Company Connections Crucial on Campus

October 1, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — When 41 of 45 Calvin College engineering graduates head right from a desk in the classroom to a desk in the workplace, Professor Steve VanderLeest finds a reason to celebrate.

That’s what happened last spring, said VanderLeest, chair of the department with 16 faculty members.

“It was phenomenal,” VanderLeest said, noting that some students had other plans, such as graduate school and the Peace Corps.

“We had 91 percent job placement, which is a lot better than anything we’ve seen in the last few years. It appears that for some of the economies in the area, things are getting a little bit better. We’re having a little better luck around here now.”

Some employers, particularly in Grand Rapids’ fast-growing health sectors, practically fall over each other to recruit new graduates. Students in some other areas may not enjoy such rapt attention. Career and job centers at local colleges are charged with matching work with students, and often the same services are available to alumni.

“We do everything from resume writing, job interviews. If they’re not sure what they want to do, we do career exploration to find out what they’re good at, to find out what their value systems are, what skills they have acquired, what are their natural talents,” said Sharon E. Smith, career and counseling services director at Aquinas College.

Aquinas students take an eight-week career development course to start them on the path toward work, Smith said.

“We do the mechanical part of teaching them how to find positions. It’s not just looking in the paper anymore, although some still think that is the way to do it. You look in the paper, look on the Web. Networking is actually No. 1 in importance. Most people think they do not have a network, but they do.”

Along with Calvin, Hope College, Cornerstone University and Grand Valley State University, Aquinas is part of a consortium of local colleges that sponsors an annual job fair, Smith said. That is just one of many career fairs sponsored by the colleges.

According to the latest information Smith had available, 84 percent of a recent year’s Aquinas graduates, which number about 450 annually, had secured jobs within six months, and another 13 percent went on to graduate school.

Davenport University’s Dave Veneklase, executive vice president for student development, said students begin compiling portfolios and resumes as part of their Freshman Seminar. “Career services actually begin the day a student begins at Davenport,” Veneklase said. “It’s not something that is left to their final semester.”

In addition to teaching job search skills and using career fairs, Veneklase said it’s important for Davenport to create partnerships with employers.

“Being a school which specializes in business, technology and health care, we’re uniquely qualified to place in multiple disciplines: accounting, finance, management, nursing, health information management, network security. Our career services works with businesses in the communities that surround our locations to develop those relationships and provide those opportunities for our students.”

Troy Farley, assistant director of career services at GVSU’s DeVos Center, has taken the concept of a relationship a step further and uses marketing techniques to help companies create a brand and reputation among the business students he serves.

“I was in business and industry for 14 years, and we always struggled at career fairs. Unless your name was Steelcase or Alticor, students didn’t want to stop by. They’d walk by with their head down because they want to get to Booth 62.”

While the traditional career fairs are still available, Farley said he invites companies to more informal, getting-to-know-you sessions in the commons at the Pew Campus in downtown Grand Rapids. Some companies provide personnel to help run classroom projects in the business school. The fact is, he said, most students will find their first jobs in smaller companies they haven’t heard of before rather than in mega-firms.

“We get them involved through campus activities, campus leadership programs, class presentations, mock interviews. We have pizza parties for them to talk about life in a CPA firm,” for example. It’s all about networking, Farley said.

“We’re not investing dollars and dollars to tap into their (students’) cell phones,” he said. “With today’s increased technology, a large portion of jobs are still obtained the old-fashioned way. It’s that face-to-face interaction. Communication skills are still extremely vital to students’ success, especially in the more non-technical majors.”

GVSU offers a job Web site this year. Farley said he steers students away from overwhelming jobs sites like

“Searching for jobs online with a huge, mainstream job-listing service is like finding a needle in a haystack,” agreed Glenn Triezenberg, Calvin College’s director of career development. “It’s possible, but it’s a challenge.”

Farley said he strives to streamline the connections with businesses. He said the college sets its schedule as early as possible in the summer and tries to have companies commit to GVSU events before other colleges lock up their schedules. He gives businesses a single contact for all their career development needs, from internships to job fairs to on-campus interviews.

“We have a year’s plan and we can brand them on campus,” Farley said. “It’s up to us — the career services office — to help build their brand on campus. We really focus on branding. You have to take the time to get to know what they’re looking for and provide the opportunity to network with students.

“I keep hearing about this grim economy in Michigan,” he added. “I don’t see it. We have companies calling us on a weekly basis, looking for talent.”

Triezenberg said internships and cooperative education placements arranged through the private Christian school have proved to be vital to helping graduates secure jobs. He said about 35 percent of interns find permanent work at their host companies. Calvin has placed almost 3,000 students in internships over the past seven years, he said.

The college has a $250,000, five-year grant to train and place students in nonprofit management jobs, he said.

“We actively reach out to employers and not-for-profit organizations and have built up a very large number of internship and cooperative education partners,” Triezenberg said. “Many companies call us and ask for internships, as well. It works both ways.”

Triezenberg noted that Calvin draws half its student body from outside the Midwest, so many graduates leave the area to carve out their careers.

“West Michigan companies, as well as out-of-state employers, are very selective about the colleges they invest recruiting time in,” Triezenberg said. “It’s not difficult for us to retain the companies that historically have recruited here, because they find the students they want here — that’s why they come here. It’s more difficult for me to recruit new companies because they already have their schools they’re working with.

“On one hand, it’s very expensive to do on-campus recruiting. On the other hand, if you recruit the brightest and best, the cost is worth it.”

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