill set, manage my hours, and still go back to school. The bank work will teach me about small business loans and will help me meet my long-term goal.”
Eventually, she hopes to work at a non-profit organization, securing investors interested in protecting our environment.
“There is a lot of money out there,” she says. “You have to find and tap into it.”
It took NJCU grad Ramon Aponte eight years to graduate. He expected to graduate in 2009, but he was deployed three times to Iraq. For the last eight years, he has attended school full time and worked two jobs: as a full-time Jersey City police officer and as a Marine. Somehow, he was able to take 15 credits per semester.
He has a five-year-old daughter. When NJCU started providing daycare, allowing him to get some sleep at night, his GPA skyrocketed.
After graduation, he will continue working as a cop, patrolling the Heights. This fall, he may be deployed to Africa. In the summer he got the good news that he got into graduate school at NJCU to study criminal justice. He wants to pursue his PhD and teach criminal justice at the college level.
“Most of the students think that simply earning a criminal justice degree will guarantee them a job as a police officer,” Aponte says. “Not true. What does help is passing the civil service test, but you still have to get a 92 or above to be considered. There is a lot of competition, and jobs are scarce, but college grads still have an advantage over high-school kids.”
Travel a couple of miles to Journal Square to HCCC and you will find Iris Charles. With a major in liberal arts-special education, Charles is not your typical student. At age 45, she went back to school after a 23-year break from her studies. Born and raised in Jersey City, she’s experienced gang life, single parenting, divorce, eviction, and domestic abuse.
Since January 2012, she’s worked as a teacher’s aide at Horace Mann Elementary School in Bayonne. She landed the gig by networking with the Bayonne superintendent whom she just happened to meet one day while at her older daughter’s school. “I’m a go-getter. I figured why not go directly to the top while I had the chance?”
Charles expects to get her Bachelor’s degree from NJCU in January 2013. She wants to be a teacher.
“People say there aren’t a lot of jobs out there, but there are jobs; you just have to go out there and make it happen. Sometimes you have to lower your expectations just slightly and use a job as a stepping stone to get to where you want to be later on in life.”
Diane Gotlieb, coordinator of career services at HCCC, agrees that there is no substitute for hard work and persistence.
“It is grim out there in terms of entry-level positions, and companies continue to cut back,” she says. “Students have to take responsibility for their future. Freshmen and sophomores need to ask themselves, ‘What do I need to do today to prepare for my future?’”
Gotlieb says, “As it turns out, there might be 100 resumes for one job opportunity, so the resume has to be strong and the interview has to be strong. The same tools are relevant today as they have always been: Internships can help a student stand out. Networking is key, and by all means, don’t discount anybody in your life—the corner deli owner might be the connection you need to succeed.”
Meanwhile, half a mile down JFK Boulevard at St. Peter’s College, Walter Stacey has just earned his degree in accounting with a minor in business law. He credits his ability to secure a job to hard work. Starting his sophomore year, he started to look for jobs on Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com. After these websites proved to be dead ends, he went to his college’s career services office.
Enzo Fonzo, director of the office of career services, got Stacey an interview at Lehman Brothers, which led to an internship in its corporate tax department. (Though Lehman filed for bankruptcy in 2008, the corporate tax department was still viable).
“The Lehman internship catapulted me ahead,” Stacey says. “I started thinking seriously about future careers.”
After a little networking his junior year, he realized one of his professors had a relative who worked at JP Morgan Chase. He used this connection and landed a job there for a year and four months, while continuing his studies full time. When JP Morgan went on a hiring freeze, Stacey had to do more digging.
“I went back to Mr. Fonza,” Stacey says. “He put me on a list for an interview with KPMG.” Stacey started his full-time job last August as an audit analyst in KPMG’s Short Hills office.
As the first person in his immediate family to go to college, Stacey “didn’t want to mess it up.”
Says Fonzo: “The job situation has improved slightly from 2011. Students who secure even what appears to be an unrelated job will be better off in the long run. By utilizing our office and approaching their job search in a focused way, almost like a course, students have a lot better chance of securing a job.”
The career services team offers networking with alumni and various organizations, interview preparation, and post-interview advice.
“What you say and how you say it is so critical in the interview,” Fonza says. “Students must ask themselves, ‘What qualities and talents distinguish me? What sets me apart from the other 99 students applying for this job?’ It is imperative that students not only articulate their accomplishments, but then show how they can leverage these successes in the workplace.”
The first thing employers look for, Fonza says, is solid written and verbal communication skills, as well as evidence that candidates can prioritize tasks and work well on a team. But he cautions that even for the top candidates, it could take five or six no’s before they get a yes.
Peter Gotlieb, Ph.D., associate dean at the center for experiential learning and career services at St. Peter’s, has been in the education business for more than three decades. (He is married to HCCC’s Diane Gotlieb.)
“We constantly follow up with our students,” Gotlieb says. “We encourage them to stay in touch. We hope that our relationship is something they take advantage of as they move forward through the job-search process.”
Students should start working with career services their freshman year.
“Overall, the current job market is not only poor, but it is different from the job markets we have witnessed in the past,” Gotlieb says. “All the college majors have been affected by this particular recession.”
Finally, alumni relationships are more important than ever in terms of recruitment, counseling, and providing real-world support.
Says Gotlieb: “It all comes down to affirming what you have to offer the employment world and going out there and selling yourself.”—JCM