Student job outlook mixed

May 02, 2002, vol. 24, no. 1
By Howard Fluxgold

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SFU students will find a mixed bag of opportunities when they go looking for work, whether they want full-time, a co-op workterm or summer employment.

Students in computing science and engineering science who only a few years ago could write their own ticket, now are finding employers hesitant. That's if they are finding employers at all, since many companies in the information technology sector have closed shop.

On the other hand, arts, science and business students, while not swept off their feet with job offers, are finding employment if they keep their options open.

Analyzing the job market, Jane Martin, co-ordinator of business career services, says, “It's not a rosy picture. The market certainly is tougher. But I believe it's only going to get better provided that candidates are flexible and continue to keep themselves competitive.”

Martin notes that this year about 25 per cent more employers participated in the business career fair than last year, the first year it took place. While she believes that graduates looking for jobs this year and next may have a difficult time, the future is promising.

With an economic turnaround in North America “a given,” and baby boomers beginning to retire, she foresees a buoyant job market. “It is imperative that companies be ready and that we be ready to handle what most career educators expect to be a deluge of requests for new graduates. We all see this past year's job scene as unfortunate, but just the lull before the storm.”

That lull was evident last October at SFU's discipline-wide career fair which attracted recruiters from only 37 companies compared to 50 the previous year. “There have been fewer requests for campus recruitment sessions and the number of campus visits are down by half for the period between January and April 2001and the same period this year,” reports Penny Freno, career services practice leader at the health, counselling and career centre.

Freno is concerned about the prospects for some grads “without a specific career pathway. With the changes to the dot-com world, recent cuts in the public sector, and funding to non-profits in jeopardy as a result of cuts in government spending, graduates may find the search for work more difficult this spring,” she says.

On the other hand, Nancy Johnston, director of co-op education, points out that 90 per cent of students graduating from the co-op program receive job offers. One of those with a job to go to when she graduates in June is kinesiology student Elaine Lee. Lee completed an eight-month co-op term with the B.C. ministry of health's occupational health and safety branch where she will work fulltime.

“I don't think I would have landed a job like this without the co-op position,” she maintains. “People who aren't in co-op are at a disadvantage.”

Nevertheless, the co-op program has had difficulties finding workterms especially in the information technology sector. And while not giving up on the sputtering B.C. economy, co-op has been taking a more global perspective with the hiring of an international coordinator.

Johnston reports a record number of co-op placements in Japan while 16 students are doing workterms with U.S. multinationals in China.

For students in the faculty of arts co-op program the situation is surprisingly positive, says co-op program manager Paulette Johnston. “We're doing fine. Our numbers are staying steady or, in some cases, actually going up. What we are seeing is the real flexibility of an arts degree.” Johnston has found that while the provincial government has cut back drastically on workterms, the federal government in Ottawa is in a hiring mode.

In the private sector, however, employers appear reluctant to hire new staff. Fred Withers, managing partner of Ernst and Young in Vancouver and a member of the SFU business co-op advisory board, admits his firm is “scaling back our recruiting efforts largely in response to the economy. In the short term, we will be looking to take on fewer students than we've taken on in the past.”

Davie Tsang is one student feeling the pinch. He left the banking industry to take an MBA with the hope of changing industries. “It's very competitive out there,” reports Tsang, who is near graduation. “I wanted to get into management of information systems, but the economy isn't good and employers are looking for people with more technical background than I have. I've been looking for anything that's interesting and it's pretty tough. I may have to go back to banking.”

Not surprisingly, there are also indications that employers are scaling back their summer hirings. “We do notice that positions for summer work were slow to come this year,” notes Freno at career sevices. “Although jobs are now being posted daily on campus worklink.”

She advises students to start their job search early and make it a top priority. “Have a backup plan and be open minded,” she cautions. For graduates looking for fulltime jobs, she has similar advice. “We've noticed that graduates continue to rely heavily on coming across the job of their dreams. In a competitive job market, job seekers need to be more creative.”

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