By CityTownInfo.com Staff
July 28, 2009
The following is a transcript of an interview with Montgomery College's Eric Myren, Director of Student Employment Services and Tamesha Robinson, Counselor at their Career Transfer Center. Eric has over twenty years of progressive experience in the Career Development and Employment field and has a Master's degree in Counseling Psychology from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Additionally, he is a National Certified Career Counselor and a Certified Professional Resume Writer.
In addition to her role as a Career Counselor, Tamesha teaches the college's Career Development course for students who would like to spend more time with career exploration, offering a great foundation for developing workplace skills and career related self-awareness. She has a Master's degree in Counseling from Howard University.
Montgomery College is a community college that serves over 50,000 students annually in Montgomery County, Maryland, and is located just outside of the Baltimore and Washington, D.C. metro areas. Enrollment has increased at Montgomery College due to several factors: increased price of tuition at four-year institutions, increased need for higher education to attain better employment, and students with degrees are returning to community colleges to receive in-demand, up-to-date skills.
CityTownInfo: What kind of advice do you offer to someone entering a community college or university today? Would you offer the students the same or different advice?
Eric Myren: One thing that I advise students to do is to start working on their career plan as soon as possible so they can start forging a career direction early on, so they are not doing it all at the end of their education. Some of that might include planning out when they are going to start internships and gaining some real practical work experience while they are in school.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers conduct a survey for college graduates each May. Not surprisingly, the number of students that had secured employment by graduation this May was almost 50% lower than it was last year. For those who had completed internships while they were in college, however, it was only 25% lower. I can't stress enough the need for students to start getting practical and relevant experience while they are in school. Tamesha is in the career planning process, which a lot of students don't start early enough either. They wait until the end, and that's just such a critical piece in terms of knowing themselves and where they are going. Students need to be making sure they are on the right path and starting to build experiences as soon as possible.
Tamesha Robinson: I would say the advice would be the same for either student, but I think it's really important for students to tap into the career resources that are available to them on campus. It's a free service where students can get information about volunteer work, and I think it's important for students to volunteer because it speaks to the person that they can be on their resume. There are so many students who say they've never worked before, but they forget about the volunteer experience that they have completed. If they come into the career resource office, they will find people who are there to help them. I think that's what students really forget and they go through the process by themselves.
CityTownInfo: Considering that securing a career is the end goal of post-secondary education, why do you think that student visits to career offices are not mandated at universities or colleges?
Tamesha Robinson: I think there is such disconnect between the student body and the resources. Students feel that they can navigate themselves through the system. We offer a DS 107 course, which we recommend pretty strongly to all incoming students, but it's not mandatory. On this campus, the career counselor and the job opportunity coordinator go to all of those classes so the students know which career services are available. We give a presentation and tell the students what we do and where we are so they can find us and utilize our free services. Hopefully that helps with the connection. November is career month and we highlight careers and have people from many different fields come in and talk to the students. If the students won't come to us, we try to come to them.
Eric Myren: That first year experience Tamesha is talking about was introduced two or three years ago and has been a great course addition. Most of our freshmen or incoming students are in the program, and it covers all of our available career resources. We talk about career planning and testing, as well as jobs and internships. The class has been a great addition in terms of creating awareness for the students.
As Tamesha said, we also get into the classrooms. In my department, student employment services, we did over 120 classroom presentations last year just focused on the unemployment issue. We may even go into a computer class and help them work on their resume through Word. We are getting into the classroom and giving them some practical skills, but we are also making them aware of these resources and helping create a sense of urgency so they start taking steps to plan for their future now.
CityTownInfo: Class presentations can be very helpful because you have a captive audience and you are showing students that you are there to help them.
Eric Myren: Yes, and that is another piece of career advice for entering college students - get a post-secondary degree. One exciting thing about working at a community college is that 80% of students work while attending school, so we already have a population that's engaged with the workforce. Most of them are working as a necessity so they can pay for their tuition, books and living expenses, so there is already a level of maturity among our students. We have students who are hungry for help and advice, so it's a little bit easier to engage students here than at a four-year institution, where the working population is much smaller.
We'll frequently get individuals come to us who have just lost their job looking for employment. We'll let them know about all of the career services, and then we tell them to take a step back and look at their career plan and where they are going with this whole academic area as well. I think the engagement with the student body here is pretty robust. We also have an Online Job Matching System that we started a few years ago and now we have 10,000 students registered. I had a colleague who was working at a four-year institution who would talk about that the struggles of getting students to come in and get career services. Although we always feel like we can do more, I believe we have a strong level of interest in our school's career services.
CityTownInfo: I read an article recently in the Washington Post, and Montgomery College was profiled regarding how community colleges are seeing a boom in admissions.
Eric Myren: Enrollment in community colleges is definitely up. Some of that has to do with the cost of attending a four-year institution, and some has to do with the demand for education and the fact that there are just not enough available spots in four-year universities across the country. The cost and demand, combined with the fact that community colleges are becoming more respectable, mean the enrollments are going up each year.
Tamesha Robinson: Some students decide they are going to take a full year of classes at Montgomery College, and then go to a four-year school afterwards just to save money. Many students start out just wanting to take one year here, but then they realize the benefit of completing two years at Montgomery College.
CityTownInfo: In my experience, it seems like community college courses, whether for an associate's degree or a certificate, do a good job of cutting to the chase and giving students more practical, rather than theoretical, information.
Eric Myren: There are many advantages to community colleges: practicality, class size, the amount of teacher attention that students can get and the amount of support and resources available to help students succeed.
Tamesha Robinson: What's also really nice is that we have professors who also teach at four-year schools. We have some faculty members who work at the University of Maryland, College Park who also come here and teach at night. Then students realize that they are learning the same things that students at the other schools are, because they are being taught by some of the same people.
Eric Myren: We also offer transferrable credits. The Articulation Agreement is a very clear contract between Montgomery College and the four-year colleges and universities in Maryland. This way, every student who starts out at Montgomery College knows exactly which courses are going to transfer and what they need to accomplish while they are here in order to get into a four-year school in the future, if they choose.
A lot of the four-year institutions are becoming so competitive, I think in this past year, around 18,000 students applied to the University of Maryland and they only accepted 4,000. Students know if they go to Montgomery College for two years and maintain a certain GPA, they will automatically be accepted into the University of Maryland for their final two years. We have that kind of agreement with every college in Maryland, and even some outside of Maryland.
Tamesha Robinson: The agreement is very clear. The only stipulation is that what students accomplish here will not guarantee them admission into a certain competitive program at the school. For example, they are not guaranteed to get into the University of Maryland's Business School because it is a limited enrollment program.
Eric Myren: A student assistant on our Rockville campus did get into Maryland's business school, however, because he met all of their requirements. Students know that they have a second chance if they didn't get into the first school that they wanted to, so they can come here and get into that school later with transferrable classes.
We also are seeing some students who already have bachelors or master's degrees coming to community college because they are trying to add more practical skills to their resume. For example, we have a Biotech Program with people coming back just so they can get more lab experience. They'll come in and get another associate's degree even though they already have a bachelor's or masters in that area. Of course we'll also see the same thing in a lot of the technology programs and some of the health programs.
CityTownInfo: Are there a lot of students coming back for associate's degrees so that they can make career changes as well?
Tamesha Robinson: Yes. We even see students applying to PT or pharmacy school who were liberal arts majors, and they come here to take more science courses.
CityTownInfo: Something that is important to recognize is that when class sizes are smaller, students can get a lot of really good hands-on information, and the costs are typically much less than with a four-year school.
Tamesha Robinson: I think people are beginning to recognize our school not only for the value, but also for the quality. They are realizing that they are getting a quality education and saving money in the process.
CityTownInfo: It is also a good way to help people who are trying to make a career change reenter the workforce quickly. Since community colleges are smaller than universities in some cases, community colleges can move more quickly than universities. A lot of community colleges are offering healthcare classes for different degrees as demand for healthcare professionals is growing. Some are also on the forefront of offering energy or green type degrees or certificates.
Eric Myren: Absolutely. Some of what you are referring to might be our workforce development and continuing education programs, certificate programs and career programs, where we have as many non-credit students annually as we have on the credit side. We have about 25,000 credit-earning students and almost another 25,000 students on the workforce development and continuing education side. It total we have 50,000 students coming through this institution annually.
CityTownInfo: Do you have any on-campus students or are most commuters?
Eric Myren: They are all commuters.
CityTownInfo: What kind of differences are you seeing between students today versus students from 15 or 20 years ago?
Eric Myren: One obvious difference is that we have a very diverse student body today. At Montgomery College we have students from a 165 countries. Then of course we've have a very tech savvy population today, which is way ahead in terms of knowledge on how to use technology.
Other than that there are a lot of similarities with students from the past. A lot of the job search techniques are very similar. There may be some subtle differences where students have a little bit more natural freelance mentality that jobs change and companies are eliminated; even Fortune 500 Companies can disappear. Students have to be more adaptable, because employment is not a one-way street. If the employer isn't filling their needs they are going to move on too, and that's probably a healthy mentality. I think that freelance mentality is a little bit different, but other than that I'd say there is not too much difference.
Tamesha Robinson: We also talked about how students don't have the perception of staying on a job for the rest of their life. They are okay with moving on from a job after two or three years. They don't have the mentality that they are going to stay at one job until they retire.
Eric Myren: One could even say that the average student is a little bit better at job seeking, because they know they are going to find something else if they are not happy. Some of them perform a passive job search with technology, which is probably something that makes students different from 20 years ago, before we had sites like Monster and CareerBuilder. Some of them might be working and passively looking for another job online at the same time. Then if something good comes up they can weigh their options, which probably wouldn't have happened before technology came around.
CityTownInfo: Right, and they have to be extremely well networked in order to even be aware of the different opportunities.
Eric Myren: Exactly.
Tamesha Robinson: A student today can look for a job and never have to pick up a newspaper.
Eric Myren: Some students that I know tell me that they already have profiles set up with a couple of websites' job search tools. They look at what comes in, and if something good pops up, they might pursue it. In terms of work ethic and everything else, however, students are all the same to me.
Tamesha Robinson: It's interesting, because I think high schools are doing a great job dealing with career related topics, because students come in aware of so many varied career titles now. It doesn't just come to teacher, doctor or lawyer anymore. Students tell me they are thinking about becoming a forensic scientist, and I think the high schools deserve a lot of credit for helping to educate students about the wide variety of different career options.
Eric Myren: Absolutely. Montgomery County Public Schools were ranked #1 in the nation in Fortune or Money magazine. The county does a great job getting students thinking about careers. The high schools have career clusters and they start putting students into areas that don't limit them in terms of college options. The clusters give the students a focal point, and they can start to develop their skills in that area through volunteer work experiences or things like that. So absolutely students are coming in a little bit further ahead in terms of thinking about their career paths; it wasn't like that 20 years ago.
CityTownInfo: In regards to students and / or job seekers who have been laid off, how do you recommend that they communicate that information? Should layoffs be communicated on their resume, in their cover letter, or during the interview?
Eric Myren: Typically we don't tell students to call out layoffs on their resume. It could be something a student could put in their cover letter if they really thought a short time at a job was going to be something that would prevent them from getting an interview. By and large, however, it's an issue that the interviewee deals with during the interview.
Employers today are different than employers in the past. Twenty years ago, there was a huge stigma on people who were laid off, and we really had to work with people so they could overcome that. There was sort of this belief that layoffs were used as a reason to get rid of people employers didn't want or something like that. That's completely changed within the last five to 10 years, and there is no longer a stigma associated with getting laid off. Everyone has been through layoffs that have nothing to do with anything but business and competition, and that kind of thing. It still comes up in interviews, but I think it comes up mostly because interviewers want to hear everyone's story so they know they are not hiring a job hopper or someone who gets bored after a year. We tell students that as long as they can answer that question honestly and satisfy the interviewer's concern about it, it really becomes a non-issue. Interviewers just want to get at the reason for the career change and make sure that the interviewee wasn't fired and then wrote their resume in a more favorable way.
CityTownInfo: Because a lot of employers today are pressed for time and are not always looking at cover letters, how do you recommend that students try to help ensure that they are not being passed over by making their resume stand out?
Tamesha Robinson: I am a stickler about resumes, and I also feel they should be one-page and should have a cover letter. I always tell students to look at the job description and tailor each resume for the job that they are applying for. I also tell students to be aware of the keywords in the job description so they know if the company wants someone who is energetic, a team player or computer savvy, then they can play those qualities up. We tell students to make sure that they use those words in their cover letter, because sometimes this may be the thing that can help them stand out. There is no guarantee, but if they want to apply for their specific job, they don't want to have a "one-size fits all" resume that they used to apply for ten different jobs.
Eric Myren: I completely agree with that, and I think that's also the value of what Tamesha does with career counseling, helping students focus. I think the more focused students are in their job search and the more clear they are about their own skill sets, then they can customize their resume to the actual job position. All of these things will make them much stronger candidates, and much more likely to get an interview. One of the things that we see a lot is people randomly sending their resumes out to everyone. I really think that's a waste of time. It's much better for students to be clear about the direction in which they are going and finding the employers that would fit their profile best. They need to be networking and be very strategic about who they send their resumes to. Like Tamesha said, if an employer gets a resume that doesn't really specifically address what was in the job description, it's going to go in the discard bin very quickly, so we tell students that they need to capture the attention of the employer within 15 seconds. Applicants need to specifically address what the employer stated in the job description, either in a cover letter or in the framing of the resume. We tell students that they want their resume to jump out at the employers in terms of matching what they are looking for.
When it comes to cover letter versus no cover letter, there is no strict rule for people to follow. When it comes to resumes, cover letters and the whole job search process, there are guidelines that are helpful, but the bottom line is that everybody has to trust their instinct about what to do. If in doubt, applicants are not ever hurt by including a cover letter. A cover letter may not ever be looked at, but it's probably going to help more than hurt.
CityTownInfo: I've also been hearing a lot about soft skills lately. Do you encourage students to include their soft skills on their resumes today more so than in years past?
Eric Myren: Again, no rule of thumb here. I was working with a student the other day with a degree in cyber security. I advised him to include some soft skills, but to weave them in to accomplishments that he had through some of his internships. So I had him talk about his teamwork skills, and I also had him incorporate some other words that alluded to his attitude, enthusiasm and his problem solving skills. I really do think that strengthened his resume, because there are a lot of individuals who have technical skills, but who don't fit into the work environment so well.
Tamesha Robinson: Some students even include their summary of qualifications within that. It may say 'computer savvy person with high energy who works well in the team.'
CityTownInfo: What do you think are the three most important things that students can do to prepare themselves to find a job?
Tamesha Robinson: I think students have to be patient when looking for a job. They need to remember it's not going to happen overnight, and I've read that it takes anywhere from six months to a year to find a job in this market. I tell students to devote time to their job search as if it were a part-time job. I advise that they spend at least 20 hours a week on the process, and they need to remember it's a process. I also recommend anyone looking for a job send out four to five resumes and work on refining their search everyday. They need to know where they want to work and what they want to do. They need to remember that they are looking for a specific job and focus in on that. Say a student wants to work at Montgomery College. They may want to work at Montgomery College, but what else is in the area in addition to Montgomery College. She or he may find that there are other community colleges in the area, so being focused on a job search and realizing that it is a time commitment is really important.
CityTownInfo: Looking for a job can be a fulltime job in itself. It takes more than 40 hours a week to execute a comprehensive job search. Even in a good market, they say if someone wants to make $50,000 a year, for example, that they should plan on being in the job market for at least five months. I don't know if that number has changed in this economy, but that was the old rule of thumb. For every $10,000 desired it's going to be an extra month for the job search.
Considering the amount of work it takes to find employment, it is pretty amazing that many unemployment offices only require people apply to two jobs per week to be eligible for unemployment benefits.
Eric Myren: Yes. When I was working with the public works company, Montgomery Works, we had a mandatory class, which required that students spend 40 hours on their job search per week. We had them sign an agreement when they started promising to devote 40 hours a week to the process. Someone then went into three or four cities and showed that individuals who devoted that amount of time and networked effectively found jobs anywhere from 10 to 12 weeks faster than individuals who didn't dedicate 40 hours weekly to their job search. This was for groups of adults who were out of work and urgently trying to find a job. Putting in the time is huge. If someone is spending two hours a week looking for employment, it might take them years to find a job, but if they are putting in all of the time and effort and doing all the right things, it's going to come through much faster.
Something important I tell everyone looking for a job is to spend time on these career exercises where students get to know themselves and what they want. The more focused students are, the more targeted they are going to be in their job search and the more effective they are going to be. From a marketing standpoint, marketing something very generically to the entire universe is not going to be an effective marketing campaign. Anyone looking for a job has to find out what he or she wants to do and where that market is, and then focus on that market. As Tamesha said, it's a marathon, not a sprint, so job seekers need to stay persistent.
The final thing I would stress is networking. Even with all these technology tools and everything, networking is the most effective tool. Not only can students gain information about opportunities that are not always visible, but they are also gaining first hand information about the employers that they might want to target. That will help with students' resumes, which is going to help with their interviews, which is going to help with some advocacy on the insight for jobs.
College students should have a career counselor or someone they can touch base with occasionally for advice and support, because job seeing is probably one of the most difficult things people ever do in life, especially if they're out of work. Having that support system will help job seekers keep moving forward and to not get discouraged and quit. Especially in a tight job market like it is today, where finding job searches take longer, having that support is really important. From the emotional side, that's one of the reasons I talk about networking extensively as well.
Networking is a very active process that requires getting out and meeting with people. In the process, people grow and find a lot out about themselves and about different companies. Job seekers feel like they are making progress and are growing, where just sending out resumes and responding to ads is a very passive process. If people are getting out and spending half of their time face-to-face with people, each of those experiences is a very positive one by and large. Very few people have come back and told me they had a negative experience networking or meeting with people, and most say they learn a lot about themselves in the process.
CityTownInfo: We are seeing an increase in students doing all their networking via Facebook or LinkedIn, but the importance of face time cannot be underestimated.
Tamesha Robinson: Yes, face-to-face contact is really important. It gets people to practice reaching out to people. I think that because people are now so tech savvy, a lot of students have forgotten the beauty of communication and all of their communication is just by texting. If students get out there and start having conversations with people, it helps them better present their skills.
Eric Myren: Yes, I totally agree. Networking really is an art versus a science. When people are networking, they are really not asking for a job, they are asking open-ended questions about their backgrounds, career aspiration and job prospects. That kind of dialog is a little bit hard to do through social networking sites. I think those social networking sites are a new positive addition to career search and can sometimes open people up to different areas, but it doesn't replace the face-to-face communication. It may be a good lead generator.
CityTownInfo: Do you have any career related books or websites that you recommend to students?
Tamesha Robinson: The Occupational Outlook Handbook, also located at www.bls.gov, is a website run by the Federal Government that is really a great reference for careers. It includes the description of jobs, the training and education needed, and then it also gives the future job outlook of every career. It will say if a job is expected to grow faster than average, for example, so they will know if they want to be able to get a job after graduation.
Eric Myren: It has very good job descriptions, so it's a great starting point for finding out what people do in specific jobs. It has very thorough description of the positions, average salaries, and education required.
Another good site for students is jobweb.com, which the National Association of Colleges and Employers maintains. It provides good information about all kinds of tips related to finding employment. "What Color Is Your Parachute" is geared a little more to the adult population, but it's a great resource that gets updated every year. The same author, Bolles, operates a website that has links to hundreds of other resources, www.jobhuntersbible.com. The site includes links that Bolles has evaluated and determined to be helpful.
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