Entrepreneurship Increases During Recession: An Interview With University Of Dayton Director Of Career Services

By Jill Randolph
May 20, 2010

The following is an interview transcript with Jason Eckert, Director of Career Services at the University of Dayton (or UD). Mr. Eckert has worked at UD since 2008 when he came from Marquette University, where he worked for nine years including five years in Career Services. He also spent six years as a Residence Hall Director. He has a B.A. in Communication and Theological Studies from Saint Louis University, and a M.S. in Counseling and Student Personnel from Oklahoma State University. He was awarded the 2007 Midwest ACE President's Award and the 2008 Wisconsin ACE Outstanding Service Award.

UD is Ohio's largest private university and is the largest of the Marianist universities in the country. Additionally, it is among the 10 largest Catholic schools in the US and is run by the Society of Mary. UD was established in 1850 and offers more than 70 academic programs in diverse areas of study, including an entrepreneurship program, which is ranked fourth in the country and is offered through their school of business.

Interview Transcript

Jill Randolph: What are the most important things high school students should do to get into your entrepreneurship program, and how soon should they start working on that plan?

Jason Eckert: Some of our students know what they want to study, whether it's entrepreneurship, physical therapy or mechanical engineering. Others don't know and spend their freshmen year trying to decide.

For high school students who have a sense of what they want to do, it's important for them to research the programs they are interested in, which schools offer those programs, and then visit each of those schools individually. During the visits, I encourage students to not only take the official campus tour that walks them through the nicest areas of campus, but to also take time to walk around and explore the campus on their own as well.

I also encourage students to meet with a faculty member from their particular area of interest while on those campuses. For example, students interested in entrepreneurship should schedule a meeting with a faculty member from the entrepreneurial department at the schools they choose to visit. In addition, it's very appropriate for prospective students to visit a career services office if they are curious about which services the school offers.

Jill Randolph: Do you think that parents are usually the ones pushing their children to look at colleges and begin the search process, or are students today more proactive then they were in the past?

Jason Eckert: College visits are largely parent driven. Also among our current students, we sometimes struggle to get them to think about their careers during their first or second year in college. We encourage them to visit us sooner, rather than later.

"...it is very beneficial for students to learn from other business owners' successes, failures and challenges."

This generation has a very involved set of parents, and there is both good and bad in that, but it is more beneficial than detrimental. Students today tend to trust their parents more than previous generations have, and they continue to rely on their parents for support and counseling in very healthy ways, in most cases.

If parents are helping to finance their child's education, they are especially concerned about receiving a good return on their investment and making sure that their children are making the right choices.

To me, this requires that students find the best academic area for them and then pursue multiple work experiences in that area. This includes anything from internships and co-op experiences to clinical work for students studying healthcare, as well as study abroad opportunities for international affairs or history majors. The more a student does in school, especially in terms of internships, the more successful he or she is likely to be upon graduation.

Specifically regarding entrepreneurship majors, we encourage our students to solicit internship opportunities from other entrepreneurs and small business owners in the area. These business owners are going through the same process a student may experience in the future, in terms of forming her or his own business, and we believe it is very beneficial for students to learn from other business owners' successes, failures and challenges.

Jill Randolph: A small business is one that employs less than fifty people, correct?

Jason Eckert: That depends; the government's definition of a small business tends to be more liberal, and any business with 500 employees or less falls under the classification of a small business. I would be leery about a one-person company hosting an internship, and think the best opportunities for our students are with companies that have been around for a few years and have accumulated 50-100 employees.

Jill Randolph: Is there a threshold for the different classifications of small businesses that students should pursue? Theoretically, in smaller companies, students will be exposed to more challenges and opportunities, and they will be more likely to be able to cross train.

"Job growth in many ways is coming from smaller or emerging businesses, and in order for our students to be successful, they need to know how to look for jobs in those areas and navigate more of an entrepreneurial world."

Jason Eckert: In Ohio, that's even more important, as the state has lost a lot of major employers because of the changing nature of the economy. Our job growth in many ways is coming from smaller or emerging businesses, and in order for our students to be successful, they need to know how to look for jobs in those areas and navigate more of an entrepreneurial world.

However, a large percentage of our students are still finding jobs through traditional employers. Proctor and Gamble, headquartered nearby in Cincinnati, employs a large number of our graduates. We still foster partnerships with our traditional large corporate partners, but we have seen a shift where some of those corporations, like NCR, are either changing or leaving for various reasons. Because of that, our students need to think more creatively and entrepreneurially, especially if they want to stay within Ohio or the immediate Midwest.

Jill Randolph: Do you think that people who work for smaller companies have more demanded of them if they are the only person in a company who can provides certain services?

Jason Eckert: You just described the reason a lot of our students don't start their own companies from day one. They may choose instead to work for a small business for a while, and then start out on their own once they have had the time to save money and learn on-the-job skills. It's difficult for a 22-year-old to graduate from school and immediately start his or her own company.

Jill Randolph: Do you think that it's also good for young students to learn from other companies' mistakes and best practices?

Jason Eckert: Yes, that's very true. A business owner who is 35 or 40 has probably been through more learning experiences then someone who is 22, therefore I tend to agree that it's best for students or recent graduates to learn from an established company. Some people will take a traditional job and lay the groundwork for starting their own business on their own time; that's fairly common.

Jill Randolph: Do you have any books or websites related to business careers or entrepreneurial opportunities that you recommend to your students?

Jason Eckert: One resource we recommend for students is Score.org. SCORE is a nonprofit organization mostly led by retired former entrepreneurs whose mission is to give business advice to emerging entrepreneurs. In addition, they are connected to the Small Business Association, which is another great place for students to receive advice from more experienced professionals.

"up to two-thirds of available jobs are never posted online."

Additionally, networking cannot be underestimated as a successful strategy, no matter which career path someone is pursuing, and if students are not utilizing websites such as LinkedIn, they are doing themselves a great disservice.

The connections students can make though LinkedIn are amazing. Students can join networking and alumni associations that can help them connect with others, and perhaps offer students advice on potential business strategies.

Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things students should do to prepare to find an entrepreneurial job after graduation?

Jason Eckert: Starting early is important, especially if a student is applying for a more traditional job. Studies have shown that it can take three to six months for people to find a job in a healthy economy, and in a bad economy, it takes even longer. For people who are graduating soon, it's important to start this process early and to rely upon networking.

The statistic I often quote is that up to two-thirds of available jobs are never posted online. They are often filled through personal connections, networking and alumni contacts, and some companies are hiring their interns as fulltime employees. If students aren't starting early or utilizing their networking capabilities, they are truly not employing all of the resources they have in the job search process.

Networking is also important when a student plans to immediately start his or her own business right out of college. Students or recent graduates can use their network to find potential business partners, suppliers, mentors, financiers, and a wealth of other resources.

Entrepreneurs can also use their network to pre-screen potential partners. For example, if the entrepreneur is looking for a new supplier, he or she can inquire within his or her network about which suppliers are most reliable, and offer the best cost and quality.

Jill Randolph: There are currently many unemployed people applying to jobs for which they may be overqualified. What do you recommend that students highlight about themselves in order to outshine their competition?

"Students also need to follow-up with interviews and applications, and not simply sit back and hope for a phone call. They need to send thank-you notes immediately after phone or onsite interviews and after they meet someone through networking, and those notes need to be genuine."

Jason Eckert: Applying for a job involves selling one's skills, experiences and uniqueness as a candidate. The hard part is that many of our students look very similar to other students on paper.

I advise my students that they need to do everything in the job search process 100 percent perfectly. In other words, they need to ensure all of their documents are in order, everything is grammatically correct, and that they uniquely highlight their experiences.

Students also need to follow-up with interviews and applications, and not simply sit back and hope for a phone call. They need to send thank-you notes immediately after phone or onsite interviews and after they meet someone through networking, and those notes need to be genuine.

It is important that they utilize networking in order to gain an additional advantage as well. For example, if a student has identified a company he or she wants to pursue, I recommend he or she use career services or LinkedIn to find alumni at that company. Students who are the most thorough and who complete the most appropriate follow-up really have an advantage in the process, although in this economy, it is a challenge even for students who are prepared.

Jill Randolph: What advice do you give students regarding how to build an effective network?

Jason Eckert: A network is best started from local connections, and our students don't often realize how powerful their existing connections are. Immediate relatives and neighbors can form the basis of a very strong network. Local business owners are often great connections to add to one's network.

Networks really begin to bloom when people begin locally and research their network's contacts. It takes some practice, but a jobseeker should become very adept at expressing his or her job search goals in a professional way. A 30 to 60 second elevator speech, when students share their major, future plans and career goals with whomever they come in contact, is all they need. These contacts may be able to help, but if not, they may be able to connect the student with someone who can.

"in the interview process, it's important that they emphasize that they are hardworking, dedicated and ambitious with their goals."

It only takes one or two job offers for a networking-based search to be successful. The other thing to remember is that networking is not a one-way street.

Students should not enter into a networking partnership as a needy participant; they should to offer something back to those in their network, even if they are talking to the CEO of a major company. It's never simply about what a contact can give the student, it has to be about forming a lasting partnership, and hopefully, the student can offer expertise or potential candidate leads, in order to make the connection truly a two-way partnership.

Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to students regarding having a work-life balance once they start working full-time?

Jason Eckert: That's a good question, and this generation in particular strives for more of a work-life balance than in the past. Companies are starting to realize that a balance is important to their employees' happiness and are becoming more family-friendly.

However, students need to understand that they will often interview with an employer who may be more traditional and worked long hours, especially early on in his or her career. I encourage students to pursue a healthy work-life balance, but in the interview process, it's important that they emphasize that they are hardworking, dedicated and ambitious with their goals.

Some employers have a false perception about this generation and how they are not as hardworking as they can be. Therefore, students have to really convince employers that they want the particular job they are applying for, especially in this market where jobs are scarce. They need to prove to employers that they have the skills, qualifications and passion to do the job well.

In terms of work-life balance, companies today are offering more than they have in the past. I have heard of many more programs in terms of allowing employees to work from home occasionally, and many companies are making more flexible arrangements and schedules for their employees as well.

People can these arrangements once they have been in a job long enough to establish themselves, but I don't want students to give employers a reason not to hire them. They need to have an offer first, before those conversations take place.

Jill Randolph: Do you think white-collar industries are more open to offering perks that contribute to a work-life balance than other employers were in the past?

"Service workers generally have access to more flexible work schedules...which can be attractive to students or young professionals who have children."

Jason Eckert: I believe a service-based economy is naturally more suited to a work-life balance. Service workers generally have access to more flexible work schedules, and maybe that means having the option to work from noon to eight as opposed to eight to four, which can be attractive to students or young professionals who have children and can therefore juggle demands like daycare schedules.

A large number of graduates end up working in sales-related jobs, and depending upon the nature of the company and position, they can also work various hours.

Jill Randolph: Do you think that more universities today are looking to offer classes online, to provide scheduling flexibility and in order to attract a larger pool of students?

Jason Eckert: I am not sure about universities in general, but yes, our university is offering more and more classes online. There are quite a few teaching certificates a student can earn online through the University of Dayton, and I know that institutions such as The University of Phoenix have certainly done very well attracting students to the online classroom. While we are moving more in that direction, it's also important for institutions to know who they are.

The University of Dayton is known as a residential Catholic Marianist Campus, and we attract a lot of students who want close attention and a personal or residential experience. As we increase our online presence, we also want to make sure that the experience we are known for is extremely unique and special for our students.

Jill Randolph: How have universities have changed from the past?

Jason Eckert: There is a greater emphasis today on statistics and tracking outcome data from our graduates than in the past. We offer many academic courses that prepare our students for success in this economy. We offer terrific programs in education, allied health, engineering, business and law, and we also make extra efforts to help liberal arts majors translate their degrees into career opportunities.

Because of the challenging nature of the economy, it's also more important for us to be accountable to our constituents, especially to the parents who may be paying for their children to attend this university. We want them to know that we support the students' career direction as they earn an education.

Career Services has many partnerships with corporations, government, and non-profit organizations. We offer our services from admissions through retirement, and 15 percent of our appointments are with our alumni. We think this is something our entrepreneurship majors - as well as all others - can feel good about; they always have our career advice readily available to them.

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