By Jill Randolph
May 18, 2010
The following is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Pam Ehlers, Director of Oklahoma State University's Career Services. Dr. Ehlers completed her bachelors and masters degrees from OSU - Stillwater, a career counseling specialist degree from Pittsburg State University in Kansas, and a doctorate in higher educational leadership from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. After teaching in public schools for five years, she served as a career counselor for Cottey College, and then as director of PSU Career Services. She accepted the directorship at OSU in June 2006.
OSU Career Services serves over 23,000 students in the OSU system. Located on the Stillwater campus, the department offers extensive job search assistance to OSU students and alumni, including services for career development, experiential education, student employment, volunteerism, service learning, and internship education.
The website HireOSUgrads.com gives students and alumni access to the HIRE System, an online job search engine for full-time jobs, internships, federal work-study positions, part-time jobs and co-ops. On-campus interviews and employer information session details are also available as well as advice on every step of the process, from beginning the search through graduate school selection or salary negotiation.
Jill Randolph: What are the most common mistakes students make in their job search?
Pam Ehlers: One of the common mistakes students make is not factoring in adequate time to perform a thorough job search. It takes full-time effort to find a job. Job seekers must factor in the time to study job postings and companies and to write targeted resumes. Students also need to network to try to be pulled into a company. They underestimate the time it takes to find employment.
Students also have to be very strategic about their job search. Many want to write one resume and send that resume for each vaguely interesting job posting, and they think this method will help them find a job. We teach students to be strategic and focused in their job search; that is really important.
Jill Randolph: I have heard employers and recruiters recommending the elimination of objective statements and providing bullet points instead that highlight how the person is the best candidate for the job. From your experience, how do you recommend students customize their resume for each employer?
Pam Ehlers: First, I recommend visiting the company's website. One of the best things a job seeker can do is to get a job description. Studying the language used in the description, which is typically written by the hiring manager, is very beneficial. Candidates need to tailor their resume using that same language. In other words, if the description uses "people skills" instead of "interpersonal skills", the applicant's resume should use the employer's terminology as well.
Students must be willing to tweak their resume. The employer's top qualification is the same first skill that should be listed on the applicant's resume. The reason for tweaking one's resume is that the employer's key words have to be matched to catch their attention. The challenge for the applicant is that the qualifications employers seek are different for every job.
Jill Randolph: Do you suggest that students use bullet points of their related skills at the top of the resume, followed by a reverse chronological order of jobs?
Pam Ehlers: Yes, I recommend using a summary of qualifications or overview first. The employer's four or five top qualifications in the job description should also be listed on the student's resume first. Candidates have to define clearly why they are applying for the job and how they are qualified for it. The key is to relate past experiences as closely as possible with what the employer is seeking.
Having a job description makes this easier, because the employer tells candidates exactly what is required, so that the applicant can more easily match his or her experiences to the needs of the position. If a job description is not available, then that is where research and networking become important. Students should try to find out from someone who works at the company what the hiring manager values in his or her employees. Students can also research similar job titles to see what other companies require for that job. This will give students an idea of industry buzzwords and skills needed to be successful in the position. Students can then highlight these skills and keywords in their resume. These measures will help the student get their foot in the door.
Jill Randolph: Do you recommend students use bulleted statements for a quick read, or should they use complete sentences to provide more detail?
Pam Ehlers: I recommend bullet points and saving a longer description for the interview. Students should always start their bullet points with an action verb, such as, "Developed and marketed x products, generating $5,000 in gross incremental sales". Each bullet point needs to start with an action verb and then qualify and quantify what the student accomplished.
For example, I advised a student who was applying for an accounting job, and had listed "treasurer of xyz fraternity" on his resume. When I asked him to define what that meant, he explained that every month he handled the money for members' dues and housing. It turned out that these dues of $500 each meant that this young man was managing hundreds of thousands of dollars. I explained to him that he needed to clearly quantify the amount of money he was successfully handling every month.
After we qualified and quantified what he was doing on his resume, he started receiving invitations for interviews, and his job search started making progress much more quickly. Many times, students underestimate what they have contributed, or they don't look at things from the employer's perspective.
Jill Randolph: What percentage of the resume should the summary of qualifications take up and does it vary for a younger student versus a more experienced student?
Pam Ehlers: It varies and depends on what the employer is looking for. If a job description requires someone with a bachelor's degree in marketing, previous sales experience, and excellent communication skills, then applicants need four to five bullet points addressing each of these skills. This is where students make mistakes; they tend to write the resume from their perspective rather than based on the employer's needs. The resume should always be written with the employer and the job in mind, not from the candidate's point of view. Students have a hard time doing that and it's a common mistake I see.
Jill Randolph: What do you recommend if the employer posts a job description that has 30 different skills listed? How should students handle that situation?
Pam Ehlers: I recommend paying close attention to the employer's top five to seven bullets, and then rank ordering those based on what the student thinks that employer is seeking.
For example, I teach a graduate career development course, where I talk about the different types of power. In the job search process, the candidate has no power. The employer holds the power until there is a job offer. And, at that point, the power is transferred to the job seeker. Up until that point, though, the focus was on the employer and the job being sought, which is why each resume has to be written for every individual job application. Students need to perform a targeted job search; otherwise, they're wasting their energy and time applying to 500 jobs with the same resume. The odds of a generic resume resulting in a job offer are slim to none.
Once the resume shell is built, customizing it is pretty easy. Once students have tweaked their resume two or three times, targeting their skills to a specific job, they will start reusing the same components because they are typically applying for the same types of jobs and those employers are typically seeking similar types of skills. Targeting a resume is not as hard as it sounds.
Jill Randolph: What if the student is not receiving invitations for interviews despite customizing his or her resume for each job?
Pam Ehlers: I have two checkpoints when I am advising students. First, I assess if they aren't being invited for interviews, or are being invited for interviews but are not being offered jobs. If students are not being invited for interviews, then they need to work on their resume, because the whole purpose of the resume is to open doors for interview opportunities. Checkpoint two is if they are being invited for interviews but are not receiving job offers, then those students need to work on their interviewing skills.
Jill Randolph: How has searching for a job changed from the past and how has it stayed the same?
Pam Ehlers: I have been in this business for over 20 years and networking has always been an important part of the job search. Now, we also have social networking, which can help or hurt candidates. A lot of students are very savvy technologically, but depending on what they have posted online, social networking can either help or hurt them. We try to educate students and make sure they don't have pictures posted that they wouldn't want their grandmother or anyone else to see. It's important that their interactions are professional, and what is posted online is acceptable for employers to see.
What has stayed the same is that students still have to market themselves.
Jill Randolph: Are there any new job search techniques from the last 10 to 15 years that are dramatically different from pre-internet days?
Pam Ehlers: Social networking, including Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, has changed the way we interact with people. We are more connected than we used to be. In regards to this, I see a lot of students encountering difficulties. During their early years in college, they are posting party pictures and other material without thinking about the long-term effects. Then comes their senior year, and they realize that they need to edit their online presence, but a lot of their friends may still have those pictures posted.
A lot of employers tell us that they look at students' online information, which can help or hurt the students' chances of being invited for an interview or hired. When people are job searching, they need to ensure that potential employers see positive and professional things about them, both online and in person.
Jill Randolph: What advice do you give students regarding traditional networking versus social networking? Do you have a favorite method with which you think students are finding the most success?
Pam Ehlers: I don't have a favorite; I recommend all networking because it's generally the way candidates find employment. This is especially true if the applicants live in a small town like Stillwater, Oklahoma; being on the Internet is sometimes one of the best ways to open networking connections.
I also recommend that students start with their department, including faculty, advisors, and staff, because those people can make educated recommendations on the contacts and companies students can connect with. Students should also connect with professional associations and networking groups, which are an excellent way to meet key contacts.
Jill Randolph: Which social media services do you think employers are most likely to use the screen prospective employees?
Pam Ehlers: Though I would like to say LinkedIn, because it is what employers should be using, unfortunately, it's probably Facebook. We prefer employers to use LinkedIn for screening, because on LinkedIn, students tend to be more professional. However, I honestly believe employers are using Facebook more often, which is why students need to consider this fact before posting their party pictures.
Hopefully, employers are performing due diligence though, because not all information on the Internet is reliable. For example, employers may be able to find multiple listings for people with the same name as the candidate. Employers need to make sure that they are researching the correct candidate's information.
Jill Randolph: How has the job market has changed in your area over the past year? Have you seen any signs of improvement, and if so, in which areas or industries?
However, late last fall or early this spring, we felt the recession hit. It was late arriving in Oklahoma, and I am hoping the downturn in employment will not be as strong here as it has been throughout the rest of the country. It hasn't been terrible here, but we were down 20 percent to 25 percent with our career fair and on-campus recruiting. Hopefully we will see an improvement, but I haven't seen it yet.
Jill Randolph: Do you think there has been as much of a push for green education and green employment in your area, since oil-related positions are so prevalent?
Pam Ehlers: Yes, our university is pushing for this type of program and a lot of the oil industries are as well. T. Boone Pickens, who is a big contributor to Oklahoma State and is also from Oklahoma, is pushing natural gas as an alternative fuel source, as we make our way to being green. We also have wind energy in this state. The oil companies have changed their focus and many are essentially becoming clean energy companies.
Jill Randolph: There are currently many unemployed people applying to jobs, including those for which they are over qualified. What do you recommend that students highlight about themselves in order to outshine the competition?
Pam Ehlers: The key is having a strong resume, as well as being able to market oneself in person. One of my top recommendations is that a student's resume should clearly qualify and quantify what he or she has done. A lot of people who have been in the job market for a long time can't market themselves or write a good resume; a good resume is the best marketing tool.
Jill Randolph: Today's society is very mobile, and also, with the state of the economy, a lot of people are forced to move to find employment. If these candidates are looking to brush up their resume, do you recommend that they contact their alma mater, look for a local school with a reciprocal agreement, or do you have another suggestion?
Pam Ehlers: Yes, I recommend contacting one of the universities in the area and emailing them to see if they have reciprocity; I highly recommend that.
Jill Randolph: Earlier, you had mentioned that an applicant doesn't have any power until they are offered a job. If a student receives an offer, how does he or she determine if it's a good offer or not?
Pam Ehlers: That is something students need to take into consideration. First, the student needs to research the job title to determine average salaries in his or her geographic area. If he or she receives a job offer and the role is exactly what that person has been looking for, but it doesn't pay quite as much money as hoped, then he or she has to weigh the pros of the position versus the con of a lower starting salary. Sometimes, it's best to get in the door so the student can prove him or herself, and then try to negotiate for a raise 6 to 12 months later. No one can tell students how to make the best decision for their situation, but that's what students often want.
Jill Randolph: What if the student weighs the options, accepts the position, and is then unhappy with the job? Do you recommend that person stays with the job and gains experience, or do you recommend that he or she looks for a new opportunity immediately?
Pam Ehlers: I suggest staying and gaining experience, especially in this economy. Also, having integrity is very important and the number one trait employers tell us they are looking for in employees. If an employee decides to look for another job, he or she needs to tell the manager that he or she is considering looking for a different job. The employee is better off telling the supervisor rather than worrying about the manager finding out on their own or via word of mouth.
Jill Randolph: How long do you recommend students wait in an unsatisfactory job before they start looking for a new job?
Pam Ehlers: The old advice was two to three years, but today people change jobs quickly. I recommend communicating with the supervisor as soon as they feel unhappy to see if things can be worked out. They need to determine whether the unhappiness is new job jitters or if the position truly is a misfit. Employees have to give it enough time, which is more than a week or two; I hope most people wait at least a year. Most people can tolerate even a bad job for a year and at the very least they can show job stability; that is my suggestion.
Jill Randolph: Since a lot of companies have consolidated, gone out of business, or have moved offshore, what do you recommend students do when listing contacts for these kinds of companies? Is it okay for students to list a colleague who is still within the US as a reference, since the company no longer exists, or if not, what should they do?
Pam Ehlers: The reference does not have to be from the direct supervisor. A reference is someone who knows and understands the student and has had a working relationship with him or her. Students should list professional references that know and can attest to their work ethic, integrity, and professionalism. It may be a professor or advisor; it just needs to be someone who can attest to each student's working habits.
Jill Randolph: LinkedIn gives people the opportunity to be recommended by their colleagues. Do you think employers put much weight on those references, or are they specifically looking for a hard copy or digital list of three or four professional references?
Pam Ehlers: Employers want to call references and talk to them. They might read all the good comments posted on LinkedIn, and it certainly doesn't hurt when people make nice comments, but the number one person employers want to speak with is a direct supervisor the candidate has worked for. Every employer wants to know the same things: "Will they show up for work?" "Will they do a good job?" "Will they do what we ask?" "Do they have integrity in all of their dealings?" "Will they make the company look good?"
Jill Randolph: Do you have any career related books or websites you recommend to your students?
Pam Ehlers: I always recommend Margaret Dikel's site, rileyguide.com. Margaret is a librarian-turned-career counselor. Her site reviews how to job search and also has career related research center sites with job listings, examples of resumes, cover letters, and advice on how to research employers; it is a great resource. She doesn't necessarily supply the information, but she lists all the great available resources and perspectives. She is really good about sifting through which sites and books are good resources and which are not.
One good book I read recently is titled "Guerrilla Marketing for Job Hunters", and the Jay Levinson and David Perry book, "1001 Unconventional Tips, Tricks and Tactics for Landing Your Dream Job" also offers some good advice.
Additionally, Strengths Quest is another good source. It is published by the Gallup Association and offers the theory that people are more successful if they work within the areas where they have strengths. Throughout our lives, we are taught to improve our weaknesses. Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, however, if a person knows his or her top five strengths and is able to use them in his or her career, he or she will be happier, and more likely to be successful. By focusing on the skills they enjoy, their strengths will become even stronger.
If we look at this idea on a continuum and put a person's strengths at the top and his or her weaknesses at the bottom, that person may improve his or her area of weakness, but that person probably won't ever be an expert in that area. However, if that person focuses on his or her strengths and improves upon them, the strengths will only get stronger. Strengths Quest is all about focusing on the career with one's strengths in mind.
Jill Randolph: Where do you point students who aren't sure what they want to do after graduation, in order to help them find their strengths are and where they may be happiest?
Pam Ehlers: I recommend internships or serving with the Peace Corps, Teach For America, or one of the Royal Service areas. A church mission is also another route. Any of these experiences help students develop their network, and also, the lessons they learn are very valuable. These experiences also help provide clarity as to what each student does or does not want to do for a career.
It is important for students or any job seekers to remember, though, that they need to tailor their resume for each opportunity to which they apply. This, along with networking their way into a company, will give them the best odds of being invited for an interview and potentially hired.