Suffolk County Community College Career Director Interview: Research Is Key

Researching Career Options and Prospective Employers Helps Interviewees Stand Out

By Staff
July 16, 2009

The following is the transcript of an interview with Sylvia Camacho, Suffolk County Community College's Director of Career Services and Cooperative Education. Ms. Camacho has over 30 years of experience in the field of career services. In her role, she has provided career counseling, career information, assisted in resume building, interview role playing, designing special programs for certain populations like the Nursing Credential Program, Career Week, promoted career programs to first semester students, and coordinated job and career fairs. She has also worked with the College's IT Department to establish a free online job-listing database for the local area called Suffolk's Job Connection. This program averages close to 500 active jobs and has over 3,000 registered employers. In addition, Ms. Camacho oversees the Federal Work Study Program and the Cooperative Education and Internship Programs. She is a member of NACE, National Association of Colleges and Employers, SUNYCDO, State Universities of New York Career Development Officers, and MNYCPPOA, Metropolitan New York College Career Planning Officers Association.

Suffolk County Community College is the largest community college in New York with three campuses located in Long Island and a student body of 23,500 and growing. They offer a full array of career services and programs including cooperative education and internship offerings on each campus.

Interview Transcript

CityTownInfo: What do you think are the most important things students need to do to prepare for an interview?

Sylvia Camacho: They need to do their research and make sure that they know where they are going with their education and future careers. If they're unsure of how to get their dream job, we're here to help them get to where they want to go.

CityTownInfo: Did your school offer services like career counseling to alumni or to people in the community? Do you offer noncredit community classes?

Sylvia Camacho: Yes. We have continuing education classes under many different areas for people to explore different ideas.

CityTownInfo: Would those people be eligible for your office's services or are they available to the community as well?

Sylvia Camacho: Because we are such a small office, we primarily work with students and alumni, although we do have occasional events that are open to the community.

CityTownInfo: What are the three most important things that a student can do to prepare for finding a job?

Sylvia Camacho: I think they have to be realistic in their job search. They have to make sure that they are utilizing all resources. What I am seeing is that students think doing research on the internet is sufficient. They think if they need a resume or cover letter, they can find it on the internet and just copy and paste it, and if they are looking for leads there are a bunch of search engines out there that can help them out.

The problem is that students really, really have to think about their presentation, and they have to think about what information they are posting on the web and on their resume. We advise students to really think about the type of position they want to go into. Too many students will just take any job they can get, but that's not a good approach from an employer's perspective. Students really have to know what they want and what they are capable of doing. They have to assess their true skills and strengths and learn how to use them to their advantage. Students really have to think about how they are promoting themselves - that's the first thing when they are looking for a job.

I think too many people put themselves in a desperate situation, because they will take whatever job they can get. The problem that occurs is if they don't communicate effectively on their resume, and if they don't show that they've done their research and what they are capable of doing, most employers are not going to even give that resume a second look. If a student is vague on his or her resume, as a jobseeker, they are forcing the employer to try to figure out how the student fits into the organization, and what their strengths and skills are. Most employers will not do this. I can't tell you how many people I see who have a lot of experience, and then look to me with a blank stare when I ask them what they want to do. They say anything as long as they are getting paid, but I think, first of all, an interviewee has to be able to sell an employer on what they are capable of doing and why they would be an asset to the corporation. If the applicant can't clearly sell their skills, then that's going to hinder their job search.

CityTownInfo: What kind of career advice would you give to someone entering college today?

Sylvia Camacho: Given that we are a two-year college, the first question that I ask anyone who is considering coming back to college is what exactly they want out of their educational experience. Are they looking for a career that they can transition into within the next two or two and a half years, or are they looking for something more long-term so they can transfer to a four-year school? I would ask people who are interested in a shorter route to look at the different career programs being offered by community colleges to see if there is something there that they are interested in or where they can enhance their knowledge or the degrees they already have. Then we talk to the students about some career possibilities. For example, we see a lot of experienced people who coming back to school to go into nursing, because nursing is such a great field to enter, if for no other reason than because there is such a high demand for it now. We have a lot of people who come here for an RN. It's not that the students will never go on and get a four-year degree, but the majority of them want to get into the workforce right away. They want to make sure that they get a decent salary, and the health profession always seems to be a good area to go into.

A lot of those students who come back are realizing that they want to make more of an impact on the people around them, and some think they may want to become a teacher. Education is still doing well obviously, but a four-year degree is needed to enter that field, so our Community College is a great way to get started to explore the area. We really encourage students with a two-year degree to do an internship or a co-op before they graduate, because we want to make sure that they are headed in the right direction.

CityTownInfo: If a student originally decides he or she just wants to graduate quickly, do they still have the opportunity to do a two plus two if they decide that they want to add on to their education later on?

Sylvia Camacho: Yes, especially for the nursing program. I think students sometimes look for a shorter route, especially for the retrained options, because they are transitioning from one field into another. Anyone who goes from one career to another will understand that in most career transitions, people will usually experience somewhat of a setback in earning power when they switched jobs. They'll take a while to get back to the same salary they were earning in the past, but it's less of an impact in nursing because the salaries are so strong. Obviously the higher degree, the more doors open in terms of promotion.

However, one thing I think some students don't understand is that nursing is a very physically demanding career. There is no guarantee that nurses are always going to have someone to help them do the heavy lifting. They will have to pitch in, and they will have to be part of the team. I think for those people who want to go the administrative route or earn a higher-level position, going on for their BS and their masters would certainly help.

CityTownInfo: Do you see some students feel like any starting salary they get after college is a lot of money, but then they quickly get used to it and maybe have a family, and then it's just not that much money anymore?

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Sylvia Camacho: I think most of our students are never happy with their starting salaries. Quite frankly, $30,000 is nothing to some students. They've been working bartending, waitressing or doing something like that, and they realize they could have made $30,000 without a degree. The problem is that they don't understand that they're at an entry-level job, which means that within a year or two they will be in a different position, moving up, and doing a variety of different things. It really is up to the individual, however. Too many students just see the dollar sign solely, but we advise students to really look at the benefits, the location and the type of job that they are actually doing. We recommend that students ask themselves if the job is in the field and it is going prepare them for the direction that they want to go toward. There are a lot of things that applicants really have to look at, and I personally think that a lot of students make decisions about jobs without looking at the whole picture. Sometimes they look at the dollar sign and take the job just simply because it pays well, but then they realize they are responsible for a lot of things they didn't know about. I always tell the students that they should have asked more questions. Everyone is different and we advise students to gather as much information as they can about the job before making that decision.

CityTownInfo: What kind of books and websites do you encourage students to use in order to gather that information?

Sylvia Camacho: I personally like the web and I think there is a lot of really good information out there. I use Monster a lot for their resources, and I use different professional organizations for their resources as well. I certainly look at the National Association of Colleges and Employers. In terms of books, I still recommend Richard Bolles' book, "What Color Is Your Parachute" to my students. There really are a variety of different resources, and I think it depends on the individual. Each one of them approaches the job search a little differently. I don't think there is any one ideal path that really works for everyone, because there are a lot of different things students can do while job hunting.

CityTownInfo: What are the most common errors you believe students make during an interview?

Sylvia Camacho: Not doing their homework about the company and where they fit. Not listening carefully and not asking questions about the job are some of the errors they make as well. Students sometimes ask questions about salary and benefits, because that's primary interest in their life, but it's not appropriate to do so earlier on in the interview. They should be talking about what they can add to the company, why the job is a good match for them and how their skills will help them in the job. I think students sometimes approach the interview as if it's all about them and not the employer, but it's really a balance of both.

CityTownInfo: On the other hand, it's not good for someone to sell him or herself into a job without asking questions and then it ends up being a bad fit. The employer loses out on training time, and the employee loses out because they are stuck in a job that's not a good fit for them.

Sylvia Camacho: Absolutely. Every time we have a job fair, I sit down and I speak to our employer representatives first. Many of them tell me that because of the economy they are now being much more selective and they are taking twice as long to hire people, simply because they want to make sure that they are hiring people who are a good fit. They want to decrease the turnover rate, and I think students sometimes feel like all they have to do is play the game and give interviewers the answers they want. That doesn't necessarily work, because students really need to get a good understanding on what the job is about so they can determine whether or not it's a good fit.

CityTownInfo: Students have to do their research, and it's just as important for both the employer and the employee to ask intelligent questions. I think some of that comes with life experience. Students have to know enough to ask, and they have to know themselves well enough to know the right questions to ask to make sure they will be a good fit for the company.

Sylvia Camacho: There are also a lot of students who bypass career services offices. It's unfortunate, because the percentage of people who actually come by this office is small, but I think if more people visited, they would know more about what they need to do to secure a gratifying job. The problem is that I don't think many students are ready to make those kinds of changes or commitments, because they are too busy with their lives. I have had students come in who are looking for a job, so we set them up with our online job-listing database and allow them to look through the system. I also see students who look for a job strictly based on location and pay, and then they whip out their cell phones and start calling without even thinking about what they are going to say.

CityTownInfo: They don't have a strategy?

Sylvia Camacho: No, not at all. Then I hear them mumbling because they are being asked questions and they have no idea how to respond. Employers are not going to hire someone if they don't give a great first impression. If an applicant can't communicate effectively over the phone and if they don't have a strategy in terms of a personal presentation and why that applicant thinks they would be a good fit for the company, then that person is wasting the employer's time.

CityTownInfo: I think it's excellent that you encourage students to do internships and co-ops, because someone who doesn't have a lot of work experience doesn't know what the hidden questions mean in an interview.

It's also hard to know how to toot your own horn effectively. A lot of people, whether they are young or old, think that they are bragging, but they have to have enough life experience to be able to communicate what they bring to the table.

Sylvia Camacho: I think the nice thing about a co-op or internship is that it puts students in a professional environment so that they can see how other people operate. They can see the types of opportunities that are available, and the types of skills that are required. Then they can hopefully develop the confidence to realize that they are capable of doing all of the things that will be required of them. Then all they have to do is work on their academics to make sure that they are eligible for the position.

I think a lot of students talk about networking and developing contacts, but through the personal growth class that I teach every semester, I see that it's very hard for some students to make an effort to develop a relationship with their professors. It's even hard for them to get to know the students in the classes. We are stressing how the students have to network and build their team skills, but it's a big effort for a lot of students to turn around and get to know who is sitting next to them.

CityTownInfo: It's kind of sad that there are so many people in the world, and people don't know how to reach out to each other.

Sylvia Camacho: I don't think the social media networks are really helping that. I think people are being very savvy on these media vehicles, but it doesn't necessarily mean they have developed personal communication skills. I have seen people who sound really great in their blogs, then to talk to them in person they are very awkward, and I can see that they are not comfortable face to face. Like anything else, it's a skill one develops.

CityTownInfo: What are some suggestions you recommend to students to help them standout from other applicants?

Sylvia Camacho: I think it's very important for students to own their resume and to make it outstanding. By that I mean there are a lot of ways to write a resume, and there is certainly a lot of information out there, but it's very important for students to create their own resume, develop it and own it. A resume truly shows a plan in terms of how you see yourself, your skills and professionalism. Too many people look at a resume as just jotting down information, but it's not just about that. It's about painting a picture of where you want to go and how you see yourself fitting into that company. I just think people should put more emphasis on their resume, because it's a great communication piece.

CityTownInfo: Say you have a student who is in a major where they could go into a variety of different industries after graduation, like accounting for example. Say they have a particular affinity for the fashion industry and they want to be an accountant for a fashionable company. They are also realistic and they know that the job market is not that great, so they have to apply to all sorts of different accounting positions. Do you advise students to use a cover letter to differentiate themselves, or do you tell them to tweak their resume for each position that they are applying for?

Sylvia Camacho: I recommend that students tailor their resume for each position that they are applying for. A cover letter is an additional way to enhance and give a more personal view of the applicant. I think a resume should be tailored to the job, and if someone is looking for a job in the fashion industry, for example, then it should be tweaked in that direction. I would also think about the different categories within accounting, including financial accounting, the industry or in the entertainment field. Then students should write resumes that focus in that direction, but they first need to know what the employers are looking for. Then we advise students to put their accomplishments in order based on importance. Too many people list every experience, but some of their jobs have to be reprioritize to really make a resume effective.

CityTownInfo: You said that you use Monster for research, and I think that's a great idea. If you want to get into an accounting or fashion firm, you can look at different kinds of accounting jobs posted in fashion related companies. Then if they students see job descriptions for these five or ten different postings, they can tweak those keywords and use them for their resume.

Sylvia Camacho: There is also a site by the Department of Labor with America's Career Information Network, CareerOneStop, with very specific job descriptions. I tell students to read the work tasks of the particular position that they are interested in, then underline or highlight the related things that they've done in their previous jobs or classes that match. Then they can utilize those terms and descriptors in their resume. That to me is a good starting point.

CityTownInfo: I think that's excellent advice. I am really surprised that universities and colleges don't mandate that their students take a career development class, because the ultimate goal of going to school is to get a better job. Even if a student is going to be working in the university system, hopefully they'll be able to progress as they go on in their career.

Sylvia Camacho: A lot of academic people would disagree and say students are here to be educated, not necessarily just to get into a career. Bottom line, I think the majority of our students are here to pursue a career, and it is really unfair to the students to not provide some vehicle for them to have that option for a career development course.

CityTownInfo: I think that's a disservice to students to not mandate career services to them.

Sylvia Camacho: I find it very interesting how we try to introduce all our first semester freshmen to our offices and what we have to offer. It's certainly not enough, but it is something to at least plant the seed with them. There are people who definitely bypass us. Students in the Honors Program could probably use a career development course, only because they are so strong in so many different places that they need to focus on where they would like to start their careers. Then you have the population of the students in the middle who think with all the resources and everything out there, they don't need any help. It's a different world that we live in, and it is to their advantage to get as much help as they can so they can get a clear understanding of where they want to go and what they want to do with their education.

CityTownInfo: Especially considering their tuition covers career counseling, so why not take advantage of it?

Sylvia Camacho: Oh absolutely, yes.

CityTownInfo: What kind of differences do you see between students of today versus students in years past? Do you think students today are more prepared?

Sylvia Camacho: When working with freshmen, we are working with people who are just beginning to get an understanding of why college education is important and what role it plays in their lives. It's quite different than when career counselors are approaching someone with a four-year degree, because someone in a four-year college may have a longer-term plan in their heads. And even if they may not have a plan, they know that it's going to take them four years to get wherever they are going.

In a two -year program, the students have less time, and so many of them have decided they are going to go onto a four-year program so they don't have to worry about a job yet. In this area, I think a lot of our students are very savvy. I think the internet has given them some confidence in their skills and abilities that may or may not be accurate. I also think the internet has changed the way people look for a job and how we put resources into good use. Because of the internet, students don't feel like they need to develop certain communication and interpersonal skills. In one respect, yes, I think students have changed because of the fact that they have access to computers and social media networks. Students use those networks to frequently connect with people, but I am not sure if that is a completely good thing.

Students today have no clue what it was like when people literally had to go knock on doors. They had to setup appointments and go on interviews. Today, students can see thousands and thousands of jobs on the internet. That was never available to people before. Today, people have the ability to join organizations online, get connected with people and leverage those contacts, but I am not sure how many students actually are doing that. Before, people actually had to call and register for organizations, and it was all through regular mail. Things are definitely different as people realize how much easier it is to look for a job today than it was before. Even sending out resumes can be done through email, it's not like anyone has to make print copies on nice paper and then mail them out individually. Now, in one afternoon, people can send out as many resumes as they want fairly easily. I've actually had students with the nerve to come in and bring me their flash drive and say, "Print my resume out". I look at them and tell them they could never do that to an employer because they have to come prepared for an interview.

CityTownInfo: I think this is an interesting time, because there are four different generations in the workforce at the same time. I think it's a really good learning opportunity where some Baby Boomers can learn how to do things more quickly with the technology that is out with now. At the same time, Millennials can learn a lot about interpersonal skills and different ways of doing things from older coworkers. It may not be their preferred method, but they would be crazy not to listen to the way things used to be done, because there is a lot of experience and a lot of excellent knowledge the younger workforce can gain if they do listen.

Sylvia Camacho: I think students today are little bit more impatient because they have access to so much technology, and they get instantaneous responses, but certain places are not going to respond to them right away. They need to learn to adapt to the work environment and be flexible.

CityTownInfo: How is the recession having an impact on student enrolment? Is enrolment down due to the lack of income, up due to the obvious need for more education in order to be competitive, or are students studying longer due to the lack of jobs for potential graduates?

Sylvia Camacho: I think community colleges are anticipating having a really big increase in enrollment in the coming year. We are already starting to see twice as many applicants. We are looking at having more students, because more people are going to be coming back to school due to the job market.

CityTownInfo: Do you think that most of that additional enrollment is coming from traditional students out of high school or would you say there are some nontraditional students in the mix as well?

Sylvia Camacho: For us it's a combination. We are not a college that has just traditional students, as we have a nice size of nontraditional groups as well. I think because of the downsizing that is occurring, many people are rethinking their career moves. They are realizing that the job market is not where it used to be, so they are taking this as an opportunity to move in a different direction.

CityTownInfo: What are the hottest programs that the students are pursuing?

Sylvia Camacho: Nursing and education are always very popular. Some of the other health related fields which are popular, including PT, Physical Therapy Assistant, and Occupational Therapy Assistant. Jobs in computers and engineering seem to be doing well too.

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