Why would 21 Fortune 500 companies including heavyweights General Electric, PepsiCo, Honeywell International, DuPont, John Deere, Corning and Textron visit a career fair in central Pennsylvania in the midst of economic uncertainty?
Because, experts say, even when the economy slows down, skilled, specialized positions can be hard to fill. Employers stay hungry for workforce-ready graduates. That explains the presence of the Fortune 500s at Pennsylvania College of Technology’s most recent career fair.
“Our programs provide skills that are critical regardless of economic conditions,” said Jennifer McLean, Penn College’s director of career services. “It doesn’t matter what the Dow Jones is at when you need health care or a working HVAC system for your building. These are not luxury items. “¦ We produce graduates who fill needs that occur without regard for the economy. This makes many of our programs essentially recession-proof.”
McLean’s comments confirm a recent study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which found that college graduates fare better in the job market and that employment is clearly higher among technical majors.
“Hard Times, College Majors, Unemployment, and Earnings: Not All College Degrees Are Created Equal” found that unemployment is higher among recent graduates in nontechnical fields, such as the arts (11.1 percent) and humanities and liberal arts (9.4 percent). Graduates who studied health or education, however, have jobless rates of only 5.4 percent.
“If your major sounds like a job engineering, for instance, sounds like you’re going to be an engineer you’re going to be in better shape,” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown center and lead author of the report, told The Chronicle of Higher Education.
McLean believes Penn College’s experience, in terms of employer recruiting, is evidence that the choice of major makes a difference, especially during hard economic times.
“Penn College certainly felt the effect of the economic downturn, but we felt it later and for a shorter duration than many other career services offices,” she said. Activity slowed, she said, but did not come to a jolting stop that was experienced at many other institutions.
“As the article says, our majors “sound like jobs,’ and those majors that sound like hands-on work are those that felt the least impact throughout the downturn,” McLean said. “Penn College is preparing students for degrees that not only work “¦ but that make other aspects of the economy work, and that makes our majors marketable in nearly any economic condition.”
Still, as recently as Fall 2010, the bleak economic mood certainly cast doubt on students’ short-term hiring outlook. Only 100 businesses attended Penn College’s career fair in 2010. But a year later, more than 160 employers were on campus. They were looking to fill nearly 1,900 full- and part-time positions, internships, international and seasonal jobs and 1,228 students who attended the fair were hoping for a chance at one of those openings.
While some might suspect the natural gas industry, which is gaining prominence in the area, might be the source of this jump in employer interest, officials say that is not the reason.
“Although many people have asked if that is because of the Marcellus Shale taking off in our area, that’s not really the case,” said Erin S. Shultz, coordinator of career development. “We have a few employers attending from the natural gas industry, but many of our employers are seeking the type of technically degreed students we produce from some of our unique and cutting-edge majors.”
Among the business and industry representatives attending the most recent career fair were Penn College alumni, who proudly wore blue ribbons designating their alumni status.
“Our alumni are among the best marketing tools we have,” Shultz explained. “Our students graduate, get jobs all over the United States, and their employers are so impressed with their knowledge and skills, they continue to return to Penn College to recruit. I love getting phone calls from employers who tell me they want to clone the Penn College alumni they have working for them. They realize cloning isn’t possible, so they are coming to the career fair instead!”
A 2006 graduate employed as a welding engineer by John Deere Harvester Works was pleased with his career fair recruiting experience.
“This fall’s trip was a great success and exceeded expectations,” said Timothy J. Schanken. “We could barely keep up; we had a ton of business at our table.”
John Deere was one of three employers that conducted corporate information sessions during the fair; others were Gilbane Building Corp. and Turner Construction. All reported heavy attendance more than 130 students. Deere interviewed prospects for six full-time and 15 intern positions.
One construction management student reported that he distributed a dozen resumes, secured two interviews and one call-back, and was flown to a distant interview as a result of the fair.
Republic Services, a waste management firm based in Phoenix, interviewed 13 students and announced its intention to offer positions to all and to return to campus to recruit again.
As if to testify to the skills of Penn College graduates, three construction management students Jonathan E. Bresnock, Nicholas D. Wadding and Chad M. Stevens designed the career fair layout in order to accommodate an optimal number of display booths on the gymnasium floor.
The college hosts its career fair from Bardo Gymnasium on the main campus. In addition, employers seeking diesel, power generation, heavy equipment, forest technology, and landscape/horticulture graduates attend a fair at the college’s Schneebeli Earth Science Center near Allenwood.
Penn College will host its next career fair March 20-21. Information is available online or 570-327-4502.