Alumni Column – Career Planning: Now What?

Stephen W. Solomon '76, MAT '78

This week, we are in the midst of a crisis on Wall Street with the securities and currency markets gyrating wildly, crises of confidence regarding our leadership and a profound and fundamental shakeup in our understanding of how all the pieces that underpin our financial system fit together — all on top of last week’s bankruptcy of Lehman, takeover of Merrill and concerns about the viability of other players. I cannot remember a time during the past 30 years when the job market has looked more uncertain, especially in financial services. Not only are we in recession (or on the brink), the rule book on financial structures and credit is now in revision and no one knows what the replacement edition will say. Lawmakers, regulators, businesses and their employees are in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. The independent investment banking sector has virtually evaporated in a week. Traditionally, the financial sector has been the largest destination for our graduates. Career planning is more complex and challenging than ever before.

I have taken several calls over the past ten days from people who have been laid off or who are uncertain about their roles in their companies. While on campus this week I have spoken with students and recent alumni who are seeking advice on what this means for their future career prospects.

We are coming from an era when many students have been more focused on the brand names of employers than seeking opportunities that will develop, test and stretch their professional and personal capabilities. But now it is important to focus on skills and experience first rather than individual companies and sectors.

There are some fundamental rules and values that have stood the test of time and should serve you in good stead — even in these odd times:

– Seek out institutions that offer meaningful and well-regarded graduate training programs such as Procter and Gamble in brand marketing and General Electric in finance;

– It is always easier to enter and advance your career in a growth sector where there will be needs for new talent and ideas. The sectors that are likely to grow are energy, health care and pharmaceuticals and high technology (hardware and software). In a sector that is consolidating, such as banking, there will be more competition for fewer positions;

– Focus on what I call the “tone at the top.” It is important to try to understand the values and culture of the organization and that of the top executive team. Make sure that they are consistent and compatible with your belief system;

– Decipher the “corporate lingo”. For instance, when a prospective employer talks about teamwork, what does that really mean? You will want to decide if the organization truly embraces teamwork or if it is being used as a codeword for something else, such as unquestioned loyalty in an autocratic organization. You don’t want to be surprised down the road;

– Do your homework on your prospective employer’s strategy, customers and future plans. Pay particular attention to the balance sheet to understand how strong it is and how future plans will be funded;

– Use internships to add real world experience to your portfolio. For example, if you want to pursue a career in health care, take on an internship in finance or banking, as financial skills are always useful to strengthen your business acumen. It could be very helpful to experience the workings of a real company;

– Learn a foreign language if you want a great international job; and

– You may want to consider working in the public sector in Washington D. C., a state capital or elsewhere in order to gain contacts, insight and experience on how the government works. This is becoming more valuable given the increased and inevitable emphasis on regulation.

Ultimately, you will need to secure your first career position. Remember that when you reach the shortlist, all the candidates will have excellent credentials. The final decision is often made on the margins such as superior preparation, exceptional insights into an organization’s business and customers, strong communication skills and hard- to-define characteristics such as personal chemistry. To ascertain what these items on the margin might be for your particular situation as you approach the season of interviews, I would you suggest you have no more valuable tool than the alumni network and the Center for Career Services. Don’t be afraid of contacting alumni by e-mail or phone to seek information on their institutions and recruitment policies. I can assure you of a warm reception. In time you will be gainfully employed, will have joined our alumni community and then will be able to give back in kind. This is one of the great strengths of Colgate.