By Kay Stephens
Steven Lutz of Portage did more than study this year at Penn State Altoona. He also hunted for a job.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Penn State Altoona student Steven Lutz operates a factory assembly trainer at the Force Technology Center. Lutz said he spent probably 50 to 60 hours applying for jobs before accepting a position with Rockwell Automation.
"At the beginning of last semester, I was applying for two or three jobs a night," Lutz said. "I probably had 50 to 60 hours of actual job application time."
About two months ago, potential employers began calling Lutz, who was in the home stretch of finishing his bachelor's degree in electro-mechanical engineering technology. Then the job interview trips started.
"I was in New Jersey, Newport News in Virginia, Atlanta for Norfolk Southern and Milwaukee for Rockwell Automation," Lutz said.
Before donning a cap and gown for Saturday's commencement, he had his plans in order.
Lutz accepted a job with Rockwell Automation, and in June, he begins a company training program at a facility near Cleveland. After six months, he'll be ready for his assignment.
"They're an international company, so I could end up anywhere," Lutz said. "But they have locations all over the United States too, including Pittsburgh, which is where I'd like to be."
While graduating from college is an exciting milestone, it also prompts anxiety associated with looking for a job in a challenging economy.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers offered encouraging news in September when its survey identified employers planning to hire 13 percent more of the Class of 2013 than they hired from the Class of 2012.
However, that prediction was revised downward in April to only a 2.1 percent increase.
"The new projection is consistent with recent job reports that show job growth is less than anticipated," Marilyn Mackes, NACE executive director, said.
Labor Department data indicates an improving job picture for this year's collegians.
A few months after the Class of 2009 graduated, the labor department identified a 17.6 percent unemployment rate for those graduates. A few months after the Class of 2011 graduated with their bachelor's degrees, their unemployment rate was 13.5 percent.
While the follow-up unemployment rate for the Class of 2012 is not yet available, economists say it will be lower because of improvements in the national job picture.
The nation's employment rate has been improving, with April's rate reported at 7.5 percent. While that's just slightly less than the March rate of 7.6 percent, it marks a four-year low.
Searching for a job
Lutz said he thinks his job search was effective not only because he worked hard while in college, but also because he was willing to relocate.
"If you want a job around here, that's going to be a lot harder," Lutz said.
Emily Cook of Ebensburg, who's graduating today from St. Francis University, Loretto, with a master's degree in physician assistant science, said she is looking for a local job.
"I want to stay around here because my family is here," Cook said.
She also wants to work in orthopedic care.
"I've sent out maybe 10 or 15 resumes and cover letters," Cook said. "And if I can't find something around here, then I'll broaden my search area."
Some of the students in the program won't get job offers until they pass their upcoming certification exams, said Beth McGregor, associate director of career services at St. Francis. But a few months from now, based on past surveys showing that program with a 100 percent placement rate, they'll likely have jobs, McGregor said.
St. Francis tracks its graduates annually with a follow-up survey. For the last two years, the surveys have shown 95 to 96 percent of graduates, within six months of graduating, are either employed in their chosen field of study or enrolled in graduate school.
"About 26 or 27 percent of our students go on to graduate school - a pretty big percentage," McGregor said.
As for how students found their jobs, the survey results showed the Internet, friends and relatives, classified advertisements, internships, career fairs, on-campus interviews, professors and college network.
"They have to use many different strategies," McGregor said. "We tell them them that they've got to use the online sites and post their information on LinkedIn, but they should also go to job fairs, turn to staffing agencies, network through the people they know and grow that network through associations, professors and alumni. Most people find jobs through a connection."
St. Francis and nearby Mount Aloysius College teamed up in March to offer a job and internship fair at Mount Aloysius, where 71 employers sent representatives. Both colleges also post notices of additional fairs on their websites and offer workshops in resume writing and practice interviews.
"We assisted a lot of this year's seniors in job preparation efforts," Mount Aloysius College career services counselor Kristy Magee said. "We also pushed students to pursue internships, because these days, that seems to be a way for them to get a foot in the door."
Another student's job search
Penn State Altoona student Danny McLanahan said he didn't get a job with the company where he interned. But the work he did there will be similar to what he'll be doing as a mechanical engineer for Thru Tubing Solutions in Pittsburgh.
"They do fracking, oil field services related to fracking," the Breezewood-area resident said. "I'll be helping with some research and design work for new products, making presentations and whatever they assign me."
McLanahan said he attended career fairs, reviewed websites with job listings and emailed his career-related information to several potential employers.
"I had four other job offers, but this one had the best benefits and seemed to be the best fit for me," McLanahan said.
For those still in college, McLanahan has some advice on how to prepare for the future.
"Go to career fairs, even as early as your sophomore year," he said. "Get familiar with the process so you'll be less nervous in the future."
He also said his pair of internships and grades made him an attractive job candidate.
"I made some sacrifices and I worked my butt off," McLanahan said. "I spent my 21st birthday studying for a math test."
The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies educational services - schools, colleges, universities and training centers - as the industry that will hire the greatest number of this year's bachelor's degree graduates, regardless of major.
While the competition for local teaching jobs remains stiff, more opportunities may be available outside Pennsylvania.
For instance, Clark County School District in Nevada, the nation's fifth-largest school district, announced plans in March to hire about 2,000 teachers for the 2013-14 school year with money that it would save from an arbitrator's ruling allowing the district to lower teacher salaries to 2011-12 levels.
"As long as Nevada underfunds these schools, it will be a challenge to attract teachers here," union president Ruben Murillo told the Las Vegas Sun when the district announced its hiring plans.
McGregor said she and St. Francis collegians attended the Pittsburgh Education Recruitment Consortium job fair in March at the Monroeville Convention Center. The event attracts employers interested in hiring certified teachers and related professions.
"School districts from all over the country come to that fair," McGregor said. "And we tell our student teachers that they need to be open to teaching in other areas, that they may need to go to another state."
More than one organization has posted online information about teaching shortages in select states, sometimes based on newspaper articles, sometimes based on action that a school has initiated to attract candidates.
A research organization called DegreeCouncil.org in March identified five areas where collegians should look for teaching jobs due to shortages: Tulsa, Okla.; South Carolina; Mississippi; California; and the Dallas and Austin areas of Texas. But schools in select areas of Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Georgia and Florida have also been identified as areas in need of teachers.
Potential employers, salaries
Of four additional industries identified in the top hiring group for the Class of 2013 graduates, professional, scientific and technical services came in second. Health care and social assistance came in third. Federal, state and local government came in fourth. Finance and insurance came in fifth.
The association also compiled information about starting salaries for the Class of 2013 and reported improvements.
The Class of 2013 commands an overall starting salary of $44,928, up 5.3 percent over the average salary of $42,666 realized by the Class of 2012, the organization states in a summary of its annual survey released in April.
Engineering majors commanded the highest overall average starting salaries identified in the survey, at $62,535 for 2013 in comparison with $60,151 for 2012. Computer science majors came in second, at an overall average starting salary of $59,977 for 2013 in comparison to $57,529 for 2012.
Meanwhile, the average starting salary for health science majors took the biggest percentage jump of 9.4 percent, from $45,442 in 2012 to $49,713 for 2013, the association reported. Fueling the increase was not only the fact that nursing salaries rose 4.3 percent to $52,800, but also that general health sciences majors' salaries rose nearly 20 percent to $45,200.
Lutz said he accepted the job offer from Rockwell Automation "because it was the most attractive" he received. While it had the highest salary, another company offered better benefits, he said.
Other factors, he said, were the hours and type of work he'll be doing.
"I had worked with Rockwell machines here at Penn State Altoona, so I'll have some familiarity," he said.
The possibility of working in Pittsburgh also played a role in his decision, not only because of the city's sports teams but also because of the city's proximity to his hometown of Portage and to Altoona.
"My girlfriend has one more year at Penn State Altoona so if I go to work there, I would be close enough to drive [back to Altoona]."
For high school
The Greater Altoona Career and Technology Center has a long history of promoting its hands-on classes as a route to enter the job market.
"One of our biggest supporters has been McLanahan's [in Hollidaysburg], and they're hiring every welder graduate we can provide them," counselor Mark Treese said.
Other classes, including those in culinary arts and retail-related work, also can lead to local jobs, he said.
The center's survey of its Class of 2012 identified a 90 percent placement rate and 10 percent unemployed.
Of the 90 percent, Treese said, 52 percent found jobs and 34 percent pursued further education. The other 4 percent entered the military.
Depends on what you want
Penn State Altoona student Diego Wu, who graduated Saturday with a bachelor's degree in biology, said he has been looking for jobs since March and has no offers.
"In my field, you usually go straight to grad school, and I'm not sure that's what I want," he said.
While his home is in New York, he said he would like to find a way to remain in Altoona and stay involved with the student affairs office at Penn State Altoona.
"I think my interest rests with becoming a student affairs professional," Wu said. "It's been an amazing experience going to school here."
Mirror Staff Writer Kay Stephens is at 946-7456.