Business

For most Wichita college graduates, the real work starts now

Connor Christensen recently graduated from Wichita State University and is a newly hired teacher at Apollo Elementary School in Goddard. (May 19, 2016)
Connor Christensen recently graduated from Wichita State University and is a newly hired teacher at Apollo Elementary School in Goddard. (May 19, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

With grins on their faces and diplomas in hand, thousands of college graduates crossed the stage this month and headed off to work.

Their older brothers and sisters may have battled anxiety and frustration in landing their first job, but these graduates face the best year to start a career since the most recent recession.

According to a new survey commissioned by Career Builder, 67 percent of employers say they plan to hire recent college graduates this year, up 2 percentage points from last year and the best outlook since 2007.

The company noted that not only has the economy improved, creating more jobs, but the recovery of the stock and housing markets has encouraged millions of older workers to finally retire, freeing up positions in the corporate workforce.

In another survey, the National Association of Colleges and Employers said that employers nationwide said they would hire 5.2 percent more graduates than the year before.

That also appears to be true locally, although job growth in the Wichita area has been glacial and job growth in Kansas has ground to a halt.

“Students are having few problems getting hired in their fields of study,” said Melody Head, director of Career Services & Cooperative Education Coordinator at Newman University.

One of those getting hired is Heather Roy of Wichita, who just finished an accelerated bachelor of nursing degree from Wichita State University – even as she had a 2-year-old daughter to care for.

She chose her major well. Nursing is a virtual slam dunk for a job offer at the moment, Roy said. She wound up accepting an offer at Shawnee Mission Medical Center in suburban Kansas City, Kan.

“My class has 23 students, and all of us had no problem finding jobs,” she said.

You have to start somewhere, but there are a ton of options available.

Heather Roy, newly hired nurse

“It’s not always the ideal (position),” she said. “You have to start somewhere, but there are a ton of options available.”

The demand for grads is, as always, uneven. Business, engineering, accounting/finance, IT and health professions are strong. Graduates in the humanities and fine arts have to search harder and likely won’t have a career directly related to their major.

The big exception this year is teaching. Wichita Public Schools has delayed hiring for open positions for about four months, leaving 140 teacher openings vacant. The school board voted Wednesday to eliminate 100 jobs.

That’s been pretty punishing for newly minted teachers seeking jobs.

One of those was Connor Christensen of Minneapolis, Kan., who has just gotten hired as a kindergarten teacher at Goddard’s Apollo Elementary School.

He said he was anxious this year, but everything fell just right, and he landed his dream job.

I was honestly going into it kind of scared because of how the state of the economy is right now in Kansas.

Connor Christensen, a recently hired Goddard kindergarten teacher

“I was honestly going into it kind of scared because of how the state of the economy is right now in Kansas,” he said.

Competition for the job in Goddard was tight, although he said being a man seeking an elementary school position was a plus.

But, he said, many classmates are still looking:

“There are quite a few,” he said. “We had a pretty big class.”

College-business disconnect

There remains a sizable disconnect among students, colleges and businesses.

According to Career Builder, 24 percent of employers nationally say colleges don’t prepare students adequately for roles in their organizations, up from 21 percent last year.

24 percent of employers nationally say colleges don’t prepare students adequately

They listed a host of reasons, most prominently that colleges put too much emphasis on academics and not enough on real world skills, including the soft skills needed to thrive in an organization.

In response, colleges have gotten more serious about creating bridges to the workforce. That has included things such as internships, bringing in speakers and mentors to talk to students and building company-friendly practices – such as working in teams – into the curriculum.

But students frequently don’t take the hint. In WSU’s annual senior survey, about 15 percent of seniors in 2014 and 2015 said they had a job, or had applied for one, by the time they graduated. That’s close to what some national surveys have found.

Parents and employers – and the universities themselves – aren’t happy with the yawning gap between college and career, said Connie Dietz, executive director of WSU’s Career Development Center. Employers complain about the lack of soft skills among this applicant pool, which might be helped or, at least discovered, during an internship.

She said that WSU has undertaken an aggressive effort to alert students about career counseling, including sending letters to parents when students are sophomores and putting fliers on their dormitory doors. But she said 70 percent of students have never had contact with the office.

This is despite the fact that internships are, by far, the most likely way to land a job before or upon graduation.

Students may think they’re too busy, think they have their career all figured out, have other plans or are simply avoiding the subject, Dietz said.

There’s a movement across the country to incorporate “college-career culture” into the college life so that “Where are you headed after college? Have you gone to the career counseling office?” becomes top of mind for faculty, she said.

Professors must prod students wrapped up in academics to remember the point of it all: finding a career.

Friends University had taken the basic but telling step of placing its career office just inside the main entry of Davis Hall, said Sanya Wiles, director of career services, rather than burying it the basement.

That shows the administration is serious about narrowing the gap between college and employer, she said.

“There is an expectation that the time and the money, the increasing amount of student debt, will be worth it,” Wiles said. “If we can graduate students and make them employable, that is a win-win for everybody.”

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis

What a business wants

In a recent survey by Career Builder, 24 percent of businesses say academic institutions aren’t adequately preparing students and cited these reasons.

▪ Too much emphasis on book learning instead of real-world learning: 47 percent

▪ Need workers with both technical skills and skills gained from liberal arts: 39 percent

▪ Entry-level jobs are more complex today: 25 percent

▪ Not enough focus on internships: 13 percent

▪ Technology is changing too quickly for an academic environment to keep up: 13 percent

▪ Not enough students are graduating with the degrees companies need: 11 percent

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