Career services helps students find ‘the right fit’

In a Q&A, Barbara Hewitt of Career Services explains why it’s helpful to understand industry trends, cultivate a wide skill set, and trust that the right opportunity will emerge.

Two people work on laptops at a conference table.
To get hired, it’s important to understand how your skills translate to the job market, says Barbara Hewitt, executive director of Penn Career Services. “To do that, you have to have a really good self-understanding, along with a good understanding of what the industry requires,” she says. 

While the graduating Class of 2021 may have had a few bumps in the road, their future looks bright. The median salary for graduates was $82,750, with 63% of those entering the workforce through careers in financial services, consulting, and technology, according to data from the Career Plans Survey Report

How do students find these positions and when is the best time to search? That all depends on the industry, says Barbara Hewitt, executive director of Penn Career Services. 

More than 39% of graduating seniors report finding employment directly through Career Services, which hosts job fairs, recruiting, and career or graduate school advising, among other services. One part strategist, one part advisor, and one part therapist, Hewitt speaks with Penn Today about emerging trends in the job market.

When’s the best time to look for a job? Are there any seasonal peaks in the job market?

It actually depends a lot on the industry. Some industries—like finance, tech, and consulting—have predictable hiring needs, and they know what they’re going to need well in advance.

Finance is incredibly early, with many firms starting to recruit for interns during the spring of sophomore year for internships for the summer following junior year. Often those positions convert to full time, so some students could be done with their job search two years in advance.

Other areas, like nonprofit, government, and communications typically hire when they have an immediate opening. Students in those industries are much more likely to be hired close to graduation or even after graduation because that’s when the openings are.

Fields like finance and consulting typically hire a large cohort of students right out of college, often with an expectation that the individuals work for two or three years. Folks in finance, and particularly in investment banking, work long hours. Students often express that they are eager to start careers in these industries and learn a lot quickly but plan to move on to other opportunities within a few years. The companies are not expecting those students to stay with them forever, so it’s predictable turnover. They have a class, they train them, and they know that a year in advance.

If you think about working for a film production company or something like that, they need to get funding for the movie. When they start shooting, they need people; it’s not necessarily that they’re going to be able to anticipate way in advance. That industry tends towards more just-in-time hiring.

How can students and graduates prepare for the job market?

One, understand the timeline for the industry you want to enter. If you are looking to go into a field that doesn’t hire until much closer to graduation or practices just-in-time hiring, it really doesn’t make sense to start applying for positions a year in advance. You will not be a good candidate. They need someone when they need someone; they don’t need someone a year later.

But you could network to learn about the field, do internships. There are things you can do to make yourself a good candidate when you’re getting ready to go into the job market.

On the opposite side, if you’re someone who’s looking at one of those fields that do interview early, you want to know that timeline because you don't want to miss your opportunity. The Career Services industry reports provide lots of information to students about the hiring cycles for different industries based specifically off the data of when our students got hired.

What makes a candidate stand out from the pack?

The ability to understand how your skills translate into the job market. It may be that you want to go into a consulting job, for example, and you’ve never done consulting. That’s okay, but you have to show that you have the skills that are going to be helpful. Are you analytical? Are you good at working in teams? Are you quantitative, in terms of analyzing data? You want to explain how the skills that you have translate into the job that you want.

To do that, you have to have a really good self-understanding, along with a good understanding of what the industry requires. Talking to people in the field can be helpful, conducting informational interviews with alumni, even reading job descriptions and underlining them to sort out what it is that employers are interested in can help you focus and think about how you might be a good candidate.

What are the current trends in hiring?

We’ve seen lots of alumni who are a little further along in their career looking to have remote work after the pandemic, or just really searching for what they want to do. There’s a lot of churn in the market, with people going into different areas, whether it’s hybrid, something that makes more money, or something that’s more fulfilling.

For most undergraduates, what they want hasn’t changed. They want to learn a lot, continue their education, get into opportunities that are going to be a springboard for growth. Remote work is less important for a lot of the students; many of them want to be in an office, and they want to be mentored.

In 2022, I’m sure we’re going to see higher salaries. A lot of the fields that our students tend to go into have been paying more. Especially with inflation, lots of individuals throughout the economy are getting higher raises, so the 2022 salary numbers will certainly be our highest ever.

How do you prepare for a possible recession?

We really message to students that they should be open-minded about exploring their opportunities. Maybe they look at a wider array of companies, for example, instead of focusing on a few big-name, prestigious companies. Or, perhaps doing more networking in their search, developing relationships if opportunities do open up.

It’s also important to build their skill set in a wide way. Maybe a student is an English major, but it probably could be helpful for them to develop Excel skills if they hope to work in a business setting because that might come in handy. Just make sure that you have a wide tool kit for a wide variety of jobs.

Do you see any burgeoning fields that are opening up?

Big data has impacted every industry. The ability to use data and analyze it—knowing what data you need and making decisions based on data—those skills are in demand.

Diversity and understanding multiculturalism are also important across almost every industry. I think most employers want individuals who are culturally competent and can work with an array of customers and employees, who understand that there’s a whole array of viewpoints and backgrounds that people come from. Being able to work within diverse settings is important.

One of the things that is essential for everyone to think about is what is going to be fulfilling to them. There are practical things like salary and location, but there are underlying factors for job satisfaction.

What values are important to you? What do you want your work setting to be? How do you want your day to look? Do you want to make a difference in the world and, if so, how do you want to do that? It could be through finance by investing in socially responsible endeavors or it could be through social work; there are lots of ways to think about it.

Often, Penn students have a defined set of career options that they’re thinking about; often those are the tried-and-true paths that other Penn students have taken. That’s fine if you want to do it, but, if you think more about what you want to do, you may find something that is a really good fit for you that maybe not a lot of other people are doing, and you also to have the courage to wait until those jobs open up if they are in industries that tend to do just-in-time hiring.

You may get a full-time job offer after your summer internship. If that wasn’t quite the right fit for you, it may take some fortitude to say, ‘You know what? I’m going to look for things that may be a better match.’

We’re happy to have those conversations with students. We aren’t going to have the answers for everybody, but we’re happy to talk through it and help students think about what’s most important to them. Our students are really amazing. They’re skilled and have lots of things they could do. Sometimes, it’s helpful to have the confidence to hold off before accepting a job and explore their options a little bit more broadly.

How did you end up in this field? What was your path?

I studied psychology and Spanish as an undergrad. I thought I wanted to do counseling in a community setting with Spanish-speaking clients. Makes sense, right? I enrolled in a Master of Counseling program in the community counseling track. Within about three weeks, I realized I did not like personal counseling at all, which was a bit of a surprise to me. It felt too backwards-looking; it just wasn’t the right fit for me.

I was also working in the Career Center and I was still loving that work because it’s forward-looking. It’s still counseling, but it’s a different way of doing it. Career counseling is very tangible. You can help somebody with a resume; you can help them look at option A and option B and weigh the pros and cons. It’s fairly concrete and it just seemed like I was able to provide more help. I am very, very glad that people do personal counseling; I think it’s important. It just wasn’t right for me.