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Clemson Career Director Interview: Hard Work, Not Gimmickry, Pays Off

By CityTownInfo.com Staff
May 28, 2009

The following is the transcript of an interview with Flora Riley, Executive Director of Clemson University's Career Services and Michelin Career Center. Clemson is a 100 year-old+ land-grant university located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, approximately 30 miles southwest of Greenville, SC, between Charlotte, NC and Atlanta, GA on I-85.

Clemson University's Career Services office offers the following services to help their students stand out from the competition: over twelve different career workshops, career and major counseling, resume and cover letter critiques, mock interviews, career library resources, part-time job listings, internships, internet access for career research and graduate school information. Additionally Clemson's robust web-based system ClemsonJobLink lists full-time job opportunities and campus recruiting as well as career and education fairs.

Mrs. Riley holds a Master of Education in Counseling Education from Clemson University and has 25 years in university career services as well as industry experience. She presently serves on the National Association of Colleges and Employers Board and has completed their Management Institute leadership training.

Interview Transcript

CityTownInfo: In tough economic times, you hear of students using creative methods to get their foot in the door at companies, such as offering to work for free for a few months. Are there any unusual methods you advocate to help a student stand out?

Flora Riley: To get one's foot in the door, a student has got to do the basics first. When students are freshmen, they generally find out what they want to be and what they need to do to be remarkable. If they have not done that before graduating, then they've done nothing to expect to be able to get their foot in the door. It's not just going to work with some gimmick. If employers have the money and the resources, they can hire the cream of the crop now. Excellent candidates are available now, so students have to be aware of this - there is extra competition, so students have to work that much harder to stand out. Gimmickry to get a foot in the door just does not work. It might get a student's name to the employers, but they are probably not going to look at the student past that. So hopefully students have done the basics - hopefully they have their resume together and they've made it perfect, because that is the first thing that employers can judge them on.

The second piece of advice I give students is to make sure that they can articulate well what they have to offer so that they are comfortable once they get into the interview. I recommend mock interviews to be best prepared. If a student has never been interviewed before, s/he needs to make sure that she or he is comfortable in the interview atmosphere.

Number three is for the students to expand their network of contacts. They need to prepare a marketing speech of a minute and a half or so as to who they are, what they are looking for and the skills they bring to the table. In a career fair, one only has a short minute or so to have his or her self-marketing pitch, and students should be prepared early on. Preparation is important, because a lot of people aren't prepared. Once they finish college, a lot of people just say they just need a job and that is not an answer. Students need to have a real answer about their strengths, interests and goals. There are so many places savvy searchers can find a job opportunity. It happens all he time, one just has to be ready. Be ready to give that one minute speech to anyone and everyone. Students and job seekers need to make a concerted effort to start putting people in a database, so they can make networking contacts. Looking for a job is like a four-hour course. It's three hours in the classroom, and an hour lab. That kind of time is what the students need to be putting in the job search, and people just don't generally do that. That's not gimmickry, that's just hard work. Those are the students that get their foot in the doors.

CityTownInfo: What kind of career advice would you give to someone entering college today?

Flora Riley: I probably won't deviate from what I would have said a year or two ago, because career advice encompasses basic rules that we all have to go through no matter how good or bad the economy is. Students still have to do the same basic steps in career development and career assessments in order to get where they need to go. It is very critical to decide really what field a student wants to be in so that s/he can be proactive in networking and contacting people in the areas that they have an interest in. It truly is a formula: number 1, the students need to find out who they are and who they might want to be. Number 2, which is true for anyone in any point in their life, is once they've done that searching and have an idea of what they want to do, then they need to start either looking and getting experience in those fields, or try to narrow down where they might be best suited, career-wise. For a college student, that would involve getting an internship possibly, a co-op assignment or some kind of experience in their chosen field. It could also mean that the students should consider getting involved in a related on-campus activity. By getting involved in organizations, along the way, students may figure out what skills they are going to need to succeed in that job.

Almost any career choice today requires soft skills: good leadership and communication skills, a good work ethic, etc. Students need to start working on developing soft skills while still in school. Some ways to do that on campus could be to get involved in organizations, projects or anything that can take students out of their comfort zone and help them expand their skill base. If students do this, by the time they get ready to graduate, they should have made some contacts in their desired field, which will help them in their ultimate job search.

Hopefully by the time people entering college today graduate, the economy will be better than it is now. But even if it's not, I recommend trying to stay true to whatever field they wanted to be in. Maybe the one concession a student can make in a down economy is to look a little broader than what the student has narrowed their choices down to. The student can step back a little bit and find something in a related field that may not be his/her top-tier preference. Maybe the second-tier preference would look better according to the economy, and can still provide valuable experience, on which the student can build. Students should consider a broad-based, strategic focus as they get ready to graduate.

CityTownInfo: Regarding developing soft skills, for a student who is more of an introvert, do you have any tools you use that could help draw those students out? Even though they might be more shy or introspective, they can still develop those skills to make them attractive to an employer?

Flora Riley: Well, absolutely. As you probably know most universities don't mandate that you go to a career center. I think there may be one or two smaller private schools in the country that mandate visiting their Career Services office, but the majority do not, so we have to market our services to students. Consequently, we are marketing geniuses, because we have to be. We are in classrooms all the time, and we constantly market our services to faculty. We get to know the faculty as much as we can so that we can say, "any time you need time off, we'd love to have a session on careers in your classes." We've also made it easy for faculty to come to our website and submit a form requesting what they'd like us to talk about during our classroom visit. We offer a faculty-staff luncheon and we invite all faculty and staff throughout the university. We do all kinds of things to advertise ourselves and to network. We are also very involved in freshmen orientation - we meet prospective students' parents and we see them at least two or three times during each orientation. Our summers are filled with eight or nine different two-day sessions.

We start reaching out to the students beginning with orientation. Our goal is to try to get the students to come to the career center, and a lot of them do. Or a lot of professors will bring their classes in and have a session, and we'll offer a fun and very interactive mini seminar, so students get a taste of learning about themselves. We also talk to students about their four-year program and what they need to be doing while they are here. We do a lot of role-playing exercises, and then they share and communicate. We do a lot of different things like that to get the word out, and it's a continual process.

CityTownInfo: Do you feel that today's collegiate juniors and seniors are more or less prepared compared to ten or twenty years ago?

Flora Riley: Each class has its own personality; they are all different. I would say our classes here at Clemson our getting smarter simply because the average SAT score of an incoming freshman is around 1,220 or 1,230 now. So I think from the students that we have seen in the last 5 years compared those from 15 years ago, they are much more aware. I think it has to do with the way students communicate now. Everything is real-time, and everyone is up on everything that's happening, not only around the students' present environment, but also around their state, region, the US and around the world. For example, they know what's going on in Asia immediately, so I think it's made students become more aware and makes them know more then students knew 15 years ago. It's not that they are smarter, but I think because they have so many more facts and so much more information at their finger tips, they are just so much more knowledgeable about what's going on around them.

CityTownInfo: I think an important thing for younger students to know is that there is this older workforce out there and they have a lot of years of experience. The younger students who are entering the workforce need to realize that there is more than one way to do things and that they may be able to learn from a different way of doing things. Maybe that way is not the student's style, but it's very relevant to their job especially as they are learning a new role.

Flora Riley: There have been articles about how there are now four generations working at the same time in the workplace, which can be challenging. For example, recent graduate new hires may be very savvy in technology, whereas an older person might not be. Therefore the students do not have as much patience or respect for the older employees, so the new hires may miss out on the wealth of knowledge that exists.

However the saving grace of the younger generation may be that they do tend to respect their elders more than the previous group of students did. It seems that this generation of students respects their parents and they are more communicative via a variety of ways, with 24/7 connectivity. I think that when these students get into the workforce, maybe they won't have the impatience problem and there will be more respect than there might have been in the last seven or eight years. But, I do believe that it's been a perennial issue from any college graduate going into the workforce. In the past, recent graduates didn't really respect someone who didn't have the education level that they do, or someone who is not as technologically savvy as they are. But I think this group of students now has a little bit more respect for older people than in years and generations past. The respect problem is probably still out there a good bit, but it's not worse than it was, that's for sure. I think it's probably even a little bit better.

CityTownInfo: I think that a difficult adjustment may be that the respect has to go both ways, because everyone can learn from each other - it's not just top-down. Older people have more experience and they have a different kind of education than the younger incoming employees, but the younger employees have different and maybe faster ways of doing things because they are much more connected with technology. So there has to be a two-way respect. However younger people should respect the experience of the older person so that they can learn things and learn to do them maybe faster with the technology tools that they have.

Flora Riley: I think you are absolutely right. It is a two-way street, and the smart employer is the one that recognizes that and takes advantage of it by pairing their young managers with other, more experienced managers. To me that's the mission of a director or a president: to set the stage for the whole concept of mentoring and mentors. A lot of companies have mentoring programs where that works fairly well. And again, this group of students is more receptive to that than previous generations have been.

CityTownInfo: What kind of tools and resources would you encourage your students to take advantage of so they can find out who they are and what they can do with their interests or skills?

Flora Riley: We use a survey, which is very helpful. I would recommend students take the survey even if they are fairly certain about their major because it could present other opportunities within one's chosen major. I recommend pausing to take the survey and then sitting down with a counselor. Start from there and plan a strategy for the next four years regarding what to do and what needs to be done. Have a strategy. We actually have this all on our website; a four-year strategy for things students need to be doing all along the way. We encourage students to visit the career center and get to know the trained counselors. That's the first thing that I would suggest that students do.

CityTownInfo: Are most of your students on campus?

Flora Riley: Yes, we have about 17,000 on campus students and we also have the University Center in Greenville, which is about 30 minutes away, which is mostly for masters programs and some specialized programs. We also have a well known automotive area, which is the International Center for Automotive Research, called ICAR. Primarily though, we are not a commuter campus.

CityTownInfo: I think that the physical proximity of the students, including requiring freshmen to live on campus, helps them network so that they can become aware of the opportunities offered by the Career Services office. Students are on-campus and are exposed to your messages more often.

Flora Riley: That's true.

CityTownInfo: Looking at your website, Clemson has an amazing and large career services staff. I think your students are really lucky, because I feel that a lot of students go to college because that's where their friends are going, or because it's close to home. However, I think students really have to keep their focus on the end goal, which is ultimately graduating and being able to get a decent job.

Flora Riley: That's right.

CityTownInfo: In order for students to get a job, they have to develop career-related skills. Your students are really lucky, because Clemson's Career Services office has a lot outreach, and that's not something that you always hear from other schools. In looking at other schools' websites, sometimes it's hard to find their career services section, and that's frustrating, because the end goal - getting a fulfilling job - is extremely important, so the career services information should be easy to find online or on campus. I think it should be mandatory that the students talk to a career counselor, because that's why students are there, spending all that time, money and frustration.

Flora Riley: Yes, you would think it would be a no brainer, and I think the parents feel that way too. Therefore, we connect with the parents as well, because we know that with students, the parents are very influential. Often, we go through the parents to get to the students.

Also throughout the year the Student Affairs committee hosts a parents' counsel to involve parents. Some career centers report out of the academic area, but we happen to report out of Student Affairs. With Clemson's Student Affairs, we have parents' counseling and all new parents are automatically members, so they get emails and newsletters throughout the year. We also send out announcements so we can inform the parents about what is going on in the school and how what is going on in the world will affect our students - their children. In November, for example, we sent out an announcement about the recession so that parents could be aware about how it might affect their student in their job search and how they could encourage their student along the way.

CityTownInfo: Along those lines, do you think there any particular programs or majors where graduates are having an easier time finding jobs after college?

Related Article: More College Students Pursuing Careers in Public Service

The economic downturn and President Barack Obama's popularity have prompted many college students to consider careers in public service.

The Seattle Times reports that at the University of Washington, fall applications for students wanting to pursue a graduate degree in public administration have increased 33 percent since last year. Moreover, business undergraduate majors have fallen by 22 percent.

Nevertheless, university officials say that the shift to public service can even be seen in business schools. "The big long-term trend is that huge numbers of students want to change the world," said Dan Poston, assistant dean for master's programs at UW's Foster School of Business. "They are interested in ethics, corporate responsibility and helping the developing world."

Read the complete article.

Flora Riley: The health area still appears to be in high demand. Also, the government areas are still doing fairly well. Anything involving infrastructure and engineering I think will be all right as well. The computer science and IT world are still okay also. Most fields' job placements have gone down hill a little bit, but the hotter fields are still hiring people. Everything pretty much is down across the board, but those areas are not as bad as some of the others.

CityTownInfo: Is Clemson making any adjustments to deal with the current recession, and if so are the changes focused more on particular programs or are they been made across the board?

Flora Riley: This is the first recession that is giving us a double-whammy. On one hand we are dealing with employers trying to get students to see that they need to do more and they need to be more proactive in what they are doing, which is a new change from years past. On the other hand, our office headcount has been reduced quite a bit, because we are dealing with huge budget cuts to the university.

CityTownInfo: Do you think it is coming from the state?

Flora Riley: Yes and it's more than that too. Our supporting donations have slowed, so funding across the board is down. The revenue stream is down all at the same time. We will not know what our budget will be until July probably, but it could be much worse than we even think. We are being cut tremendously.

CityTownInfo: What about cuts in headcounts?

Flora Riley: We are trying not to lay anyone off. The school is trying to make budget cuts through attrition and retirements, and making some retirement packages for only certain segments of the university in certain areas. The goal is to not lose any staff, and the school leadership are doing their best to try to reorganize so that they don't have to reduce headcount. That's not to say it won't happen, but they are trying their best not to lose any manpower.

CityTownInfo: In times like this you'll hear about students coming back to school because they've been laid off and they realize they need to further their education in order to stay afloat or to get ahead. Is your enrollment is up and if so, do you think it is in part due to the economy?

Flora Riley: Yes, our enrollment is up a bit; we are going to take on about a 150 or 200 more students next semester. We have again had record applications. Every year, we break the previous years' records. Enrollment keeps going up and up. Our President is always looking to increase our stature and he believes we should always be challenging ourselves to do better. Our university rankings have risen greatly in last 10 years - we are 22nd in the US News and World Report rankings - a degree from Clemson is well respected.

CityTownInfo: Do you have any sort of online resources that you encourage students to use in order to find networks and help them build up their network base?

Flora Riley: Yes, we actually have a lot on our website. ClemsonJobLink is our job search site - our version of Monster.com, and we have many job postings in our system. First and foremost, we tell our students to upload their resume and start searching. But that's just one thing of many, many things they need to do. We also use other online resources like Going Global, Vault, Career Search and H1 Visa, which is for international students. It is a website for companies that have hired someone with an international background in the last few months. So we try to weigh which sites we link to and which postings we offer. Our NACELink is another good tool that we are use and is supported by our professional organization - the National Association of Colleges and Employers.

CityTownInfo: To recap, ultimately, online resources are just one facet of the job search. Students need to take steps throughout their college years and career to prepare for the various jobs to which they will be applying and interviewing. Consistent work rather than gimmicks yield successful results.


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