By CityTownInfo Staff
October 15, 2009
The following is an interview transcript with Christian Garcia, Director of the Toppel Career Center at the University of Miami. Mr. Garcia was promoted to his new role in June 2009 after serving as their Associate Director of Employer Relations for the past eight years. He oversees the day-to-day operations of the centralized career center, which includes working with students, alumni and employers. The career center also includes "The Launch Pad, Center for Entrepreneurship", which was recently created.
Christian received his Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from Florida International University, his Master of Science in Higher Education from Florida State, and recently began working towards his doctoral degree in Organizational Leadership from Nova Southeastern University.
One of the many ways that Mr. Garcia effectively interacts with UM's students is with technology, which reaches students at their level. The University's Toppel Career Center team progressively seeks out technology trends, staying ahead of the curve and connecting with students through a variety of methods.
The University of Miami, also known as "The U" or UM, is a private non-sectarian university, established in 1925. The university enrolls more than 15,000 students in its various degree programs. Over 100 undergraduate degree courses, more than 110 master degree courses, and over 50 doctoral degree courses are offered to students of this university.
CityTownInfo: What do you think are the most important tasks high school students should complete to get into their college of choice and how soon should they start working on their plan?
Christian Garcia: I think it depends on which colleges and programs a student is applying to, but regardless of where they are looking, it is important for students to focus on their grades. One of the biggest mistakes high school students can make is performing really well up until their senior year and then they start slipping with their grades, because that has an effect on whether or not they get in to a certain school. Secondly, improving writing skills helps high school students as well; especially on essay questions and whatever else they may need to write to help them get into college. By the time they are juniors or seniors, they should have already applied to multiple schools.
CityTownInfo: If you had a group of high school students who had expressed an interest in going to the University of Miami, what specific recommendations would you give to help them secure a spot in the accounting program?
Christian Garcia: Accounting is a small program and the University of Miami is a big university, but as students start whittling down to specific colleges, program admissions become more selective. Since the accounting program isn't very big, it is competitive, so having excellent grades and anything that sharpens students' quantitative skills definitely help applicants stand out. We always recommend that they complete internships and we are seeing more and more students coming to college with an internship or two already completed. I think that's a trend we are going to see more of in the future as well. Students are figuring out what they want to do for a living earlier in their lives and at some high schools, there is even talk of having students choose a major at that time if they have a good idea of their professional interests. That way, they can begin on their paths as soon as possible. I could definitely see that level of focus making a student stand out amongst others applying to the university.
CityTownInfo: They would also be able to speak intelligently on their application as to why they would be a really good fit for the program.
Christian Garcia: Exactly. A lot of students change their major at some point during their college career, so the more information they can gather ahead of time, the better off they will be. Imagine a high school student really being proactive and gathering information about the field they are interested in, and being able to communicate intelligently about the different types of accounting with someone at the University. If for no other reason than for the student to be able to make a more informed decision, it would be beneficial. If they got to the point where they were talking to an admissions counselor, being able to talk about their experience and their knowledge is definitely going to set them apart.
CityTownInfo: What are the biggest trends you seeing with incoming students? For example, are more students going on to get their master's degrees in order to be more competitive in their field?
Christian Garcia: When the economy isn't doing very well, a lot of students think it is smart to go on to graduate school, and I can understand why people make that assumption. However, that doesn't mean that more graduate programs are increasing their enrolment, so just because more people may be interested in going to graduate school, doesn't mean they are going to be able to get in. A student applying for a certain program that only has 30 open MBA spots can't assume that the school is going to be able to increase their number to accommodate a higher enrollment, so it may become even more competitive to get into graduate school. I think there certainly are some students who are going to go to graduate school to ride out the economic downturn, and I think that's a wonderful thing if it is in their heart and it's part of their career goal. Going just to ride out the economy, however, is probably not the best reason, considering it's going take time, effort and more money. We always caution students to make sure they are making the best decision possible for them, and I think that's really important. For an MBA for instance, we always tell students it is probably a good idea to work for two years, get some experience, and then come back and get their MBA. It's going to make the student more marketable, and also, most of the top MBA programs require work experience.
We also just issued our graduation survey, which we offer twice a year at the end of every semester. We ask students if they are going to graduate school, if they have a full time job lined up after college and those types of questions. About a quarter of our students go onto graduate school, and that's been pretty consistent throughout the years. Enrollment has spiked a little this year, but it really wasn't as significant as people might think based on what is being said in the media and what people are saying about the economy.
CityTownInfo: Are you hearing about more students offering to intern for free in order to get their foot in the door with a company?
Christian Garcia: We are seeing that on both ends. In the past, internships in the business sector tended to be paid, but now a lot of companies, including large ones, are not able to pay students, so they are offering unpaid internships. That's a problem because employers still want to be able to offer those opportunities to students and we still want students to get that experience, but it puts some students in a bind financially. Many have to work part-time to fund their education, so it really puts some students at a disadvantage because they are unable to partake in an unpaid internship. They would be gaining experience, but because it is unpaid, it may have an affect on their ability to stay at the university. Not all students are in that position; some can afford unpaid internships because their family is supporting them, but it really just depends on each student and the situation they are in. We caution students about unpaid internships, because at the end of the day, they should be receiving some form of compensation from the company. Legally, companies need to be offering some type of compensation to their interns, whether it means paying them or making sure they can earn academic credit for their work.
CityTownInfo: Including employee training?
Christian Garcia: Right, students have to receive something, so we spend a lot of time educating students and employers on that concept. Even getting students academic credit is easier said than done. Let's say I am a student and I get an unpaid internship with XYZ Company. Even if they are offering academic credit, I still have to get it approved by my academic department. The department may not approve it, especially if it's not directly related to what I am studying. Let's say they approve it, however, and I get one credit for a summer internship. One credit at the University of Miami is about $1,300, so now not only am I not getting paid for the internship, I am actually paying $1,300 to work for that company. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of students who can afford that, especially if the internship is not where they live. If a student wants to intern in New York or somewhere out of town, they also have to pay for moving and living expenses, so there are a lot of issues involved. We work with companies and we try to make sure our students are treated fairly, and also that they are gaining experience at the same time.
CityTownInfo: What are the three most important things that an accounting student should do to prepare him or herself to find a job?
Christian Garcia: Accounting majors have to do internships - there are no ways around it. The great thing about being an accounting major is that it is so structured in terms of the recruiting process, especially at the University of Miami. Accounting firms come to our campus every October when we have our accounting career fair. Companies conduct interviews on campus and employment offers are made. It's very laid out for students, but they really need to be a part of the process, even early on. Freshmen and sophomores who may not qualify for an internship should still be going to the accounting career fair, introducing themselves, showing enthusiasm, and learning as much as possible. We have heard from the accounting firms that they are looking for students who are proactive and willing to go the extra mile. I think it used to be that a single internship was enough to be competitive, but now students really need to have more than one.
Excellent grades are also very important for accounting majors in their job search. Students should have good grades, however, they also need to be balanced. A student with a 4.0 who is not involved on campus may lose out to someone who has a 3.8 or 3.6 but was actively involved. Beta Alpha Psi, is a national accounting fraternity; prospective employees look upon involvement with that group favorably.
The third thing is performing well on the interview, which is crucial. There is a myth that accountants are dry, but the recruiters I have had experience with want applicants who have a personality and who can really speak about results during the interview. Recruiters don't want students just telling them that they can do the job, they want concrete examples of how and why. I recommend that my students talk about a time when they were a leader, when they dealt with a difficult problem or situation, or about experience they have had working with people. Accountants work with people, sometimes under very stressful conditions. Experience like that is definitely sought out by accounting employers.
CityTownInfo: What are some suggestions you make to accounting students to help them stand out from other job applicants?
Christian Garcia: Students should be very confident in an interview, but not overly so, in order to avoid coming across as cocky. It is important for interviewees to be prepared and to be able to speak intelligently about the industry as well as each individual company. We recommend students research all the companies attending our career fairs before meeting those prospective employers. Having the knowledge to be able to speak specifically to the details of a company is going to set students apart from the competition.
CityTownInfo: Do you think companies prefer traditional information from an interviewee or proof of going above and beyond showing that the applicant has done a lot of in depth research, including on particular employees within the student's network?
Christian Garcia: I don't really think in-depth research is going to hurt them unless they do it really poorly, but I still think it's more traditional from what I have seen. I don't think companies expect students to research on LinkedIn so they can name drop, but as long as the student has information on the company and they know what they are talking about, they should be okay.
The accounting profession is very conservative, so another way for students to stand out is by dressing and handling themselves professionally. We want students to show their personality, but there is a fine line there. It's very similar to the architecture industry; which tends to be a lot more formal in its interactions, but companies want to see personality. It's just a lot more conservative than some other fields, at least in my observations.
CityTownInfo: A study was just released stating that 80 percent of people are now finding their jobs through networking. Do you think employers prefer to hire someone who has been recommended to them, or are applicants having more success going the traditional route?
Christian Garcia: Most jobs are found through networking. The statistic I hear fluctuates anywhere from 70 to 85 percent, because the reality is that most open jobs are found in small to medium-sized companies. A lot of those companies don't post jobs and they may not come to career fairs because they can't afford it, or for various other reasons. Therefore, we also recommend students use traditional methods such as applying online. The trend has moved towards networking, though. We just received a survey result saying 40 percent of our students still depend on career fairs as a way to interact with employers, and I still think they want face-to-face interaction. That in itself is a networking event because students are not necessarily going to walk away from a career fair with a job usually, but they will have made contacts with various employers.
We are starting to focus more on the networking aspect of the job search and infuse it into all of our programs. The smartest students know they have to begin networking from the beginning of their college years. They shouldn't wait until they are seniors; students should be networking starting with their freshman and sophomore years. That includes using sites like LinkedIn and even Facebook if they are going to use it appropriately, but it varies from student-to-student. We offer a lot of programs on campus where we talk about networking with students and we try to help them expand their base of professional contacts. We are focusing on that more and more.
CityTownInfo: What types of networking recommendations do you make to students who want to work somewhere hundreds of miles away from where they live or attend school? The economy is becoming more and more globalized, so what about students who are interested in relocating after graduation?
Christian Garcia: I always tell students that networking is so much easier now, thanks to the Internet and sites like LinkedIn and KODA. KODA is a more formal version of Facebook, but it's not as formal as LinkedIn. It brings the two together, and its focus is on networking and helping people find jobs and internships. Before the Internet and sites like Facebook, LinkedIn and KODA, people had to depend on face-to-face networking, including going to events, pounding the pavement and calling people and companies, and it was a very time consuming and frustrating process. Now we tell students, regardless of where they want to go, to use the Internet. Just because a student is in Miami, doesn't mean they can't network with people in New York if that's where they want to end up working, so we definitely don't see geography as a roadblock anymore.
CityTownInfo: Do you have any career-related books or websites that you recommend?
Christian Garcia: We have a series of links on our website and one of the biggest resources we subscribe to is a series called "What Can I Do With This Major". Students can look up areas of study, whether it's their major or one they're interested in, and it helps them think outside the box. For example, if they choose accounting, it will open a PDF and tell the student about different areas within accounting, for example working in public accounting, corporate accounting, and government, in an entrepreneurial role, or for non-profits. Then it tells them about the employers that hire within those areas, and then the next column contains specific information and strategies for getting hired. If I have a student who wants to be an accountant but maybe doesn't want to go the public accounting route because they want more of a work-life balance, we can use this tool and find other possible employment areas - anything that fulfills the student's love of accounting. Then we weigh their options and lay out a strategy. A PhD in accounting may be required for a college level educator, for example. That's one of the resources that I love showing to students because it really displays information in concrete terms. A lot of students just think of the Big Four when they think of accounting, and they don't necessarily think about all the different options they have.
We also have a whole slew of career links on our website that are broken down by categories. For example, if a student is interested in working for the government, we offer a list of helpful links.
Additionally, we have The Launch Pad, our entrepreneurship incubator. One of the unique aspects about The Launch Pad is, unlike most business incubators, it is not tied to the business school, but instead to the career office, and is therefore more high profile to a wider cross-section of our students, since over 80% of entrepreneurs are or were not business majors. Since The Launch Pad's inception in September of 2008, it has helped numerous students and alums with their businesses and has facilitated the launch of 20 new companies.
CityTownInfo: This ability to think outside the box can be a very valuable skill for students to have, especially if they lose their job at some point and need to be creative in order to find another.
Christian Garcia: Exactly. Accountants often work with other accountants, but if a company that only needs one or two employs them, then they become the expert at that company and stand out. They may be able to make a more of an impact in that setting, as opposed to working for a large company. I talk to students about that a lot. I tell them the smaller the company, the more hats they get to wear. They may be forced to dabble in many different areas, and that's great because they are able to learn additional skills and expand their knowledge base. Then if they decide they want to work with a bigger accounting firm later on, they have a lot of experiences they can draw upon in order to be more competitive and to help them land a position.
We are starting an "Out of the Box" series, where we address this issue head-on. Most students don't realize, for example, that the Burger King Corporation, which is huge, is constantly looking for multiple finance majors in the same way Sony Music is, so we want to help students think outside of traditional finance roles.
CityTownInfo: How do you think that the University of Miami or universities in general have changed from the past?
Christian Garcia: I think colleges and universities are becoming more accountable to students, to their parents and to students' futures. Obviously, going to college is getting more and more expensive, and many schools are harder to get into. A parent paying $30,000 a year or even half of that wants to know what they are getting for their money. There has been a shift, and we are going to see more of it where there is going to be more accountability demanded from schools. Colleges need to show parents how they are educating their students, both inside and outside of the classroom. For example, in the career center we evaluate everything that occurs on campus, so when there is a program or a career fair, we ask the students what they learned, how the program can be improved, and what they want to see that wasn't included. We want to know this information in order to help us improve, because we know we are the ones who are ultimately accountable. We know not every student is going to find their dream job, but we want to be able to assist as much as possible and know that we did the best job possible. I think accountability is a big thing in the way colleges have evolved and will continue to evolve. Technology is a huge thing as well. There are always going to be people who think technology is the root of all evil and that it's going to create students who can't interact with each other socially, and that is a valid concern. Some students are so focused on social networking technologically that they are not going out of their comfort zone, so it will be interesting to see how that develops.
People are always going to have their predisposition. Technology is not going to make anyone an introvert; they are who they are. I am not afraid of technology, nor do I think it is going to be the end of in-person interactions.
Our office embraces technology because we know that's what students want, so we realize we need to meet them at their level. At the same time, we also recognize that students need to be able to interact with others face-to-face so they can perform well on interviews or when they attend career fairs. The key is finding balance, where we will help students with technology, but we also want them to be productive members of society and be able to interact with people.
CityTownInfo: What advice do you offer to students to help them with their work-life balance once they start working full time?
Christian Garcia: We participate in a survey called Universum, which surveys college students from all over the country and the globe asking them questions about their ideal employers, what they look for in a job and companies, and other related questions. Our students participate in the survey and then we get a comparison of how UM students answered in relation to how students from other colleges and universities did. One of the questions they ask students is what is most important to them in a job, and for UM students, the number one most important thing is a work-life balance. I think it's great they see the importance in that. I think how the work-life balance is defined is interesting as well, because to a lot of people it means working and having a separate life outside of work. This has evolved over the years, however, and we are now seeing companies like Google and some other technology companies who have everything on site, including a gym, Starbucks, different places to eat and similar amenities. We are noticing that students are considering those perks as part of the work-life balance as well.
We tell students it's very important for them to understand the lifestyle and professional demands of their chosen industry. As far as accounting students go, we tell students they can be accountants in any number of different industries because every company needs accountants, so we want them to think outside the box and outside traditional accounting. We also want students to know what to expect before they agree to work for a company. If they are going to a Big Four accounting firm for example, they need to realize that their work-life balance for the first couple of years is going to be more skewed to work as opposed to balance, so we are very up front with them. The same thing is true for investment bankers, who may be working 80 hours a week, sometimes more. We want to educate students as much as possible so they can do what is most important for them and are pursuing the right career path.