Flex Times: The 2012 Job Market Report

Posted by Jeff Ousborne on April 10, 2012
Flex Times: The 2012 Job Market Report

The Dow is creeping skyward. Experts seem “cautiously optimistic.” Employers are looking to hire. Yet, like Charlie Brown sidling up as Lucy holds the football, we feel like we have been here before. But this year looks different——seriously. “Some employers overestimated last year,” says Phil Gardner, director of Michigan State University’s Collegiate Employment Research Institute (CERI).

“Last year’s job market went up temporarily because of outliers and a few areas that were hiring aggressively. This year’s market is broader, deeper, and much more encouraging. And it shows improvement across a range of majors and sectors—even in manufacturing.”

Indeed, according to CERI’s annual report on recruiting trends, hiring of new bachelor’s degree holders in 2012 will increase by 7 percent over last year. That is not the only good news. The next year looks promising across a range of sectors and industries, from agriculture and mining to retail, telecommunications, publishing, and broadcasting.

Even the bad news breaks well for recent college graduates: While total hiring in the professional services sector will be down, companies project a 6 percent increase in openings for those who have just earned bachelor’s degrees. Likewise, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) annual survey projects that companies will hire 9.5 percent more candidates from this year’s graduating class than last year’s.

Youth Before Experience
Yes, we are tired of hearing about “cautious optimism,” too. But remember where we were in 2008 and 2009, when the economy was shedding half a million jobs per month and the Dow Jones dipped under 8000. Also keep in mind that 2012 graduates will have some advantages because of the Great Recession and its toxic aftermath. During the slump, many campus career centers had to up their game—and you should be the beneficiary of that.

“We changed our approach,” says Rachel Brown, director of the Career Center at Temple University. “We recognized that things weren’t going to turn around quickly, so we had to get students involved in their job searches earlier, we had to reach out to alumni, we had to make undergraduates more intentional about their majors, their goals, and their networking opportunities.” That urgency early on can pay off later: When Temple had its first alumni networking night in 2010, their annual networking award went to a senior. This year, a sophomore won it.

Moreover, businesses desperately need to revitalize themselves—and that means they need you. As the NACE report indicates, aging companies have to replace retiring workers and get an infusion of youthful energy from a “pipeline of new graduates,” pronto.

Here’s where you come in. “Corporations are looking for creative people who are comfortable with technology, and younger workers are usually the best hires for that,” says Jason Eckert, director of Career Services at the University of Dayton. “While it creates a tough situation for older workers, younger workers are in a much better position. Often, we’ll hear a company is laying people off, and then we’ll see the same company here at our school, looking to hire younger, less expensive employees.”

For all the bright spots, the employment landscape remains more rocky road than easy street. Graduates in architecture, for example, face a tough slog because of the lingering effects of the recession and the housing collapse. Younger workers looking for public sector jobs at the state and local level will find stiff headwinds, as budgets are contracting. The CERI study suggests that positions for bachelor’s degree holders in education will be down this year.

Overall, starting salaries are unlikely to increase. And at the macro-level, the job market faces a backlog of un- or underemployed college graduates from the last few years. But do not be discouraged. This year, as the going gets tough, the tough need to get limber.

Career Yoga
The buzzword for new job seekers in 2012 is flexibility.

Employers are looking for the agile and lithe, not the static and starchy. That is, companies want candidates who can travel, tackle different job assignments, pivot to please clients, and switch roles as needed.  In theory, flexibility sounds easy, but it’s often difficult in practice, especially when the pressure to adapt clashes with a younger worker’s narrow specialization, career expectations, and self-image.

“A lot of job-focused students say, ‘I’m going to graduate and do this specific thing,’” says Gardner. “And then they’re hired, and they’re asked to do something else, and it’s a problem. Engineers, for example, can be notoriously bad at that.”

The key to being flexible: focus on your skill sets rather than your ability or desire to do one or two specific tasks. When you shift into a position that seems off your career track, do your best to learn the skills at hand. End up in more of a sales role than you expected? Ask: What am I going to learn here that will take me to the next level? That does not mean “settling” or making lemonade. Rather, that means that you are always adding widgets to your professional tackle box—and building value: for yourself, for your current employer, and for your future employer.

“We had a social work student who worked as a waitress and then got promoted to manager,” says Brown. “That experience ultimately helped her shift into a career in another industry.”

Flexibility might include a willingness to relocate, especially as job opportunities in the U.S. vary by region. According to the CERI report, the South is expecting double-digit job growth. But do not take the decision to decamp to Dixie—or wherever—lightly. America’s proverbial basements are full of recent graduates who blithely relocated, only to be disoriented by culture shock and sent back, tail between legs.

So before lighting out for the territories, have an honest gut check. “When our graduates are planning on a major move, we always ask, ‘Do you know anyone there? Do you have some connections,’” says Brown. “If there’s a chance for you to have a real support system and a way for you to put down roots, you have a much better shot at succeeding.” And remember: Being flexible is one thing. Being a shapeless amoeba is another. “Some students come to us and say, ‘I’ll do anything and move anywhere,’” says Brown. “There’s not much we can do with that.”

Foxes and Hedgehogs
The ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In the contemporary job market, conventional wisdom usually favors the hedgehogs, with their highly concentrated skills and highly specialized degrees that focus on One Big Thing, like accounting, engineering, or supply chain management. The world rewards them with job offers and signing bonuses.

In contrast, the foxes cultivate a variety of versatile, “softer,” and less career-specific abilities as sociology, philosophy, and anthropology majors. The world rewards them with a question: What are you going to do with that?  Well, a lot, it turns out—especially in a job market where flexibility and versatility are virtues. So take heart, you, the history major and even you, the guy who did that thesis on Flannery O’Connor for the English degree that your parents warned you not to get.

According to the CERI report, employers—especially in service-oriented fields like banking, public relations, insurance, and many others—have increased the range of majors they consider, rather than narrowing them. These firms seek workers with a “blend of technical skills and soft skills,” which makes them adept at “boundary crossing”—moving outside of narrow specialties and specific tasks, adapting to fluid roles and dynamic organizations, synthesizing new information, and improvising when necessary.

That is a long-term trend, says Gardner. “Ten years ago, only about 10 percent of companies said they were looking for candidates from all majors,” he says. “Now, it’s 30 to 40 percent.” Brown agrees: “Consistently, recruiters look at all majors and tell us, ‘Give us people with core competencies like critical thinking, analytical ability, and writing skills, and we can give them the training for specific tasks.’” So work with a mentor or career services counselor to identify those core competencies, then highlight them on your resume and during your interviews.

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