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In tough times jobless turning to alma maters
Nancy Cohen's days began to change in January, after Schaumburg-based Motorola Inc. decided to lay off 4,000 workers.
The University of Illinois at Chicago fundraising executive found herself bombarded by phone calls from engineers who lost their jobs and needed help. Accustomed to soliciting donations and writing the alumni magazine, Cohen did the only thing she could think of: plan a party.On March 26, UIC's College of Engineering will hold its first-ever alumni career and networking event. To keep costs down, Cohen is relying on volunteer alumni to host panels and provide resume critiques and job counseling. She has mailed 5,000 invitations.
"We've never done this before," said Cohen. "We don't really have anyone dedicated to alumni, so we're winging it."
As the financial crisis deepens and unemployment climbs, university alumni clubs across the country are grappling to meet the flood of calls from long-lost graduates who are out of work and looking for help from their alma mater.
It is uncharted territory for most schools. Alumni offices are typically more familiar with annual fundraising drives and homecoming tailgates than advising midcareer workers on how to survive a recession. But in recent months, schools have looked into everything from podcasting career workshops to exploring the possibility of providing emergency loans.
"Most people leave the university, turn their back on it and look ahead," said Jerry Meyerhoff, 61, a UIC alum who recently got swept up in layoffs at an automotive systems supplier and who plans to attend the UIC networking event.
Like Cohen, Marc Burdell is treading in unfamiliar territory. The senior director for professional programs at the University of Notre Dame's alumni association received marching orders last month to determine how the economy is affecting alumni and come up with new programs to meet the growing demand.
"I'm trying to figure it all out," admitted Burdell. "These current times have called for a formal response. The stock market is collapsing. The alumni have new needs."
Indeed, after a rash of layoffs at Chicago law firms in January, the University of Chicago's law school offered a day of free career counseling for its alumni. Reservations for 14 available slots filled up within 24 hours, said Matthew Donato, senior associate director for alumni career services at U. of C.
Similarly, a February midcareer workshop and networking session at the university's downtown Gleacher Center titled "Job Hunting in a Difficult Economy," available at no charge, filled all 212 slots within three weeks.
"All of our career officers are much better equipped to deal with recent graduates than with people who have been out of school 10, 15 or 20 years," said Donato. "We all readily admit that. I view my role as thinking more broadly and trying to bring together resources that concern all our alumni."
The university created Donato's post last year specifically to address midcareer alumni. Since then, Donato has rolled out several new alumni services, including most recently free access to the career site Vault.com.
He also is rolling out more free career counseling days in Chicago and New York (a session in Chicago is in the works for March), as well as updating the online alumni network so alumni can post jobs they know about at their companies that aren't widely advertised. And he plans to host more job-hunting workshops for alumni in cities outside of Chicago, making them available by podcast.
Some schools have offered alumni career services for years, but even those programs are feeling the strain of increased demand.
The University of Michigan is in the midst of pulling together career resources for alumni on one Web page. The school also is offering free one-year memberships to alumni who are unemployed but want to take advantage of alumni benefits, such as discounts on prescription drugs and savings on health insurance.
"What we're trying to do is package together what we have more clearly," said Cat Serrin Niekro, vice president for marketing and communications for the alumni association at University of Michigan. "We want a new landing page so that when alumni come to our Web site, they immediately see something that addresses their economic concerns."
Niekro also sent out a survey to alumni last week trying to gauge how many are out of work or worried about their jobs. She is looking into services as far flung as discounts on career counseling and a program to offer emergency loans.
"There is a rising influx of alumni coming back to their universities for career services and job placement," said Doug Baruchin, director of operations at New York-based MyWorkster, an online career-development network that focuses on universities. "I've spoken to dozens of universities over the last few months, and everyone is seeing the same problem. People are calling them up and saying, 'We need help, what can we do?'"
So, in December, as the Wall Street meltdown cast a pall over New York, Baruchin decided to start planning a multischool alumni job fair. Within two weeks, word had spread among universities across the country, and now 20 schools, including UCLA, University of Miami and Indiana University, have signed on. The event, still in the formative stages, is expected to be held in New York in May, Baruchin said.
"Alumni associations around the country are doing a better job of marketing their services," said Aspasia Apostolakis Miller, a career services director at Northwestern University's alumni association. "I don't think alums always think to turn to their universities first."
Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management, which has a track record of supporting older alumni, revamped its alumni Web site a couple weeks ago with more content aimed at finding a job, said Matthew Temple, director of alumni career services at Kellogg.
The business school also introduced "virtual job-search groups" in January, whereby a group of about eight alumni who are in the midst of a job search meet for an hour by phone weekly, Temple said.
And on March 12, Evanston-based Kellogg is to host in Chicago its first speed-networking workshop for alumni. Attendees will spend 30 minutes crafting an elevator pitch -- an explanation of what they have to offer that can be articulated in the span of an elevator ride -- then practice delivering the pitches, akin to speed dating.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pulled all of its resources together in January onto a new career home page for alumni called Tools for the Times and spotlighted the effort in its alumni magazine.
"While we have been addressing the needs of our alumni, we weren't drawing as much daylight as we could or should," said Douglas Dibbert president of the school's General Alumni Association, "and we want people to know that we care, and that they shouldn't be discouraged."