The following is an interview transcript with Kevin Gaw, Georgia State University's Director of University Career Services. Dr. Gaw is the former Director of Career Development at the University of Nevada, Reno. He has served on the Directorate for the Commission for Career Development and is the recent Past-President of the American College Counseling Association. Prior to his transition into college-level career services, he served as a licensed psychologist at the counseling centers of the University of Nevada, Reno and the University of Missouri, Rolla. He earned his doctorate in Counseling Psychology from the University of California, Santa Barbara and completed his internship at Southern Illinois University's Counseling Center. He has been a school counselor in California and an English instructor in Indonesia. Dr. Gaw, born in San Francisco, grew up in Malaysia where he attended the International School of Kuala Lumpur.
GSU's career offices provide career counseling, assessments, resources (online and a library), workshops, on-campus interviews, career fairs, a job club for students, and more. New for this fall will be the graduate and professional school-planning program. This program will assist students with their planning for graduate and professional school, including the application process. GSU's Career Services staff will also host a recruiting fair, which will bring in 45+ graduate schools seeking applicants.
GSU started out in 1913 as an evening school and over the years has become a prominent state university, with nationally ranked and internationally recognized programs. Georgia State University is a comprehensive urban university serving students from all states and over 50 countries. Enrollment is expected to top 28,000 next fall semester - representing a continuing growth pattern. GSU has six colleges: Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, The College of Arts and Sciences, College of Education, College of Health and Human Sciences, College of Law and the J. Mack Robinson College of Business.
CityTownInfo: What are some suggestions you recommend to students to help them stand out from other job applicants?
Kevin Gaw: Gaining relevant and real experience is the most important thing. Internships are tops, but volunteering in fields that help a student develop their skill sets is beneficial as well.
I once worked with a very prominent college recruiting company, and they would look at and value a student's volunteer experience if they didn't have any work or internship experience. They also had a program in their company to donate one day or two days a year towards service projects. Everyone in the company would participate, even the CEO, just to promote how important volunteering is, because they want people who believe in their community. The world doesn't even usually know about these kinds of programs; people only learn about it when they start working with recruiters and see that a company has a socially responsible perspective.
Internships have been one of the best ways for students to get their feet in the door of a company. Now companies are using internships as free or cost-effective trial hires and as a screening process, so internships are really a valuable thing for any student to do. Companies like internships because it allows them to observe students like a long-term job interview, and the student gets to find out if the job field is a match for them. For many students, an internship is also the first time they've ever been truly supervised and the first time they could be let go for a mistake. Companies want to know if students can take supervision, if they are someone who could be managed, or if they think everything revolves around them.
The other thing I recommend to students is to be as prepared for their interview as possible, which includes doing practice one-on-one interviews. The student who prepares for the interview properly will stand out, because most candidates do not plan, as they should. Time and time again, recruiters will say they are amazed with some students who just don't get ready for interviews. Candidates need to research the company to find out its mission, its values, and how it relates to the candidate's interests and similar things. Recruiters are impressed to see a candidate who knows about even some of the company's littlest details if it in some way relates to what interests them. I heard an example at a conference with recruiters a couple of weeks ago, where a candidate knew about a company's operations in South America and they spoke Spanish, so the company thought about how they could promote this person to a position like that in a few years.
The preparation includes lots of things, like having a decent resume, practicing interviewing and dressing properly. Some students don't realize that dressing up for a cocktail party is really different than dressing up for a job interview. We conduct mock interviews at the career center, and a lot of students end up finding out that by practicing interviews, their job placement tends to be faster.
Some students don't realize that if can relay the skills they have which will benefit the company, it's not like they are tooting their own horn. Researching is the only way students can prove they know what they are talking about and that they are interested in the interview and in the company. Students also have to be able to articulate their skills. A lot of young applicants think it will be sufficient if they can just convince the interviewer they have the passion and interest for the job because then they can just prove themselves once they are hired. A candidate who stands out is one who can convince a recruiter before they are hired that they can perform the job, because of the skill sets they possess. Recruiters say some students just keep telling them that it is their dream job or something similar, but they didn't give any evidence of why and how they could actually succeed at the job, and that's critical.
CityTownInfo: I have heard a lot of candidates go into interviews asking "what can you do for me", rather than having done the research on the company and saying what the candidate has done successfully in the past, and what they will accomplish again to solve the employer's dilemmas.
I have also heard of candidates who are so eager to sell themselves into a job that they don't ask the right questions, so the job ends up being a poor fit for them, and then both the employee and the employer lose. The employer has a short-time employee and loses out on training time and money, and the employee is miserable in a job or company that isn't a good fit, and their output and future references may suffer. I think a lot of students don't really think about how important it is to be happy with their careers, because it is such a huge part of their day and their lives. They really need to do the legwork in college to find their niche, so they aren't unhappy down the road.
Kevin Gaw: It's extremely expensive for companies to take any new employees on board, and that's why recruiters are now doing such detailed research on candidates. It's expensive for them to make errors and hire the wrong person.
Another tip I have to help students or other candidates stand out - it sounds really small - but arriving 10 to 15 minutes early for the interview is something a recruiter or interviewer will notice. The recruiters know, and they want candidates to show up early and be eager, and the arrival is one of the behavioral indicators of readiness for the interview.
Recruiters also screen for a sense of entitlement, which is very easy. There will be students who think that because they have a certain degree and they can do the job, they deserve it and a high salary. It's really just a matter of students not knowing what's real and believing everything belongs to them. I've heard from recruiters that students think they should earn a $70,000-salary as soon as they graduate, but most are maybe going to be pulling in $35,000.
I worked at a career fair when I was at another school, and I saw a student who went up to a police department that was recruiting for criminal justice majors and had a paid training program for the academy. It started new police officers out at $44,000 and offered great benefits and everything, and the student didn't think it was good enough for him and decided to continue looking. The student screened out this opportunity based on salary, and the police officers were just scratching their heads and thinking this guy would never get a job if he is using that salary to screen out employers. The fatal mistake for that student was that the police force would always remember him and how he had turned down their offer. The student did not understand what the market was like for his major because he hadn't done the research, and the sad thing was if he had spent more time researching, he could have become one of the highest paid entry-level police officers in that area.
Obviously, a sense of entitlement does get in the way. Sometimes students also don't show a strong sense of interest, and employers look for that. If a student doesn't seem interested, a recruiter is not going to want to waste their time pursuing them; it's a two-way street.
CityTownInfo: I heard Millennials differ from the previous generations in that they seem like they are more altruistic and do not exhibit a sense of entitlement like some of the previous generations had. Do you think that's true?
Kevin Gaw: I think there is no question that "Millennials" have a more socially aware perspective. There is definitely a broader range of students involved in service projects today. However, I think previous generations also had an interest in service projects, except it wasn't organized on campus the way it is now. Service learning was not something that was organized when I went to school, we didn't have a service learning office like we have now.
CityTownInfo: What career advice do you give to someone just entering college?
Kevin Gaw: The most important thing in my opinion is for students to not decide on their major right as the enter college. They need to take a lot of exploratory courses to learn what's going on out there, and also what's interesting to them and where they have their passion and purpose. Two of the strong values in our office are passion and purpose because we firmly believe students need to understand who they are and to pair that up with a career path that makes sense for them. In other words, not chasing money or prestige, but going after what turns them on as people, and then success will follow. It is important for students to learn about themselves, take a lot of survey courses and experience a lot before they decide what they definitely want to do with their lives. That could be done in the first year to year and a half. Obviously, a student who wants to become a physician should enroll in courses leading them in that direction, and that's very appropriate. We also tell these students, however, the need to get involved in a range of diverse activities on-campus so they experience the world and see that it's just not a single track. There are many people who think they'll become physicians, and then discover that organic chemistry and other forms of science courses just really aren't exciting for them. What they thought was exciting didn't turn out to be as exciting in reality, and students should realize it is completely okay for that to happen. They could feel derailed, but they need to be able to experience that earlier so they don't feel like a failure and they see there are other options out there. The three most important things for students to remember in their process of declaring a major is to explore, experience and evaluate. Exploring includes both taking varied classes and finding part-time job experiences, and then evaluating what they like about each of those experiences. Then with evaluation comes cycling back through another process of exploring and experiencing.
Joining student academic clubs and professional societies can also help students understand what their desired profession is about. I think every career center director would also tell their students to visit the career center during their first semester at school so they can develop a relationship with the center and get to know at least one staff member. That's going to be a huge step for most students, because they will actually have somewhat of a mentor who is connected to a lot of the career workshops that are happening. All these people are experts and can help the students. We often feel like we are mom and dad and employers are aunts and uncles, and students listen to the employers more, so we bring employers onto campus so students can get to know them.
The other thing is for students to start developing their resume early on. For example, just this semester I worked with several students who had no work experience, and they were very nervous and shy about that. The fact was that they still had volunteer-type experiences they didn't put on their resumes. If they had, it would have given them a better shot to gain much-needed experience, perhaps as a student employee on-campus, so they could start to start develop their skill sets. A lot of high school students have done a lot of service and volunteer work, and all of those experiences are valuable and completely appropriate to put on a resume. We help incoming students develop a resume around those experiences and identify skill sets from those experiences that they can use to impress a prospective employer. This way they can show they work well in a team or any other similar skills they may have gained from those experiences. Those skill sets translate into what is being looked for by today's employers. I also advise people to update their resumes regularly as well, even if they are not currently looking for a job. It helps to keep their resumes current to ensure they don't forget any roles they have accomplished.
CityTownInfo: Advising students to wait to declare a major until they have a year of college experience is not something students hear every day. Can you expand on that a bit?
Kevin Gaw: It is sometimes really difficult for a first year student to understand why they take all of the core classes. They are just itching to get into the material they want to study, and that is partly because the level of maturity for lot of students is not high enough to understand the context and that we are trying to save them time and money in the future, which could otherwise be spent pursuing the wrong major. Those required core classes force students to experience a bit of everything, and may open their eyes up to career options they never may have thought of before.
CityTownInfo: Do you have any tools in place to help your students decide which career path could be the best for them?
Kevin Gaw: Oh, absolutely. We offer various tools to help students understand the process more, which usually generates more questions. Many career counselors really like using specific career assessment tools. The Myers-Briggs type indicator looks at 16 different personality styles and how they correlate with different occupational paths. Because it is statistical, however, there is the possibility that a student can have a personality style that is not predicted for a certain career path, but they could have the greatest time of their life in that role. The instrument does help students open their eyes, and show that there is a lot of opportunity out there. It also shows who they are as people, their values and their beliefs, which all influence their day-to-day experience in life, and can influence their job choice as well. Other interest inventories are used to help identify where a student's interests are, which compare their interest profile with satisfied professionals out in the field. One of the pieces of thinking behind the Strong Interest Inventory is that if people are satisfied and working in a community of satisfied coworkers, they will typically have a pretty satisfying career path, and satisfaction correlates with success. Now, there is no success inventory that can predict job success; whoever can guarantee that will be a gazillionaire. It just doesn't exist because there are too many variables that influence success.
CityTownInfo: I know part of the answer - it's job stability, which is pretty hard to find these days.
Kevin Gaw: For the past 10 years, career centers have been talking about transferable skills and the ability to move from job to job. That came out of the Silicon Valley model of career pathing for individuals. In the hi-tech world, everyone knew they would be getting a paycheck, but they then realized they could transfer their skills and knowledge from one worksite to another. That has been taken to a whole new level of thinking, where people are looking into how their skill sets can transfer into different positions. Stability is a major piece, you are correct, but what was defined as stability 10 years ago has been redefined and is now going back to the older definition, which means a stable paycheck. I think our students are starting to understand how difficult the economy really is, in a way that these young people have never seen before.
I have heard that a lot of companies and employers have recently been noticing a drop in application numbers. They are wondering what's going on because they normally experience a pretty high volume of applicants, so one employer conducted a survey called "Hiding Out In College" and discovered that a lot of students were considering staying in school, extending their undergraduate years or going on to graduate school in favor of entering the job market. With the economy the way it is, I think there is probably some validity to that mindset, and I can verify that a lot of universities and colleges are recruiting very heavily right now to take advantage of that energy. There is a good reason why universities are doing that, because many of them receive state funding through what they call funding formulas, which are heavily influenced by enrollment. If their enrollment goes up, after two years they will receive more money from the state, so each school wants the highest enrollment possible.
It's great to have more students' on-campus getting the true college experience, but it does make it very difficult. Doing more with less has become a common reality, and colleges have learned how to be more efficient and effective with the existing services. In my office we were trying to be very responsive to doing more with less.
CityTownInfo: Do you think technologies like email help expedite things?
Kevin Gaw: No question about it. I get probably at least 100 emails a day, and I have to respond to 70 of them. That's a pretty normal number of emails for most directors. I've been able to generate output that would have taken days to complete in the past and I would have had to have someone doing it for me without technology. Now I can complete those tasks myself, including putting together presentations.
CityTownInfo: What differences are you seeing between students of today versus years past?
Kevin Gaw: I may be in the minority on this, but I don't see a lot of difference with technology skills between undergraduate students. What I mean is I still see these are young people who are in the process of becoming young adults, who still have to learn how to interview, how to present themselves as strong candidates and how to demonstrate their interests. What's different is that these students now have the ability to really utilize the Internet to get great competitive information as a job candidate. One of the interesting sidebar risks for new students is the social networking world. There was recently a lawsuit filed in Montana because the city was asking candidates to list their social networking sites before they hired them. I've even heard of several companies in Atlanta that are telling students they can list their social networking sites on their resume, and some will list their Facebook and MySpace and other social networking sites. Companies are now doing what they call "deep searches", where they are probing into these sites to determine if the candidate is going to be a concern for the company, so we are telling students to clean up their social networking profiles to present themselves professionally. We had a recruiter in a workshop last semester tell us that his company does deep searches and uses information from social networking sites in their recruitment and application process. I think that's one of the things the new generation of applicants needs to be very, very aware of. They need to know their web presence, their web footprint, its implications and also how to manage it.
CityTownInfo: What do you think employers are looking for on the social networking sites? Are they looking for evidence of drug or alcohol abuse, or just the general stability of a person and their friends?
Kevin Gaw: All of those and more. They want to know if the candidate is going to have any issues that they don't want to deal with. They are going to be looking for drug and alcohol issues, and they are going to try to connect dots. If a student comes in for an interview and they sign a statement, the company is going to look on their social networking sites for any contradiction.
We also don't want students to be perceived in a certain way and to be taken advantage of, so we don't want them to be hired for reasons other than their skill sets and education. We don't want discrimination to occur in any way because it harms the student. For example, we talk about this with some of our female candidates, because we are concerned with how they are presenting themselves to the world through their social networking sites. Some candidates may have very provocative photographs and descriptions that employers may see, which could set the candidate up for disrespect.
CityTownInfo: Do you think it is more important for students to show examples of why they are a good fit for the position in their cover letter, resume or both?
Kevin Gaw: It depends on their strategy. Cover letters are very important, and it's an interesting thing that's happening right now. We are in the middle of a new application era, and because our online applications tend to be forms, people can sometimes attach their cover letter. Sometimes the cover letter is even written down inside a text box, so there are different ways of doing it. I have always advised students to analytically tear apart the job announcement, and then write a cover letter that references all the elements of the job announcement. The cover letter is where students should talk about skill sets, experiences, achievements and accomplishments. Not just words, but projects they completed and similar accomplishments. Minimum qualifications and preferred qualifications should be included in the cover letter. In their resume, skill sets should support and demonstrate that as well, because a recruiter will give about 30 seconds to a minute to review a resume and decide to talk to the applicant or not.
I do the same thing when I have a student employee applying for a job here. I am looking for skill sets and for presentation of the professional self in a resume, so when I started seeing typographic errors, format problems, inattention to detail and inconsistent dates, I believe that is how they will work.
I know recruiters do this as well, and they demand accuracy even more than I do. Recruiters are on a whole different level. They are processing for a corporation, processing fiscal data and they are managing customers, so it's all different levels of service. They have to really be diligent, so a student's resume needs to show the strengths and the compatibility recruiters are looking for in the job, and that's where the cover letter should really go into good detail.
Some job hunters just apply to anything and then it becomes the recruiters' problem to reject the candidates. There is a belief that if one just floods the market with their resume, they may get a hit. The first thing I do as a search committee member is look for all the applications that have no reason to be in the pile, the unqualified applications. They are immediately removed because there are minimum qualifications that need to be met for the position, and many times a candidate does not really pay attention to that. They think that because they have a college degree, the company will at least look at their application, but if it's asking for X and the student just has Y and Z, he or she will get screened out. The candidates that stand out not only meet the minimum qualifications; they give examples of how they meet those qualifications with real behavioral examples that can be verified by a supervisor.
CityTownInfo: Do you have any career related books or websites that you recommend to your students?
Kevin Gaw: There are hundreds of books I could recommend. It's a difficult question to answer because my recommendations are so situational.
For website recommendations, students need to visit their career center website and see what sites they have put up, because those typically get reviewed based on the university's values and beliefs. I once was looking at a website from a private university that had a religious affiliation, and it had links that were very focused on a lot of the values of an institution, it was fantastic and the students all knew that. They were going to a school that was very focused on a certain direction in life, so the links for that center were very appropriate. It also had other links that were appropriate, but not of that religious tradition, so it was a really extensive website. Every center is going to have links that reflect the values of the institution, the student body and similar topics. The campus' electronic job boards will typically have all the links inside the job boards as well.
One site that I always recommend to students is one called jobweb.com. JobWeb does have an affiliation with NACE, which I am a member of, but it consistently has useful material for students. As far as books go, Don Asher has written very accessible books for students. He writes as if his books are manuals, and students can read them very quickly. There was a time when Richard Bolles really kicked off a whole movement of materials for jobseekers, so there is a lot of good reading out there from Ten Speed Press.
We have a magazine in our office called "The Book of Lists", and it's like the Wall Street Journal company listing for a metro area. "The Book of Lists" is published all over the county and it's a goldmine for students. It's very useful as it lists all these companies and the key contact names. I also tell students to visit the Department of Labor websites for their respective state, which typically have fantastic data. People perform a lot of information processing to come up with employment data, and we teach our students how to use it so they start to understand which markets are growing in the state and metro regions, and that helps them become more informed, savvy candidates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Occupational Outlook Handbook have fantastic information and talk about jobs and career paths in a career-counseling way.
Two of the most important things for students to do are to take advantage of the free services of their college's career services office, and once they get an interview, to do their research so that they can be realistic in their expectations. They need to show gratitude for the opportunity and leave their sense of entitlement at the door.