All About Jobs

Higher education institutions are more career-focused than ever

Although there’s a lot to love about campus life no matter when you head to college or grad school, the most important thing for most students and schools is what happens after graduation. Accordingly, preparing students to succeed in the workforce is a priority for just about every institution in the state. 

Most of us still need to work for a living, so it makes sense that we pay attention to unemployment rates and hiring trends. And with an economy teetering on the brink of both recovery and recession, it’s only natural to wonder which way things will go.

Educational institutions are paying attention, too. Not solely the ivory towers of personal growth and edification, today’s higher education institutions recognize that students expect career preparation, if not career training. Regardless of whether a program or course is theoretical or practical, it must ultimately improve a student’s career and earning potential. 

“We see less and less emphasis on the job description and more on the individuals’ abilities to grow and learn as jobs themselves change,” says Janice Miller, associate dean of academic affairs at the UW-Milwaukee Lubar School of Business. “At the Lubar School, we do a good job of encouraging our students to be entrepreneurial, think broadly across the functions of business, and appreciate the necessity to be lifelong learners so they will remain ready for the dynamic business environment.”

Attitudes are similar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Wisconsin School of Business. “We don’t look at what we’re doing as a training program,” says Steve Schroeder, assistant dean for the bachelor’s of business administration program and director of its Business Career Center. “We’re different than that. We’re not in the profession of training students for a particular job. I think what we do–and do particularly well–is train students on how to think, how to solve problems and how to analyze situations.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean UW-Madison isn’t concerned with helping students secure jobs. Quite the contrary: Career placement is just as integral to its business school’s success as its rigorous academics. A cornerstone of these efforts is its robust campus recruitment program that draws more than 400 prospective employers annually and boasts that about 80 percent of students actively looking will find employment prior to graduation. The companies hiring UW-Madison grads would sound familiar and impressive to just about anyone. They include Google, GE, Goldman Sachs, Target and the Big Four accounting firms, among others. 

“This year, we will bring in about 425 different companies,” Schroeder says. “That’s a pretty good ratio when you consider we have only about 500 students looking for full-time jobs.”

This kind of career focus, Schroeder says, makes sense for a business school, as its students tend to be particularly end-oriented right from the beginning. Conversations about internships and career placement begin in the high school recruiting phase, and a school’s placement services and success are key benchmarks for business education. So while UW-Madison doesn’t train students for specific jobs, it does concentrate on preparing students for career success upon graduation and beyond. 

And it’s working: The average undergraduate business student has two to three job offers by graduation.

UW-Milwaukee’s Lubar School of Business also hosts on-campus recruiting in the fall and spring, and it offers workshops and mock interviews to prepare students. Like most business schools, it maintains a healthy internship program, which often leads to full-time employment, says Greg Krejci, director of career services.

“By the time they’re seniors, many students have had two successful internships and a job already lined up,” Krejci says.

Location is an advantage for Lubar School students, Krejci says. Milwaukee is a large enough city to afford vast opportunities to students during both the school year and summers. Many students take advantage of that by working as many as 20 hours per week during the semester. What’s more, the majority of Lubar School internships are paid, so students can offset some of their tuition costs.

“When it comes time to get a job, relevant work experience is probably the most important factor,” Krejci says. Students who have solid work experience, often in the form of internships, along with good grade point averages and solid presentation in interviews regularly secure full-time jobs within four months of graduation, regardless of the economy. 

The promise of career options is part of what makes the business school at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside an attractive choice as well. UW-Parkside, the second-smallest of UW’s four-year universities, claims a 90 percent placement rate for business students. 

Joel Buschmann, assistant director of transfer and international recruitment, says UW-Parkside capitalizes on its small size to offer more personalized support and career services to students. Indeed, the intimate campus of just 5,175 undergrads and 125 graduate students enables students to develop closer relationships with professors and campus administrators. Those relationships, Buschmann says, prove invaluable for landing internships and even jobs.

“A lot of students think graduation is a guarantee, and it’s not,” Buschmann says, noting what many people in the working world learned fairly soon after taking off the cap and gown: It takes more than a degree to land a good job these days. 

Buschmann explains that a lot of hiring happens through word-of-mouth. A business executive on one of UW-Parkside’s advisory boards will mention a job opening to a faculty member. That faculty member will pass along the notice to students and even encourage certain students to apply. She might even make a personal recommendation for a student who seems particularly apt or skilled. 

Many UW-Parkside students are drawn to the campus for this intimacy and opportunity to develop relationships with faculty. The hope is that those relationships will not only enhance a student’s learning opportunities on campus but will also create connections that facilitate career opportunities beyond college. Buschmann says it works more often than not.

“Here at UW-Parkside, our professors get to know our students, and the personal attention students get makes a difference when it’s time to get a job,” Buschmann says.

That bears out, he says, no matter what the field, although disciplines such as business and criminal justice tend to have more obvious paths to careers than the humanities.

Where are the jobs?

It stands to reason that graduates want a job soon after graduation. And despite the dour economic news, many of them are getting their wish. So where are they working?

The short answer is everywhere. Krejci says the Lubar School works with businesses of all sizes in its recruitment efforts, and students find jobs in various disciplines and industries. He does note, however, that even within the business schools, certain courses of study are a bit more recession-proof than others. Accounting, he notes, was the last to get hit by the recession when recruitment demand dipped for the first time. It has since recovered, and Krejci expects it to remain strong. 

“There are so many different ways you can go with accounting,” he says, listing off traditional accounting firms along with government, private-sector and nonprofit employers. “Every sector of the economy has opportunities, so the job market is very broad-based.”

Actuarial science is a stalwart for the Wisconsin School of Business. Year after year, it’s always a top career path, says Melissa Anderson, the school’s director of integrated marketing and communications. 

A strong newcomer, though, is brand and product management. Career options with those two job titles are proliferating. The potential is so significant that UW-Madison offers a specialized brand and product management MBA.

Anderson says the degree was a natural outgrowth of relationships with frequent corporate recruiters–Kimberly Clark, Proctor and Gamble, and others–who increasingly sought to fill product and brand manager positions. 

As corporate needs evolve, Anderson says, so must business schools. “At the end of the day, how we stay current is by staying aware of the changing needs of businesses and incoming students, and then delivering compelling, transformative education,” she says.

The Lubar School, Wisconsin School of Business and UW-Parkside are not the only institutions looking directly to employers to glean insight on how to prepare students. Most universities spend a significant amount of time working closely with business leaders in a variety of ways. 

It’s a key strategy for Herzing University, a privately owned institution that prides itself on an ability to respond quickly to market demands. “One of our main focuses is meeting the workforce needs of our communities,” says Herzing University President Renée Herzing.

Herzing University operates online and in 11 different metropolitan areas throughout the country. Three of those – Madison, Kenosha and Brookfield – are in Wisconsin. Each campus president is expected to be active in the community and to interact frequently with local business leaders in order to gauge local hiring needs. Herzing says the university leaders consider the feedback and then determine whether to add or change courses or degree programs to better position students to take advantage of emerging careers. 

A case in point: The Madison campus is launching a new program this fall. The Bachelor of Science in software development with a concentration in mobile application development blends the job stability of the information technology (IT) field with the creativity and innovation of mobile applications–more commonly referred to as “apps.”

“In general, [IT] is a great field in terms of earning power and upward mobility,” Herzing says, “and we’re not able to get as many students in as companies want.”

Herzing says staying abreast of hiring trends is a continuous process and a core responsibility of the university. Career readiness, she notes, is serious business, and it’s not a place for guesswork. So instead of trying to identify what might be popular five years down the road, Herzing University tries to remain nimble enough to get students on track for certain careers as quickly as possible.

“What we really focus on is having the timeline to develop programs really fast,” Herzing says. “We never have a crystal ball. … It’s hard and really dangerous to be too predictive of what you think the market is going to want. It’s more about seeing that a gap is, there and then, very, very quickly developing and launching something to fill that gap.”

Of course, not all of the opportunities are in emerging fields. According to ManpowerGroup’s 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, engineering positions are the hardest to fill in the Americas and are the second-highest in-demand positions globally. That bodes well for Milwaukee School of Engineering students, says Fred Berry, MSOE vice president of academics.

“If you have the right talent, skills and education, you are going to be highly sought after,” Berry says.

That bears out at MSOE, where students enjoy a 95 percent placement rate within six months of graduation. What’s more, Berry adds, is that a recent PayScale survey found that MSOE grads had higher starting salaries than graduates of any other Wisconsin university. 

Yet just because the broader engineering discipline is well-established doesn’t mean that it doesn’t evolve. For example, MSOE offers the state’s only biomolecular engineering program along with perennially popular degrees in architectural, biomedical, computer, electrical, industrial, mechanical and software engineering. 

The thing about a good academic foundation, Berry notes, is that the opportunities don’t stop with that first degree. “Many engineering graduates become lawyers, financial analysts, economists and medical doctors,” he says. 

Health care is another area, like engineering, that offers a blend of traditional and emerging opportunities. Already one of the largest sources of jobs in the United States, health care careers are routinely touted as some of the most promising for the coming decade. 

“We have invested a great measure of time and energy in health care,” says Bernard Bull, Concordia University Wisconsin in Mequon’s assistant vice president of academics for continuing and distance education. “I would expect that would continue to be a strong area of interest, and there is data to suggest that there is great need.”

There is also data to suggest that there will be great growth. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the career path adding the most new jobs in the decade between 2010 and 2020 will be registered nursing. The BLS Occupational Outlook Handbook predicts the field will increase by more than 700,000 positions over the course of the decade. With a 2010 median salary of nearly $65,000, registered nursing is not only stable but also a well-compensated–and often flexible–career path.

While certainly one of the most promising, especially considering a well-documented nursing shortage, registered nursing is just one of more than 80 distinct health care careers identified by the American Medical Association. All told, the health care industry accounted for one of every five jobs added–a total of 340,000 – between May 2011 and May 2012, according to the BLS Current Employment Statistics Highlights.

In an effort to meet some of the growing demand, Concordia offers a variety of nursing programs, including a traditional undergraduate degree as well as more specialized and advanced paths of study. 

Accessibility is an issue for some students, particularly those who don’t live near a campus or those whose schedules do not accommodate a regular course schedule. For example, a registered nurse who works different days every week would not be able to commit to a class that meets every Tuesday, Bull explains, even if the student wanted to get a bachelor’s or master’s degree. 

Online education has emerged as an ideal solution, and Concordia has embraced e-learning for health care programs despite some frequent misconceptions about its viability in certain disciplines. “Graduate nursing is our largest online program,” Bull says, pointing out that much of the coursework focuses on leadership development and mastery of both theory and emerging research. That kind of instruction, he adds, is well-suited to the online environment. 

“I see absolutely no reason why a person coming back for a degree, a person who is willing to put in the time and effort, should be limited because of location or family circumstance,” he says. “If there’s a single mom with three kids working to make ends meet who has the dedication … I want to be able to offer a program that can help her meet her goals.”

Ultimately, most administrators working in higher education would caution students against choosing careers and schools based on earning power alone. Bull, Anderson, Krejci and others reiterate the age-old advice that all prospective students hear at one time or another: No school or degree is right for everyone, and choosing a program is about finding a good fit in terms of academic offerings, accessibility, cost and other factors. 

“You try to look at what is going to make you happy in your career,” Krejci says. “I always ask students, ‘If you could do anything that you wanted to do, what would that be?’ Then you work backwards from there.

“Generally speaking, if a person enjoys what they are doing, they will do a good job. And if they do a good job, the career will take care of itself.” 

-Jennifer Garrett

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