By Jill Randolph
May 13, 2010
The following is a transcript of an interview with Kathy Potter, Director of Santa Clara University's Career Center. Ms. Potter has been Director at SCU since April 2004, and was Assistant Director for Alumni before that. In her career, she has provided over 18 years of career development assistance in leadership and counseling roles, as well as communications and marketing expertise to academia, industry, non-profit organizations, government, and private practice. She is a Nationally Certified Career Counselor and a Registered Professional Career Counselor.
Santa Clara's Career Center focuses on educating, encouraging, and promoting students. Educating - for the continuous process of personally authentic career and life development; encouraging self-discovery through reflection and engagement with the world; and promoting the pursuit of a meaningful vocational journey that responds to the needs of society. The Career Center supports undergraduate and graduate students in Engineering, Counseling Psychology, Education, and Pastoral Ministries.
Santa Clara University, a Catholic and Jesuit institution, was founded 1851 and has an undergraduate student enrollment of 5,200. SCU is the oldest operating institution of higher learning in California, and the oldest Catholic university in the American West.
Jill Randolph: Which career related books or websites do you recommend to your students?
Kathy Potter: We have many books on resume writing, interviewing, information gathering, and similar topics. One book I recommend is by Richard Bolles, "What Color is Your Parachute?" It has a lot of useful career search information and is an easy read. However, our students are highly interactive and technology-based, so our website offers various links to many additional websites where they can find information, since we know a lot of them won't read extra books. We also have a Facebook page that provides links to many of our job, career, and skill-related links.
One of the most popular sites is WetFeet.com, and we have a digital subscription to the San Jose Business Journal as well. USAJobs.gov is a site dedicated to jobs within the federal government, and Indeed.com compiles job postings from a variety of different sources. The information on our site doesn't cost students anything to review, and we post job and internship listings and information for recent graduates as well.
We also list many links that refer to service or volunteer positions, such as AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, or Jesuit Volunteer Corps. We place a very strong emphasis on community service and volunteer work here, so we make sure our website has many links to these types of opportunities for our students.
There are a number of Jesuit schools that tend to have a similar focus around education of the whole person, because the Jesuit way of approaching life is to question, not simply accept. There is a very questioning mentality at Jesuit schools, and the education of men and women for others, not just for self, is very much a part of the thought process as well. We educate our students for "the three Cs": competence, conscience, and compassion.
Competence is skill - what students learn, and how they use it. Conscience is ethics - making decisions that cause people to look deeper than the surface. Compassion is focused on reaching out to help those less privileged and less able. We offer a lot of activities geared to the three Cs, which are available in this country and around the world. Because the market is so tough right now, a lot of schools may simply tell their students to find an internship. We recommend an internship, and we also advise our students to perform volunteer work. The mentality of giving back is embedded in this university.
In the future, our students will be required to engage in social justice in some form during their four years at the university. We currently have a lot of volunteer programs available to students within the community and across the globe. These trips are a way for staff and faculty to become aware of the needs of the world. For example, I went to El Salvador a couple of years ago as part of a staff-faculty group; they make the trip every year.
The lesson we want to portray to students is not that they need to pad their resumes, but rather that we all simply need to give back to the world. As a career center, we help students discover what they have learned about themselves through these experiences and articulate that in resumes and interviews. We teach them how to reflect on their experiences in a way that will guide them in their decision-making process.
For example, imagine a student who dealt with a very poor village in a foreign country, where the people worked for a large company that made them all sick because of the environmental damage it caused. That student will be more likely to look into a company's global consciousness when he or she is home looking for a job. If students and graduates think in terms of the three Cs, it will positively impact themselves and those around them.
Jill Randolph: Which changes in the local job market have you seen in the past year?
Kathy Potter: The numbers may vary in different parts of the country, but in Silicon Valley, we are still seeing a very competitive market for new grads. Some of the major accounting firms we met with recently have told us they are looking for graduates at about the same rate they had been in previous years, but the number of employers who are attending our career fairs and participating in our on-campus interviews is significantly lower than in years past.
There does, however, seem to be a more positive feeling about the upcoming year. We are not seeing positive proof yet in the numbers at the career center, so it's still a bit unclear as to what will happen with the employment of this year's graduates. My guess is that this year will not be better than 2009; it may be the same, and I hope it won't be worse.
I know this answer is vague, but we look at how active employers are with our students, and we talk with companies to determine their hiring plans. The market is still very competitive. The challenge is that some of the 2010 graduates will be competing with the 2009 graduates who may still be looking for a job or who are currently in temporary positions. Therefore, competition for job opportunities is also with the preceding classes. Because the market is so competitive, I counsel students to continue looking for jobs unless a company guarantees in writing that they will be starting that job on a specific date.
Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to a student who recently graduated and has already been laid off, in terms of how he or she should approach the situation when speaking to potential employers?
Kathy Potter: I personally have had experience working for outplacement organizations. They step in and help all of the displaced individuals with the next step, including how to prepare an updated resume, how to respond to questions, and how to deal with related issues.
People feel awful when they have been laid off, and a lot feel like it is their fault. However, 90 percent of the time it has nothing to do with that particular individual; it has to do with corporate decisions. This is not a new phenomenon, and if the question is raised, particularly for a recent graduate, it's pretty clear why something like that happened. What's hardest is working through the emotions that all people have after being downsized.
Jill Randolph: I have an example of a friend whose first job was with a manufacturing company that changed hands five times in one year. The final ownership change resulted in his layoff. How should someone in a similar situation list that employer on his or her resume, and also avoid looking like a job-hopper to another potential employer, since the termination was not his or her choice?
Kathy Potter: When people in this situation write their resume, I recommend that they write all the former names of the company in parenthesis underneath the current name to show they held the same position in presumably the same location, but the name of the company simply changed. By combining the position under one heading, it should indicate that the company went through changes. It's possible to explain a situation like this in a cover letter as well. It's not very difficult to make it apparent that the employee did not make five changes in one year, at least not intentionally.
People in this situation, or in a situation where they have been laid off many times in a short period of time, should stay as positive about the situation as possible. It's not easy, and candidates should consider approaching the situation with a light touch of humor when talking about it.
I think it shows a certain level of maturity to be able to look at things more philosophically. Displaced workers have to determine what they learned from those situations and what they can now offer new employers.
Jill Randolph: How has searching for a career changed from the past, and how has it stayed the same?
Kathy Potter: When we talk about searching for a career, we are talking in a much larger frame, because a career is more than one job. Searching for a career should start with a self-assessment so that students may better understand their career desires and skills, and how those meet the needs of the world.
A self-assessment is still the first and most important step a student or job seeker needs to look at. The techniques used to find one's ideal career don't change, regardless of the job market. People should also try to learn who they are and what they are passionate about on an ongoing basis. Students don't graduate from college and immediately know who they are and what they are going to do with their lives.
Self-education is something we stress at Santa Clara University, because education here is really about preparing students for a life of meaningful work where they are giving back to the community in ways that other schools may not emphasize as much. Regardless of the job market, students need to focus on who they are, what they want to do, and how it meets the needs of the world, because these steps are really crucial.
The idea of a meaningful career - thinking about the values most important to the employee and how those best relate to their skill sets - is a new phenomenon. People need to realize the great options they have in that sense, because there is still a large part of the world that doesn't have the option to branch off into different and potentially fulfilling and interesting career paths.
Ideally people are doing work they love, but sometimes people have to get a job because they need one. I think the job market today is pushing people towards that slightly, where we may have to hang in there with a job we don't love and keep working towards an opportunity that is more meaningful to us. This is where volunteering can play a role and fill an employee's need for meaningful work.
Jill Randolph: What are the most common mistakes you see students make in their job search?
Kathy Potter: First, students wait too long to approach the career development process. School is very busy and their social lives are busy, but when students wait until senior year to visit the career center or to consider the job search process, they have a much more stressful time as graduation approaches than those students who have prepared.
Another mistake I see students make is sending resumes online and then not following up with the employers. The process of submitting a resume online is not terribly useful. Students really need to talk with their career counselors to help them understand the process, articulate what they want to do, and then determine which resources will help them achieve success. A successful job search should focus on appropriate industries and positions within those industries. Students can also create a profile on LinkedIn and get in touch with hiring managers in their target companies.
I also believe some students today rely too heavily on the idea that opportunities will come to them, rather than realizing that they need to take initiative. I think that's been exacerbated by the fact that they are online all the time, so it's a more reactive rather than proactive mode. The career center provides career fairs, on-campus interviews, information sessions with employers, and similar events, but students have to make the effort to attend in order for these events to be useful to them.
We find that if the events we are advertising don't interest the students at the exact moment we reach them, we might miss them. Students like instant gratification, but they need to plan ahead and follow-up in the real world.,/p>
Once they see a career fair or event that may be useful to them, they need to attend or be proactive in some way, not simply when it is absolutely essential. Being proactive and focused are very important, and students are not aware that they need to network in order to help create these opportunities for themselves.
Students need to be more proactive than they have been in the past. They need to use all available resources so they can become selective candidates. Networking, flexibility, and adaptability are really important, now, more than ever. There are a lot of things students can do, including developing the ability to connect with people, which is critical. These ideas are not new, but I think students need to understand these concepts and use the tools they have available to them now more than ever.
I also hear from employers that students don't research companies thoroughly enough before an interview. They may complete a bit of general research, but they usually don't perform the in-depth research that helps them be more competitive. Completing thorough research will also help candidates discover facts about a company or position that may be important to them, and it will also give them questions to ask potential employers during an interview.
Finally, I recommend that students take advantage of all the free resources available at a career center. A study was done on students who use career centers, and users fare much better in the job search process than those who don't use the services at all or use them minimally.
For instance, we can help students put together their resume or develop an elevator pitch, and by completing mock interviews, they can improve interview skills as well. All of these activities will help them focus. They may not know completely what to do with their lives, but focusing will help them understand the processes they can use, both now and in the future. This will help students find target employers as well.
Jill Randolph: What do you recommend students highlight about themselves on their resume in order to outshine their competition?
Kathy Potter: If students have a focused approach and complete some of the activities I have mentioned, they will stand out to employers. They must also remember that an employer is looking for something different in a recent graduate than in a candidate with years of experience.
Graduates are not really competing against people with three or four years of experience, so that's good news. However, they are in competition with their peers and with recent graduating classes these days as well. Students who are about to graduate can enhance their competitive edge in many ways, including earning a good GPA, which still matters to a lot of companies.
Involvement in extracurricular activities is also important, because an employer will like to see a candidate who has done well in school and who was also president of the accounting club. Employers like to see that candidates can balance different aspects of their lives. Additionally, more employers are telling students that they should complete internships, and we have a dedicated employee in our office helping students with that process. A summer job is good to have as well.
Employers look at resumes and want to see what the applicant has done, how they've contributed, and how that will clearly help their company. It doesn't matter if the summer job was an internship or not, but internships carry a lot more weight. Also, having any form of work experience during school months is impressive to employers as well, as it shows the ability to handle a lot at one time.
Students should think positively throughout the whole search process, as opposed to being either overly confident or down on themselves. They have to stay positive and active, which can show up in different ways, either through networking or working with the career center. These things give students an edge.
Jill Randolph: What advice do you give to students regarding traditional networking and social networking?
Kathy Potter: Students should use social networking sites, but they need to be very careful about what they post, whether it's social or professional. Many employers look at social networking sites, and they make personnel decisions based upon what they see.
An organization called Cross Tab wrote an article entitled "Online Reputations in a Connected World" in January of this year, and they looked at the impact of online reputations on hiring from both the HR and candidate perspectives. They talked to approximately 275 recruiters, human resources professionals, and hiring managers, and about 330 job candidates in the U.S., U.K., Germany, and France. The report stated that employers are making hiring decisions based upon social networking sites, but a lot of students don't believe that's the case and choose to ignore this fact.
It's hard to make students understand that almost anything on the Internet is potentially available to everyone. According to the article, 86 percent of human resources professionals surveyed in the United States said a positive online reputation influences a candidate's application to some extent. Almost half stated that it does to a great extent.
Social networking creates a big change from typical resume rules, and we try to educate students about what's happening in the real world. Students should maintain a professional online presence, especially when they are looking for employment. Those of us in the career services area have been receiving LinkedIn training for a few years, and now they are starting to offer it free to students as well. We also talk with students about how they can connect with their alumni networking site and what they need to know in order to use these tools effectively and appropriately.
Michigan State University did a study called "Recruiting Trends 2009-2010" from their Career Services office and the Collegiate Employment Research Institute of the University. About 2,500 employers responded to its survey, and most said they expressed little interest in substituting technology for face-to-face time with students.
As much as people use websites to research information and for social networking purposes, using technology to interview and follow up is not yet as prevalent as one might think. Therefore, students need to avoid hiding behind a computer screen and should try to get in front of hiring managers in person or at least on the phone.
Jill Randolph: Through which social media services are employers most likely to screen candidates?
Kathy Potter: Most employers use LinkedIn, and the next most popular is Facebook. The report I mentioned earlier said that 33 percent of employers use Facebook, whereas 45 percent use LinkedIn. There is some emerging interest in Twitter, but the numbers are much lower for any organizational and personal blogs. Employers generally use online resources to reject applicants, not to make final hiring decisions. The interview is by far the most important piece in the final stage.
Jill Randolph: Which social media site do you think is the most useful for students?
Kathy Potter: LinkedIn, because it's a professional networking site, people can include past accomplishments on their profiles, and they can form connections to potential employers. If students are keeping their resume posted on Monster, CareerBuilder and similar sites, they need to make sure their postings are limited to the sites relevant to them and that they keep their resume updated.
Jill Randolph: Do you know of any unusual practices companies use in interviews to learn more about candidates?
Kathy Potter: Any question asked usually has to be related to the type of work the candidate will be doing. For example, it is legal to ask candidates about their ability to lift heavy weight if the job is in construction. Those expected to work around drugs or in pharmacies may be subject to drug testing, and retail companies are permitted to ask applicants if they have ever lied or stolen clothing.
The bottom line is always how related the question is to the job description. In the CIA, NSA or similar groups, they perform a comprehensive background check. They talk to friends, family, neighbors and everyone in between because it's pertinent to the security of the country.
Companies sometimes ask illegal questions because some interviewers don't know better, but sometimes companies will ask questions they know are illegal to see if they can get away with it. It's a tricky situation, and interviewees should not be afraid to ask about the context of the question.
When difficult questions are asked, it can create an uneasy situation for those being interviewed. It may be too aggressive for an applicant to tell the interviewer that he or she is asking illegal questions, so the interviewee can either make a choice to address the question head on or assume it was unintentional. Those kinds of situations create some real challenges, but there is no hard and fast rule about how to respond. People have to know their options and make the best decisions they can.
Students are asked odd questions in interviews, but they need to treat them seriously and assume interviewers know what they are talking about when they ask. An employer may ask a candidate, "If you could be a tree, what kind of a tree would you be?" Interviewees may laugh and say that the question is silly, but the employer may simply be trying to see how the candidate thinks on his or her feet. It's okay for the candidate to smile and say, "Well, that's interesting. I've never thought about it, so I need a minute." Then they can take a sip of water and answer the question as they'd like.
I always tell students I would rather have the option of turning down a job, which means I was at least offered the opportunity, than not have the offer. If interviewees react well during an awkward moment in an interview and use it to their advantage, they will have a better chance at being offered a job. Then that person can make his or her own decision about accepting the job offer or not.
Jill Randolph: Recent graduates and younger job seekers might end up in a job that is not the best fit because they are so eager to gain experience as soon as possible. Therefore, as interviewees, do you think it is important to ask questions in return and thoroughly assess how well they will fit into each organization?
Kathy Potter: I think everyone experiences non-ideal job situations, but as people gain more experience, they will likely make fewer mistakes. However, given the option of being unemployed or having a job that's not a very good fit, I think most people would choose the latter.
Students need to determine if the interviewing company offers a good fit for their talents and goals. However, the challenge is that when students are graduating, they don't have five years of work experience and they are still learning the questions they need to ask during interviews to help ensure a good fit. Someone's first job is not likely going to be the job he or she has 25 years later.
Also, when we work with students, we advise that they be forthright, honest, and communicate their skills accurately in resumes and interviews. If they are overly arrogant about what they can do, that's not good, and the converse is true if they act desperate. We encourage students to find a balance in the level of accomplishment-driven statements and examples they use in their resume and during interviews.
This is where the three Cs I had mentioned come into play. Students should clearly demonstrate their competence in their resumes and communicate it clearly during interviews. They should also use their conscience when researching companies that could potentially employ them. And, as part of the decision they make regarding employment, they should try to find work that allows them to compassionately give back to the world in a meaningful way.