May 9-15, 2003
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Graduation 2003
Trends drive federal hiring
When three job possibilities in the private sector failed to pan out this spring, soon-to-be U.Va. graduate Travis Lynch, a fourth-year engineering student, snapped up a civilian job as an electronics engineer with Naval Air Systems.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
When three job possibilities in the private sector failed to pan out this spring, soon-to-be U.Va. graduate Travis Lynch, a fourth-year engineering student, snapped up a civilian job as an electronics engineer with Naval Air Systems.

By Charlotte Crystal

With unemployment expected to hit 6 percent in May, it’s not the best time to be looking for a job. But with graduation just around the corner, fourth-year students need to decide what comes next.

“Significant numbers of students are applying to graduate pre-professional schools — especially law school and medical school — because there seems to be a perception that there are fewer opportunities in the job market,” said Jennifer Hoffman, associate director for employer services for the College of Arts & Sciences.

The national economic downturn notwithstanding, Hoffman said that its impact on universities has been to shift the sectors that are hiring. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, college recruiting was expected to fall by only 3.6 percent this spring.

To some extent, students’ perceptions of the job market match reality. Recruiting is already down. In its April 2002 survey, the National Association of Colleges and Employers reported a 36 percent decline in college student hiring nationwide between 2000-01 and 2001-02.

But U.Va. has fared better than the national average, Hoffman said. Career office figures have not been compiled for this year, but last year U.Va. saw only a 15-20 percent drop in overall recruiting, compared with the year before.

As for recruiting by government agencies, the situation this year is better than last year, Hoffman noted. This year, there are 708 job and internship openings — up from 557 last year — advertised on HoosTrak, an online database for U.Va. students and alumni. Still, the number of openings hasn’t recovered to the level seen in 2000-01,when there were 1,357 government jobs and internships advertised on HoosTrak, she said.

But two trends have combined to create a powerful hiring drive within the federal government, according to U.Va. career experts. The first trend is the war on terrorism.

“We have definitely seen an increase in recruiting from government agencies, especially those connected with security and defense,” Hoffman said.

There were twice as many government agencies recruiting U.Va. students at an internship career fair this year compared with last year, she said. Government recruiters have been particularly interested in students with degrees in engineering and architecture. They’re also seeking to fill numerous positions in public health and patenting.

The second trend is the aging federal workforce.

“About 50 percent of all federal government employees will be eligible to retire in the next five years,” said Ladd Flock, director of career services for the College of Arts & Sciences.

Flock noted that federal agencies — not just in Washington, but also in other large, metropolitan centers, such as New York and Atlanta — are seeking to bring in new talent before the first wave of baby boomers crowds through the exit.

For federal recruiters in particular, U.Va.’s proximity to Washington is an asset, as is the presence of students from Northern Virginia who are familiar with the metro area and the strong presence of U.Va. alumni in federal jobs eager to bring aboard more U.Va. grads.

Travis Lynch is one U.Va. student who has already taken the next step. The fourth-year student from Petersburg is scheduled to graduate with a major in electrical engineering and concentrations in digital systems and microelectronics. He’s also completed the requirements for a minor in technology, management and policy, giving him an understanding of the business side of engineering.

Lynch, 22, met last fall with naval recruiters at a career fair sponsored by the School of Engineering and Applied Science. Since then, he’s talked with recruiters several times about the nature of available jobs, opportunities for advancement, benefits, including financial support to further his education, and the chance to travel.

After three job possibilities in the private sector fell through, Lynch snapped up a civilian job as an electronics engineer with U.S. Naval Air Systems. He reports June 16 to the naval base in Patuxent River, Md., to work on helicopter-ship communications.

While initial salaries for government jobs might be lower than those offered in the private sector, Flock said the current demographics of the federal workforce are likely to favor recent graduates. Those who accept entry-level positions in the next few years may find themselves moving rapidly up the career ladder as older workers retire and create opportunities for advancement.

Also, time spent working for government agencies would enable students to develop skills that would make them more attractive to private employers later on, Flock said. Better to grab the job in the hand …

“I think I’m ready,” Lynch said.


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