E-BUSINESS SPECIAL REPORT

Business Cycles 101: The Class of 2003’s Risk-Free Crash Course

Students who were in college during the past four years had the opportunity to witness one of the biggest booms and worst busts in history. Their relief at being somewhat sheltered from the storm was lessened, though, by knowing they soon would have to brave the elements post-graduation.

“While I was in school, my class saw everything from the boom, to the Enron scandal, to the recent economic downturn,” said Tera Ferguson, a recent graduate of Duke University. She told the E-Commerce Times, “From one perspective, it’s disappointing. But it focuses you.”

Ferguson is not alone in making a batch of lemonade from the economy’s truckload of lemons. Students who are just entering the workforce have had years of practice in getting ready for a tough job market and persisting against the odds.

Tail Spin

The graduating classes of 1999 and 2000 must have felt like royalty. Stocks were high, life was good, and getting a job often meant choosing from among many attractive offers.

Then the bottom fell out, and school-bound students who were looking forward to the same treatment got a rude awakening.

“The classes of 2001 and 2002 had it the worst,” said Peter Degnan, director of career management at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “Things changed so quickly, so it was completely unexpected for that class. They came in at the boom, and then everything came to a screeching halt.”

Degnan told the E-Commerce Times that those students had the hardest time adjusting to the major change in the job market. Most, if not all, of the graduates felt extremely disappointed that their post-graduation scene would not involve sweet job offers, stock options and signing bonuses.

Reality Check

The undergraduate class of 2003, however, has had time to adjust, even though its students also entered school during boom time.

Among this year’s graduating class, there was more gratitude than bitterness, and many seemed to feel they had had sufficient time to prepare for the job market and the down economy.

Also, despite round after round of bad news, many people in the class of 2003 managed to stay somewhat optimistic. “It worried all of us,” said Ferguson, “but I didn’t get the impression that companies were flat-out not hiring.”

As opposed to the starry-eyed students of the boom days, the graduating students of 2003 were forced to be more realistic about their prospects.

Peggy Curchack, associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, told the E-Commerce Times that students tried to be upbeat but did not fool themselves about what was ahead.

“They were pretty realistic and appropriately anxious,” she said. “I certainly think that anyone in the class of 2003 who knew someone in 1999 or 2000 might have expected an easier ride. But by 2002, things weren’t too easy anymore. There was quite a reality check.”

Eyes on the Target

One outcome of this newfound sense of grim reality is that students have learned to be more focused in their job searches and more willing to work harder to find an opening.

“They were very willing to take all the steps they could to ensure that they might have a position,” Curchack said.

She added that students understood that on-campus recruiting was only one way to find a job. They knew they also would need to go to corporate Web sites or use active networks to meet as many people as possible.

In fact, as soon as the economy started sputtering, some students hunkered down. Rather than focusing on their disappointment about the situation, most developed attributes that will serve them well in their working lives: resourcefulness, realistic expectations, creativity and determination.

“They had to suck it up and rise to the challenge,” Degnan said. “They ended up making a lot of calls and working hard on establishing connections. They weren’t real happy about it, but I think they’ll be better prepared for the job market, both now and in the future, because of it.”

Intern Duties

One way in which the class of 2003 showed its eagerness to work hard was in going after internships. Although every class pursues this path to some degree, this year’s group of students seemed especially keen to do so.

For many, it paid off. Ferguson interned at IBM and later got a job with the company. She said the internship gave her a huge advantage over other candidates.

Jean Eisel, director of the Career Management Center at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, confirmed the wisdom of this maneuver. “Students were very creative in finding internships, and these opportunities turned out to be critical in getting positions later,” she told the E-Commerce Times.

As interns, students in the 2003 class also got an education in the current employment scene that they otherwise might not have received.

“They got to see what was happening in the job market,” Eisel noted. “They became more aligned with the market was like and tailored their efforts accordingly.”

Graduate Studies

For those students who just completed graduate work, the need to be resourceful was also important. However, whereas the 2003 undergrad class entered school during a boom, grad students going for a two-year graduate degree generally enrolled in 2001 when the economy was already crumbling.Often, in fact, school provided them with a shelter during the bust and helped them focus on what they wanted to do after graduation.

Helen Chang, spokesperson for the Stanford Graduate School of Business, told the E-Commerce Times, “Our students come with a very different mental frame of reference than undergraduates.”

Although both undergrad and grad students have plenty to feel grouchy about, their relief at being spared the worst of the storm brings some comfort and has helped them sharpen skills they might have ignored if they had been in the class of 1999.

As Degnan said put it: “Are they disappointed? Sure. But I think they’ll find that in the long run, the work they’ve done at being better prepared for a tough job market will serve them for years to come.”

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