Teron Abdullah, a 2010 graduate of Kentucky State University, worked his way through college as a night stocker at a local Kroger store.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration, he hoped to work as a banker, but realized it wasn’t a good fit. So he entered the 25-week management-training program at Kroger, something he says fits his outgoing personality and penchant for problem solving.
It isn’t what Abdullah expected, but he’s hopeful it will open the door to a variety of jobs with the grocery chain.
“A lot of us, we graduate thinking we’ve got degrees so we deserve to make $80,000, but it doesn’t work like that, especially not today,” he said.
“You’ve got to start somewhere, and it just so happened I started as a night stocker, wearing khakis and a blue polo, and now I’m in a shirt and tie.”
Abdullah was one of several KSU alumni who returned to campus this week for the annual fall career day. They all said finding a job in the midst of recession is tough for recent grads, but not impossible.
The key is preparation and a willingness to try something new.
Abdullah worked with staff of KSU’s Career Counseling and Placement office as a student and an alumnus, taking part in mock interviews and having his resume critiqued until it bled with red ink.
“In this economy, who you know is more important than what you know, but when you get that opportunity, you still have to be ready and qualified to take on the challenge,” he said.
“That helped me get to where I am today – you’ve got to start somewhere.”
He says recent graduates must be elastic – willing to relocate and take jobs that aren’t exactly what they had in mind.
“We’re taking a different avenue, but eventually we’re going to be in the position we wanted to be in,” he said. “Sometimes you have to try something new to get where you want to be.”
He says college students will benefit most by starting their job search early, building contacts and preparing for the application process.
Thursday’s career fair attracted some students, who browsed the booths and chatted with about 40 prospective employers. But Abdullah says the spring career fair is packed with seniors who have graduation day in sight – and that may be too late.
Ron Banks, interim director of the Career Counseling and Placement office, and his staff help undergraduates land internships, prepare for job interviews and find work after they graduate.
That focus is why 85 percent of KSU alumni find jobs within a few months of graduation day, he said. That figure is based on student surveys at commencement.
Many graduates are discouraged about the job outlook, but they can find work if they adjust their expectations to entry-level positions, he said.
“A lot of people think there’s no jobs, but I actually have more jobs than I have qualified graduates right now,” he said, because not enough students take advantage of the service.
He estimates that about 60 percent of KSU seniors use the career center; many of the remaining 40 percent find jobs on their own or plan to go on to graduate school.
Some students only walk through the door after watching their friends get jobs, prompting them to face the reality of finding one too, Banks said.
“If they aren’t really prepared, I don’t send them out,” he said. “I have to treat them as if they are sophomores or juniors – you can send anybody out for an opening, but I have to send qualified people.”
Janai McMillian, a 2011 business management alumna, introduced herself to Banks during the first semester of her freshman year and kept in touch through college.
“In this economy it’s very hard to find a job, very hard,” said McMillian, who returned to her hometown of Chicago to live with her mother after graduation.
“They say you go to college to get an education, better opportunities, but when you’re coming out of college in this economy, it’s like, what happened to all of that? It all went out the window.”
McMillian spent several months sending off job applications and traveling to interviews, finally landing a spot in Kroger’s management-training program.
Banking was her field of choice, but Banks encouraged her to give Kroger a try.
“If you would have told me in January that I was going to be in retail, I probably would have laughed,” McMillian said. “It’s new, but it’s something I like.”
She says her generation, coming of age during a recession, must be flexible and willing to try jobs they never considered before. In her case, preparing for her interview with Kroger was key because she didn’t have any experience working in retail.
“Keep trying, be patient, be determined,” she said. “I got probably 10 doors shut in my face, and I came out of college and by August I had two job offers.”
McMillian and Abdullah, a Cleveland native, also say they didn’t plan to stay in Kentucky after graduation, but the job market is better here than at home.
That’s becoming more common for college graduates. The Associated Press reported this week that among young adults 25 to 29 moves fell to 24.1 percent from 25.9 percent in the previous year.
Census data shows that the biggest drop-off occurred in local moves, down to 15.4 percent from 17.7 percent in 2010. It’s a sign that young adults in the prolonged slump continued to live with relatives or near their college campuses after graduation.
Camille Robinson and Charlena Young, both graduates of KSU, now work for the Federal Highway Administration based in Frankfort. They return to their alma mater to recruit candidates for the agency’s Student Career Experience program.
As they stood behind a booth at they career fair Thursday, they said they look for well-rounded students with decent GPAs and involvement in campus organizations. They also look for candidates who interview well and are willing to relocate.
“Don’t be afraid to step outside your box, your comfort zone, because it may lead to something else,” Young said.
Finding a job is about building relationships, Robinson said, and a lot of students wait too long to start. Her employer asks universities to recommend students for open positions.
“It’s hard for them to give a recommendation if they don’t know anything about the student,” Robinson said.
One of the KSU students they recruited is Sasha Jackson, a 2011 graduate in mass communications and journalism. She’s now studying for a master’s degree while working for the federal government, based in Frankfort.
Jackson worked her way through college, but the down economy turned personal when she was laid off from her part-time job with J.P. Morgan Chase.
Before the opportunity with the Federal Highway Administration, she worried about finding full-time employment. She started using the Campus Career Center as a sophomore, and recommends that more students take advantage of it.
“It’s probably the best form for students on any campus – especially Kentucky State – to find a job for undergrads and graduates,” she said.
She suggested recent and upcoming graduates research the fields that interest them, make contacts and keep in touch, ask people questions about their jobs and visit workplaces to find a good fit.
Sometimes taking a chance pays off too.
Early this year, mass communications and journalism major Le’Artis Allen showed up for an on-campus interview with Louisville Gas and Electric, even though the company was only looking for people with an accounting background.
Andrea Brown, recruiting and staffing specialist for the company, says Allen offered to take the group of recruiters on a campus tour, and he won them over with his personality.
“It just showed initiative, and I decided we needed to keep in touch with him,” Brown said.
He was hired a few months later when a position opened up in corporate responsibility, she said. He now organizes the company’s volunteer efforts.
According to CBS Moneywatch, employers said they planned to hire nearly 20 percent more college graduates in 2011 than they did in 2010. The statistics are from a survey of the National Association of Colleges and Employers released in May.
The number has been climbing since 2009, when it hit a low – hiring projections showed 22 percent fewer spring grads were landing jobs than the previous year.
Despite the better outlook, the association says employers are receiving 21 applications for every job opening this year.