Older alumni get career help at campus centers

Colleges are eager to re-establish bond with past graduates

January 06, 2002|By James M. O'Neill | James M. O'Neill,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

PHILADELPHIA -- A large number of older college alumni are reconnecting with their alma mater these days, seeking the kind of assistance the schools more commonly give graduating seniors -- help in the job market.

Although veterans of the work world often have well-developed contacts in their fields, the sour economy and a stack of layoffs have given them new appreciation for their colleges' career services -- and the chance to network with thousands of like-minded fellow graduates.

The sagging job market also has this year's crop of graduating seniors sweating. Colleges say the number of companies recruiting on campus was down significantly this fall, compared with just a year ago.

Colleges are eager to respond to the needs of both age groups. But with the returning alumni, the schools also see the chance to re-establish a bond that could prove fruitful for both graduate and college.

James Underkoffler, at 57, is one of those making his way back.

He graduated from Lehigh University 35 years ago, then spent several successful decades running his family's sweater business in Sellersville, Pa. More recently, he made a living as a manufacturing consultant. But he felt he was stagnating professionally.

At the urging of his son, a 1991 Lehigh graduate, Underkoffler visited the student career-services center. He not only received advice about how to better package his skills and target his search, but he also tapped into the alumni network.

"Having classmates and a campus experience in common opens the door," he said.

A new director

The surge in interest has prompted the colleges to improve the services they provide their alumni.

Pennsylvania State University has gone beyond phone-call assistance and hired a new director of career services specifically to serve that university's 400,000 alumni and their job-search needs, which differ from those of students just entering the work force.

And St. Joseph's University now makes career counselors available to alumni after regular working hours.

Alumni view the free services of an alma mater as a valuable supplement as they try to bounce back from a layoff or look to change gears in mid-career.

"If they've had a good undergraduate experience here, there's a layer of trust in what we can provide," said Erik Larsen, Penn State's alumni career-services director. "We're not some third party out in the market competing for their money."

The colleges also benefit from helping their older alumni. Employed graduates are a key source of donations. They can become repeat customers. And they can serve as mentors to students.

Perhaps most valuable to the alumni are the introductions they provide one another. Several colleges give their graduates access to job listings and alumni contact information on the school Web site.

"With the same college, you're one step closer to having something in common," said Warren Grip, 54, a 1972 Rutgers University graduate who has attended alumni networking meetings.

`A two-way street'

"It's a two-way street," said Donna Goldfeter, Lehigh's career-services director. "We're trying to establish a partnership with our alumni through good times and bad."

Goldfeter's office usually hears from about 50 alumni each fall, but it had more than 150 contacts last year.

Marcia Milgrom, who runs the Rutgers alumni networking club, said the monthly meetings on the New Brunswick campus used to draw about five alumni, but in recent months, 35 or 40 have attended. And more are older alumni in their mid-40s to 60s.

In recent years, a consortium of colleges -- including La Salle, West Chester, Ursinus, Widener and Villanova -- has held an annual alumni career fair. But in the spring, the group plans a day of seminars to help alumni find jobs in a soft economy.

Younger graduates are in the same bind as the older ones. Some students who graduated in May already have been dumped back into the market.

In the fall of 2000, University of Pennsylvania senior Megan Hall zipped through her job search with the same optimism as graduates from previous years.

"It was intense, and started in September. There were a lot of companies recruiting on campus," said Hall, a communications major.

After weighing several offers, she signed on in March with a Washington consulting firm. She started work July, moving from Chestnut Hill to a pricey apartment in Washington's upscale Dupont Circle. In September, without warning, the firm told Hall that it had to let her go.

"I was really angry," she said. "I could have kept interviewing back when the economy was strong."

`I was so lucky'

She immediately called Penn's career-services center. And she checked Penn's human resources Web site, where she saw a research position posting for Penn's Annenberg Center in Washington. She got the job. "I was so lucky," she said.

While many 2001 graduates struggle, the situation looks even less promising for this year's seniors. A recent study by Michigan State University found that this year's graduates face a decline in the labor market of up to 13 percent.

Colleges say the number of companies recruiting on campus has declined, precipitously in some cases.

Penn had 120 companies at a career day last fall, but only 100 this year. Overall, company recruiters declined by 11 percent at Penn this year. At the College of New Jersey in Ewing, company recruiting has declined by two-thirds from last year.

"Fewer seniors this year will have their job search all wrapped up by Christmas," said Patricia Rose, Penn's career-services director.

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