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College graduates face an improved but still challenging job market

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

For a guy who graduated in the age of new media, Wilton Arizmendi Jr. used an old-fashioned way of getting a job.

He answered a help-wanted sign.

Arizmendi, a 23-year-old from Pingree Grove, had passed the Verizon Wireless call center countless times on his way to and from Judson University’s campus in Elgin. When he was about to graduate in December, he noticed a banner the company had posted outside: “Now hiring.”

The day he picked up his diploma, he walked into the call center, talked to the security guard and ended up handing his resumé to a human resources rep who was walking by.

There was one new-media aspect to his job application — HR asked him to fill out a form online — but his approach apparently made an impression. Verizon called him the next day for an interview. And in February, the business administration major started his new job.

Some of his friends are still looking for work, but they have reason to be optimistic.

The nation’s 1.7 million college students graduating this spring will find the most welcoming job market in three years, according to Chicago-based outplacement consultant firm Challenger, Gray and Christmas. Additionally, colleges and universities are reporting an uptick in on-campus recruiting this school year.

‘Plan B and Plan C’

Still, competition for jobs is fierce, the firm reported. New graduates can expect to go head-to-head with graduates from 2010, 2009 and 2008, plus more-experienced workers who see the economic recovery as a time to look for better work.

That’s probably why some seniors have that deer-in-the-headlights look when they visit Jeff Denard, career development director at North Central College in Naperville. Some have completed interviews but haven’t heard whether they’re hired. Others are waiting to hear back from graduate schools and are making Plan B and Plan C, Denard said.

He cited numbers from the National Association of Colleges and Employers that show the job market this year is better than at least the last two. But those numbers can be misleading, he said — competition will vary widely, depending on a student’s major or area of interest.

“Accountants will do well,” Denard said. “Engineering will do well. Education is doing well, too, even though the competition, it’s staggering. It’s hard not to feel for them.”

What matters more than any number, he said, is what an individual does to build experience and market his or her unique qualities to potential employers. And they can build experience while they’re still in school — through internships, part-time work and volunteering. North Central encourages its students to take internships as early as sophomore year, Denard said.

“Graduating with just a degree is not enough, not competitive enough. It’s just a baseline,” he said. “And the hustlers will get the jobs.”

He urges students to start their job searches early. Those he considers on the right track have been looking for at least the last two months.

He also advises them to open their minds about the types of positions they’re willing to take. Sometimes entry-level positions are not exactly what grads are looking for, but they can lead to better jobs within the same company. He said companies like to hire people they know, so by getting a foot in the door, graduates can become those people.

At Judson, Doris Haugen saw another senior class graduate this weekend. The career development director said some have struggled to find jobs, while others have had multiple offers.

“I just talked with a gal yesterday who, after her fifth interview, got the job offer and took it,” Haugen said. “I am getting job postings from people who want to find someone quickly, so I know there are jobs out there.”

Short term, long term

Some people just know how to find their match and get hired. She said they’re the ones who know what they have to offer, to whom and why.

When students get stuck wondering just what they have to offer, she asks them how they played when they were 10 years old. This exercise helps them identify their interests and talents. Then maybe finding work in those areas will feel more like play, Haugen said.

When Arizmendi was a kid, he didn’t want to be a firefighter or a police officer. He used to say, “I want to save the world.” For now, he’s saving phone customers who have problems such as dropping their mobile devices in the washing machine.

Before he got the job offer at Verizon, he put in five years as a full-time dining room attendant at a St. Charles conference center, a part-time receptionist on the Judson campus and a stint as an intern organizing fundraisers for an Elgin nonprofit. He wasn’t interested in the food service industry, and he took the internship as a chance to build skills such as organization and meeting deadlines.

Arizmendi applied to five or seven other places and turned down one offer before walking into Verizon. Even his current job is not the management position he had in mind. But he’s going through a months-long training program for new Verizon employees, and he believes this is one route to his long-term goal. In the short term, he wants to move out of his parents’ house into an apartment of his own and start paying off his $40,000 in student loan debt.

“I thought I’d get my foot in the door, like in customer service, put my time in, just to get experience,” he said.

When he talks to friends who are job hunting now, he tells them to be persistent.

“A lot of people are worried if they walk in and talk to somebody, they’ll look bad because they’re not confident or don’t have the skills. But you’ve just got to try it, because they might call,” Arizmendi said.

“You don’t know how the business may need you. The worst that could happen is you don’t get a call back, or they call and say they went another route. At least you tried.”

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