Universities try innovative ways to get grads jobs

With hiring slowed to a trickle, universities are trying new techniques to get alumni jobs

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    Participants conduct six-minute meetings during a speed networking event for alumni of colleges in the New England Small College Athletic Conference in downtown Boston on Oct. 7, 2009. Universities are turning to innovative networking tools to help students and alums through a difficult economy.
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In an amply provisioned event room in a downtown Boston hotel, well-heeled professionals from their early 20s to well into their 50s sat, chatted for six minutes and, at the ring of a small bell, rose to find the next partner on their agenda.

Their name tags attested to their academic bona fides: all were graduates of schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), athletic pipsqueaks but intellectual powerhouses like Amherst College, Bowdoin College, and Tufts University. With all the information swapping and animated gesturing, it certainly looked like speed dating for the brainy.

Instead, the roughly 100 NESCAC students and alumni were speed networking, one of several ways universities are attempting to serve their seniors, recent alumni and even long-gone graduates in the face of a crippled job market. By beefing up programs that connect students to alumni and gauging the effect of quirky events like speed networking, universities are testing new ways of helping graduates find success even after they’ve tossed their mortarboards.

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“Our alumni have asked for more career support,” said Paul Ryan, an assistant director of alumni relations at Hamilton College, a NESCAC member, who directed the speed networking event. “They had plenty when they were seniors or juniors with us. But when they graduate and enter the workforce, they don’t have a career center to walk to anymore. They’re like, ‘Where do we turn?’ ”

By utilizing computer software that matches networkers based on their areas of interest and need, speed networking makes it easy for people to meet new contacts by slicing an entire room full of potential networking targets down to a manageable list.

“It’s probably the most efficient way of networking that could be. You don’t go in meeting people that you’ve already met. This really focuses you in on those that you don’t know,” said Craig Turet, a Philadelphia attorney who has run dozens of speed-networking events since 2007. “It eliminates the meeting of people who have needs in areas that are not worthwhile.”

Other colleges are also experimenting. At Carleton College, a small liberal arts institution an hour outside of Minneapolis, the career center lacked the flexibility to help students with unique interests, said Richard Berman, director of the Carleton Career Services Center.

So Carleton created an ambitious package of services for current students like a “Scholars” program focused on "taste of industry" tours, bringing groups of current students into the offices of alums involved in public policy (in Washington, D.C.), technology (Silicon Valley) and business (New York City).

But perhaps Carleton’s most innovative career services program is its short externship arrangements, which pair students and alumni for intensive work arrangements and home stays for up to a month. After the first six students completed the program last December, the Carleton staff was eager to find out what students learned at work.

“We were career specialists so we wanted to know all the work place stuff. They wanted to move all the conversations to the home stay stuff,” Berman said. “It got to a level of mentoring that I hadn’t seen in years and years of internships and my epiphany at that point was, 'Wait, maybe we’ve got this all wrong.' ”

“All this stuff is trying to shake the paradigm," he said. Instead of concentrating on internships, website applications, and uploads, "we’re trying to get people talking to people.”

Before Carleton’s agenda could get off the ground, however, they needed alums to offer up their homes, contact lists, and time. On this front, an appeal for economic sympathy certainly didn’t hurt.

“The economy was huge because the traditional avenues were drying up,” Berman said. “So we appealed to alumni and parents and said, ‘Our seniors sure drew a short straw. Here’s an opportunity for as many of us who can, here is a chance to really step up and help this group of seniors. What a time to be coming out.’ ”

The University of Southern California is taking an even more direct approach to dealing with rough economic weather. USC has put together two “Pink Slip” mixers for the recently unemployed to connect with other Trojan alums.

At Texas A&M, the top 100 leaders from businesses founded or owned by Aggies are invited to College Station for talks in academic courses, a luncheon with 100 current students, and an awards ceremony. In tough economic times, it’s important for students to see entrepreneurs, like those in the Aggie 100, thriving, said Richard Lester, director of the Center for New Ventures and Entrepreneurship at A&M.

“Prices are down, good people are available, customers are interested in potentially changing their brand loyalty,” Mr. Lester said. “Today’s environment is a great time to be an entrepreneur. We see that with our students too because so many of them were getting sucked up by the Big Four [accounting firms] or the corporations or the energy companies and those job applications are down now. So quite a few of them are taking a different look at entrepreneurship than they did a couple of years ago.”

Taken as a whole, these programs signal a further shift in the relationship between universities, students, and alumni. Where universities were once solely responsible for helping students get a job right out of the graduation gate and then hoped against hope that students would pitch money into the university coffers as wealthy alums, today the relationship is becoming ever deeper through each segment of a student’s life.

At Hamilton, 50 seniors apply for positions on an alumni leadership team built to inculcate a sense of alumni leadership and connection even before graduation.

Their half-joking motto? “It’s a life sentence.”

And that cuts both ways.

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