OCC, students contend with job market uncertainty

Rahul Bahl ’09 sent out “literally 100 applications” before finally securing a job for next year. With an initial interest in investment banking and a near-offer from Merrill Lynch prior to its dramatic losses in the economic downturn, Bahl was finally able to obtain a position in General Electric’s financial management program in Louisville, Ky. While many students have been less fortunate, Bahl’s story is indicative of the struggles that seniors have been facing in the job search.

Counselors at the Office of Career Counseling (OCC) have been seeing more students than ever over the past few months. OCC Director John Noble thinks some of the extra traffic may be due to the office’s new location in Weston, but he acknowledged that the current economic turmoil and uncertainty may also be a factor. “Things are tighter this year,” Noble said. “Traditional avenues into the business world are harder to access.”

Although definite figures on students’ job searches and postgraduate plans will not be solid for another few months, Associate Director of Career Counseling Robin Meyer said that while she expects the number of students who get jobs in consulting to be relatively consistent with previous years, “Our banking numbers will be down due to the obvious slowdown in that industry.”

Noble believes that the Class of 2010 could face an even more difficult job search than the Class of 2009. “By the spring of 2010 there will be some determination of whether the economy will turn around,” he said.

In terms of on-campus recruiting, Noble and Meyer both claimed they have neither seen nor predicted major downturns. “Recruiters will keep their presence on campus but just will not give out as many offers,” Noble said. However, the recent job fair drew 27 recruiters this year, as opposed to 40 in 2008, with fewer banks and more schools and non-profits represented. Noble said that recruiters are drawing on experience gained from the “dot-com bubble” burst in 2000 when companies immediately stopped hiring. “In the spring when things got better, they scrambled to recruit people and lost a year of good hires,” Noble said. “They have learned their lesson and are still going to keep recruiting, although not hiring as many people.”

Noble also reported a spike in students at the College applying for international teaching jobs and the Peace Corps. Other one-to-two year postgraduate commitments students have been considering include jobs in national parks, non-profit years of service and other education-related programs, like Teach For America. “A recession and economic downturn gives students the excuse to not feel as bad about not finding a job,” he said.

Prevailing OCC perceptions are difficult to substantiate without the hard evidence that will be available at the end of the year. Noble reported a spike in students seeking alternative, education-related positions, although this year for Teach for America five fewer students than last year applied. And according to students seeking work in consulting, the market is even more competitive this year as students turn away from careers in finance. “There was a natural shift in the market towards an increased applicant pool for consulting,” said Angelo Terra ’09, who has secured a job at Deloitte. “I’m very happy with how things ended up for me, but I definitely have friends right now who are still looking for jobs.” In addition, some major consulting firms who have traditionally recruited at the College, including Monitor Group and Oliver Wyman (formerly Mercer), did not come to campus this year.

According to a report recently released by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers across the nation expect to hire 22 percent fewer students than they did last year, despite NACE’s initial October forecast that hiring would remain flat. According to the report, 44 percent of employers surveyed are planning to hire fewer new graduates, and 22 percent are not hiring at all, nearly double the figure from last year. Financial job openings dropped 71 percent.

OCC staff said they have been encouraging students to broaden their searches for jobs. Noble said his office is pushing government service as a career path, because 70 percent of the governmental workforce is over 50. “Positions will be opening in the federal workforce … there will be a lot of new blood,” he said.

In terms of graduate school, Noble said the crisis did not hit soon enough for students to consider it as an alternative. Similarly, Jody Spooner, director of Fellowships, said that nothing has changed in his office under the trying economic conditions. However, Spooner said he encourages caution when considering fellowships as part of a postgraduate plan. “As national fellowships are extremely competitive no matter the economic circumstances, it’s not really a viable second option for students when the job markets contract or disappear,” he said, adding that candidates usually start working toward a fellowship well in advance, so most students were already in the applicant pool in September.

Meyer said that in a typical year, about 40 percent of students at the College have full-time job offers at graduation, and another 20 percent or so go directly on to graduate or professional school, meaning 40 percent graduate without solid plans. Noble added that 75 percent of Williams graduates end up at graduate school within five years of graduation.

Students reflect on OCC resources

While much of the senior class remains jobless and is currently in active pursuit of securing postgraduate plans, those students contacted for interview were reluctant to speak to the Record. Although official figures are not available, many seniors agree that job offers seem to have declined vis-à-vis previous years. “Going by my own experience and what I know of people who graduated last year, there were definitely fewer positions available this time,” Terra said.

Ben Grant ’09, who is set to work for Bain & Company after graduation, concurred. “Williams is known really only in the consulting and investment banking communities, and if one of those dries up then there will be tons of seniors who are absolutely deserving but don’t get jobs,” he said.

Part of the problem, according to Bahl, may be an issue of branding and public relations. “It’s not the actual OCC’s fault,” he said. “They do their best, but the job market and structure of Williams are such that bigger companies just won’t come here to get one or two hires, when they can recruit more efficiently at a school like UPenn.”

Although “the people who matter, know about Williams,” Bahl said that this applies most to graduate school programs and several of the “smarter companies,” including firms with prominent Williams alumni, such as Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan. “It is far more difficult for a Williams student if you’re interested in a career in business and not in the investment banking or consulting track,” he said.

Some believe that an imbalance in the OCC’s focus extends to all fields. “The most common complaint is that they’re really geared for very specific tracks,” said Lindsay Bouton ’09. “They allocate their officers into different job fields, if you don’t fit into any of those, they really can’t help you too much.” She noted, for example, that there was a heavy pre-med emphasis in the portfolio of Jane Carey, director of science and technology advising, and a corresponding lack of attention to fields such as environmental protection research.

In response to some of the student critiques, Noble said that his staff includes counselors with specializations in over 15 areas of interest, and that he personally meets with students who are undecided. “Whatever the students’ interests may be, we have someone on staff with whom they can explore those interests,” he said. “I hope that they feel they have easy access to the counselors in our office.”

Bouton noted that she obtained her job contract, teaching science at an international school in Bulgaria, through an organization that the OCC brought to campus, but called her experiences with the OCC “mixed.” She recounted finding “less than 30 job postings on Route 2 last fall, including some that no fresh Williams graduate could be qualified for, and four for Vermont State Troopers.”

Both Grant and Bahl, however, obtained their jobs through postings that were open through the Route 2 system. “Everyone wants to go to New York or Boston, which was realistic a few years ago when 50 kids would get investment banking offers, but now you have to get creative if you want to get a job,” Bahl said.

Grant, on the other hand, called himself “phenomenally lucky” for receiving a job offer after six or seven applications through Route 2 in management consulting, a field he developed an interest in through guidance from the OCC in his sophomore year. In addition to expressing appreciation for this early guidance as well as information sessions, Grant was enthusiastic about the OCC’s day of mock interviews, which were conducted by alumni in the industry.

Similarly, Terra highlighted the day of mock interviews, as well as video feedback on mock interviews, as very helpful. “Honestly, I think the OCC is a good resource, but you have to be willing to take advantage of it,” he said.

Tanya Pramatarova ’09, who also has a job at Deloitte, had a similarly positive outlook. “During the application period in September and October, I went back and forth to the OCC a lot and they were really good at providing information and telling me where to get help,” she said, adding that Meyer was “very professional, helpful and to-the-point” in helping her fine-tune her resume.

Despite agreeing on the strength of the OCC’s support for polishing resumes and interviews, Jonathan Dahlberg ’09 noted that the efficacy of such support is restricted. “I had a better experience than a lot of people because I went to the OCC with a clear, specific purpose, which also allowed the staff to help me focus on interviews,” he said.

Dahlberg, who will be working with an economic consulting firm in Boston, questioned certain aspects of the OCC’s operations. “My interactions with them weren’t particularly hands-on – they keep referring you to resources like the Web site and handbooks, but personal support is lacking unless you go with specific requests.”

He also noted that at the on-campus career fair earlier this semester, many of the companies were not seeking full-time hires. “That said, the people here are really nice, and do want to help, it’s just that within the current framework their ability to help is limited,” Dahlberg said.

Additional reporting by Jake Gorelov, senior writer.