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[caption id="attachment_47308" align="alignright" width="268" caption="Clockwise from top left: Chuck Robbins, Sarah Dove, William Silver, Lucille Inman and Arturo Reyes"][/caption]

NORTH BAY – Many recent and soon-to-be college graduates face an uphill struggle in today’s job market, finding hiring limited in many industries while contemplating the looming pressure of college debt.

Recognizing these conditions, institutions of higher learning have undertaken focused efforts to help their graduates find and be prepared for work, and North Bay colleges and universities are no exception.

Local advisers and administrators said that they have taken several initiatives to help graduates, including bringing in-demand “soft skills” into the classroom, collaborating with the business community and encouraging students to develop a career path early. Even in fields that are particularly challenged by the recession, advisers said that a creative approach can help graduates to apply the skills they cultivated in college in a career.

“Students need to get an education plan earlier in their college career,” said Chuck Robbins, director of economic development at Santa Rosa Junior College. "There might be jobs in the field you’re interested in, but it might not be obvious."

Concerning the simple prospect of employment, those holding a bachelor’s or associate degree have a better job outlook than the rest of the population: a 4.1 percent unemployment rate for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher, and 7.7 with some college or an associate degree; versus 8.7 percent with a high school diploma and 13.8 percent without a diploma, according to January data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Those prospects dim or brighten, however, for employment in certain industries. Sarah Dove, director of the career center at the Sonoma State University’s School of Business and Economics, said that she has recently seen opportunities increase in the fields of sales and marketing.

“It’s more challenging for finance majors,” she said, citing conditions like fewer bank jobs. “But they’re starting to come back.”

Demand for accounting students has remained strong through the recession. William Silver, dean of the business school, said that nearly all accounting students have found employment.

“In certain professions, the job opportunities are very robust,” Mr. Silver said. “Many employers have discovered that hiring recent college graduates can deliver a very high ROI.”

Advisers and administrators agreed that students typically put off career planning until later in their program, resulting in poorer job prospects. Many institutions are making increased efforts to offer career advising to students in their first or second year, emphasizing the importance of internships and extra-curricular experience.

The business school at Sonoma State has featured an in-house career center since accreditation five years ago, and Mr. Silver said that 75 percent of its most recent graduates have either found employment or continued their education.

Across all majors, Ms. Dove said that a close partnership with the region’s business community has helped increase opportunities for students. Businesses are invited to have a frequent presence on campus, and that channel helps over 100 students take part in internships and mentoring each semester.

The business community also plays an active role in continuing curriculum development, helping to ensure that the skills taught are up-to-date. Having recently completed that work for the new executive master’s in business administration and MBA programs, Ms. Dove said that the college is preparing to embark on similar work at the bachelor’s level.

At Santa Rosa Junior College, Mr. Robbins said that a business advisory committee is assigned to each of their career technical programs, a partnership that also helps keep those programs in line with current demands.

Those demands have increasingly included “soft skills.” Mr. Robbins and others said that they have heard an increasing number of employers mention those attributes, which include time management and teamwork skills as important in a job candidate.

At Empire College, Director of Career Services Lucille Inman said that producing graduates that are “cross-skilled” helps job prospects as companies consolidate positions. Accounting programs include office and customer service training; medical students receive administrative training; information technology programs will also focus on communication skills.

“In each case, the goal is to produce an employee who can contribute at many levels for their employer,” she said. “Combined with the prior job skills and work experience that many of our students possess, this can result in a very versatile employee.”

Advising from the business community has helped in the overhaul of the longstanding auto body and welding programs at Solano Community College and the creation of a computer forensics program last year, said Arturo Reyes, executive vice president and vice president of academic and student affairs.

“My advice to students is to consider this economic slowdown as an opportunity to prepare themselves for the changing economy that will present itself at the end of the downturn,” said Mr. Reyes. “Now is the time to start, continue or complete your bachelor’s degree or other advanced degrees. When the economy turns around, our students, and those who take this opportunity, will be in the idea position to fill the jobs of the future.”