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Michigan State Career Director Discusses Job Searching In A Tough Economy

By Jill Randolph
March 25, 2010

Kelley Bishop

Michigan State University was founded in 1855, and is located in East Lansing, Michigan. MSU has the eighth largest campus in the US and admits over 46,000 students annually. The university offers baccalaureate to doctoral degrees across a wide variety of disciplines, and is known for its programs in science and media.

Mr. Bishop was named Executive Director of Career Services at Michigan State University in August 2001. The operation, which serves all students of the University, is comprised of a career development center, a recruiting and career events center, a network of college-based career advisors, and the Collegiate Employment Research Institute. Each year, the campus-wide Career Services Network conducts over 22,000 interviews, coordinates 12 major career fairs, and hosts over 1200 employer visits to campus.

Kelley earned a Bachelor's degree in English Literature from Dartmouth College in 1983 and a Master of Science in Counseling at Indiana University in 1994.

Interview Transcript

Jill Randolph: What are the biggest trends you are seeing among incoming students?

Mr. Bishop: There are a lot more questions coming from students and especially from their parents. We are involved with the admissions process here, but a lot of the concerns we hear are centered on what happens once students are admitted.

Parents want to be sure their son or daughter is being prepared for a career after graduation, and they want to know what's going to happen post-graduation. There is a lot more worry as people spend more and more for education, because both parents and students want to make sure that the time, money and effort involved will pay off with a job once the student has earned his or her degree.

"Success isn't about chasing hot jobs, it's about people discovering what they really want to do with their lives."

Jill Randolph: What do you think is the most important things students can do to prepare to find a job after graduation?

Mr. Bishop: I think absolutely the first thing students need to do is to determine what their true interests are. I think there is a tendency to separate looking for a job and finding what the student is passionate about.

A lot of students want to know what the current ,"hot" jobs are, but I tell them it doesn't matter because whatever is hot today won't necessarily be hot tomorrow.

Success isn't about chasing hot jobs, it's about people discovering what they really want to do with their lives, because that is probably where they will complete their best work, make the most impact and see the most opportunities. If people apply themselves to their interests and keep exploring them in-depth, they will begin to connect with networks of employers in the field.

When students first get to college, they should ask themselves what they care about, what they are interested in, and what they need to do to get to know that field. They should become acquainted with people in that field, and then start networking and making a name for themselves.

Jill Randolph: What are some suggestions you recommend to students to help them stand out from other job applicants?

Mr. Bishop: Three quarters of all the attention employers give to this campus goes to business and engineering majors. Recruiters will spread out a bit, however, and look for someone out of the ordinary if they have technical openings.

For example, we have a labor and industrial relations program which is fairly popular with on-campus recruiting events.

The initial challenge for most recruiters is that they can only hire so many people, so they want to guarantee that the candidates they bring in will pass the first round of interviews. I think employers are less likely to take a risk on someone who seems to have a talented skill set, but is not necessarily pursuing a major that the employer logically affiliates with a particular job.

Commonly, the challenge for liberal-arts students is in bridging the gap between the content knowledge that students in targeted majors like business or engineering already have by virtue of their curriculum, versus the more general, competency skill-based knowledge that students from a liberal arts discipline have.

For example, a math major could certainly become a fantastic accountant, but there is a lot of accounting terminology an accounting student knows coming out of college, which a math student wouldn't have necessarily learned. It is more critical for a math major to have enough knowledge about and interest in accounting to know that he or she would be interested in having a career in the field.

What it boils down to for liberal arts majors is the exposure factor, where they need to gain experience in addition to what is built into their curriculum. One of the ways we offer this opportunity is to give liberal arts students the opportunity to serve as ambassadors for 12 major on-campus career fairs. They directly assist with our social networking, how-to videos on YouTube, and speed networking events, for example. It's a great way for them to gain experience and to grow their network in the process

"I find that a lot of liberal arts students don't understand that what might look like a mundane job on the surface actually taps into the creative activities they care about."

Jill Randolph: What do you think is the one area of the job search process that students struggle with the most, and what do you recommend to your students to help them overcome that weakness?

Mr. Bishop: These are really tough economic times, especially here in the State of Michigan. The automotive industry has been on the skids for quite a while, and sometimes there doesn't seem to be an end in sight to the downsizing.

I had a colleague from the College of Engineering who held a career fair at the Detroit Society for Engineers. He said he does not remember ever seeing so much pain among middle-aged engineers who don't have jobs and haven't done a job search for 20 years, as he saw at that event.

The downsized engineers don't know how to sell their skills, their market is very tight, and it's a very painful process for them. Awareness of how to search for employment in today's market is key.

The job search process is different than it was even five years ago, and one needs to zoom out from their niche and be well networked with others in order to have the best success rate in finding employment.

By contrast, people with a background in liberal arts always seem to be looking at the big picture, and if the big picture changes, they determine how they can apply a new set of skills or a new spin on their existing skills, which work with that system. I don't think their identity is tied up in a specific discipline, the way that engineering or accounting majors are, for example.

I find with liberal arts students, however, it's a dual challenge. The first is for the student to be knowledgeable about what to look for and learning how to speak intelligently about it. Then the bigger, more important issue is for the student to determine if he or she would be interested in an area, and then being able to explain why he or she is a great fit for the position to potential employers.

When determining interest, I see plenty of English majors who look at their counterparts in business and say they wouldn't be caught dead doing those tasks. English majors are usually the people who want to write novels and similar creative things - anything that would keep them from being a cog in a machine and stuck in a cubicle. I find that a lot of liberal arts students don't understand that what might look like a mundane job on the surface actually taps into the creative activities they care about.

If a liberal arts student is hired into a business setting, he or she also has to be aware of the subtleties of business politics, and know that whatever he or she does impacts the whole organization. As students, whatever they do impacts only them, because everything is a hypothetical exercise. However, when working in a business or an organization, one mistake hurts everyone, and that is a new experience for any student.

"For liberal arts students, segues into the professional world are not in place unless the students make the effort to build those bridges during college."

I think people with business or related degrees are more likely to develop a mindset geared toward the future effects of the projects they are working on.

Liberal arts students, on the other hand, are more tuned to the theory and meaning behind everything they do, so they are motivated differently.

Also, for business and engineering students, there is bridge built for them to walk away from college straight into the professional arena. For liberal arts students, segues into the professional world are not in place unless the students make the effort to build those bridges during college.

If liberal arts students learn how to network into opportunities while in college, they will probably have an easier time with the changes that come later and throughout their careers, because they will have the tools to be able to adjust more easily.

To summarize, liberal arts students need to network their way into the professional world, since their paths may not be as clear-cut. They also need to be more open to opportunities and ask questions before disqualifying a lead as "mundane".

On the other hand, students with in-demand majors need to think outside of the box and creatively market themselves into additional positions that may seem to lie outside of their area of expertise, in order to be open to the most job opportunities in this market.

Jill Randolph: Can you expand on the specifics of the Michigan job market?

Mr. Bishop: Yes, and this includes the northern part of Indiana and a good part of Ohio, which have, or had, an automotive economy as well. In Michigan and the surrounding areas, almost every aspect of our economy was tied into the automotive industry. The Detroit Three, which consisted of Ford, GM and Chrysler, were the ultimate consumers of all the goods further up the food chain, so to speak, for the economy in this area.

We had tier-one suppliers that made the parts that went directly to those three companies' products. We also had tier-two suppliers that went to the tier-one suppliers with their products, and then surround the industry with all of the products consumed by service people and their families, even including meals at local restaurants. Those establishments were able to operate because the automotive assembly lines were full of people working. When there was a downturn for the Big Three, it was like a tidal wave hitting everyone in the area.

From a student's perspective, a couple of things occurred. On the positive side, a lot of employers that had dabbled in recruiting Michigan State students had given up because they couldn't compete with GM, Ford and Chrysler in the past. The downturn with the Big Three auto manufacturers re-opened opportunities for those other employers to start recruiting heavily at Michigan State again. We saw a number of those companies become more popular recruiters in the last 10 years.

"For example, with the class of 2008, 51 percent of graduates left Michigan after graduation, and this is the first time in recent history we have crossed the 50 percent barrier."

The bad thing is that it's meant a fairly strong flight of talent out of the state. For example, with the class of 2008, 51 percent of graduates left Michigan after graduation, and this is the first time in recent history we have crossed the 50 percent barrier. Although it's only a slight majority, it's huge psychologically. Also, it's not good for us regarding rebuilding our economy, because we need that talent here.

Additional positive notes are that the area's economy is now slowly re-emerging, and the biofuel industry is starting to look like something we may be uniquely positioned for. I know that our Governor has also pushed for Michigan to be one of the places where battery manufacturing occurs in partnership with the auto industry in the future.

A pretty good biotech economy is starting to emerge as well. Additionally, the Big Three office furniture manufactures, Steelcase, Herman Miller and Haworth, still offer attractive employment opportunities.

To help retain and attract employment opportunities, universities are focusing on research. Here, we stress that innovation comes from research, and a lot of research is done here.

Three of the major public universities in the state, including Michigan State University, have collaborated to form the University Research Corridor, which is dedicated to helping startup companies expand based on our collective research. The studies we all complete are devised to encourage business growth and entrepreneurialism.

We have moved a portion of our medical school to Grand Rapids to apply the practice in a larger city, which has earned the attention of the Van Andel Institute. Their institute is located in Grand Rapids, and conducts cancer research that has brought about collaborations in some of the local startup companies.

It is good news about the new emerging economy in Michigan, but it's bittersweet because, for example, the biotech industry doesn't require very many employees by its nature. The manufacturing industry, for example, seems to provide the most jobs for the most people, while the biotech industry is much different.

A biotech firm can exist with essentially only three people with a PhD and one secretary. Biotech firms don't typically hire 60 people with high school degrees and make sure that they have a good salary that allows them to send their kids to college.

"I think in this economy, rather than relocating, one of the best ways to re-enter the workforce is through education or re-education."

It's a very different kind of emerging industry, and a lot of the employers require at least a bachelor's degree or even an advanced degree. That's also a shift for the state, because 30 years ago, all people needed was a high school degree in order to get into the automotive industry, and they would live a good life with stable employment.

That isn't the case anymore, regarding either education or "guarantees" of stable employment, and I think this is a permanent shift in the economy that will require people to make long-term adjustments.

I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and I remember an influx of people from Detroit had arrived in the area during one of the downturns for the automotive industry in the early 1980s. In past auto industry downturns, people had left Detroit and moved to other places to find jobs, but now, moving for better job opportunities is much more difficult in this economy. The recession has hit everywhere, and in some cases the jobs that used to exist no longer do.

I think it's a difficult transition, but I notice that compared to other states that are still feeling the effects of the recession, Michigan has been pretty stoic about it. We have been dealing with peaks and a lot of valleys for a long time, and I won't say people are numb to it, but they are not freaked out anymore.

The news has been bad for quite a while here, and there is a slow acceptance of the fact that the old way of doing things is going to have to change. There is a certain amount of grit that people have here, where they know how to buckle down because they have a strong work ethic and they know they will plow through it somehow. I think in this economy, rather than relocating, one of the best ways to re-enter the workforce is through education or re-education.

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