March 1, 2007

Picking Their Spots

Students in the job market say what matters most is the chance to follow their passions and make a difference.

Illustration by Scott Laumann

It’s not so much about the money, the 401K plan or the health insurance. It’s not even so much about the opportunity for a rapid rise through the ranks. Students starting out in their careers want a place to do what they love—whether it’s managing construction or upgrading IT capability—and have an impact doing it.

Many metals companies recently have stepped up their campus recruiting efforts (see Forward, “How’s Your Bench?” September/October 2006) as they seek to replenish their decimated management ranks. Mills, service centers and fabricators were able to hire only minimally, if at all, in the lean years leading up to the most recent upturn.

Now, many companies have the financial resources to hire and train young managers. Moreover, many Baby Boomer managers will retire over the next decade, which makes the need for new management and technical expertise all the more urgent.

In a competitive market for managerial talent, it’s important for metals companies to understand what students want as they shop for employers. How important are pay and benefits, the opportunity to advance and flexibility on work-life balance?

Photos by Dave Umberger

Deen King-Smith, 24, a native of Washington, D.C., is a Ph.D. candidate in electrical engineering at Purdue with a focus in communication and signal processing. He expects to be in the job market at the end of 2008. He received his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, in 2004. King-Smith landed competitive internships at IBM Research, twice at Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York and twice at Microsoft Corp. near Seattle. He is president of the Purdue Black Graduate Association.

To address those questions, Forward convened a panel of six students at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana. We sought a sampling of students in the fields of engineering and management. Two are close to completing M.B.A. degrees from the Krannert School of Management—one in operations and technology management, and the second in supply chain management. Another two are Ph.D. candidates in engineering. Two plan to pursue graduate work after completion of undergraduate engineering degrees.

Given the industry’s historic reluctance to recruit, it’s no surprise that the metals industry barely registers for the students, although one had a favorable encounter with Ryerson Inc., which has an active recruiting program.

The good news? They don’t rule out a career in metals. Several say they are open to interesting opportunities that may come along. One suggested the metals industry could use a marketing campaign to become better known.

Students who participated in the discussion—mostly technically proficient 20-somethings—say they want to be associated with companies on the leading edge. One student worries whether he would be foolish to take a job in manufacturing, as India and China become more adept at producing industrial and consumer goods at a lower cost. Will all those jobs eventually be outsourced?

These students clearly value a more flexible approach to work hours than the Baby Boomer managers they have encountered during previous stints in the workplace. They want latitude on when they come and go, and hope they will be judged on the quality of their work rather than how long they sit at the desk.

Forward: What is the most important consideration for you in selecting an employer?

Shawn Jordan: My primary goal is finding a job that I am both interested in and passionate about, so that my work is my play. I like companies where I can set my own path, have a lot of opportunity to innovate, decide what I’m going to do and have a lot of variety in my work. I want to be able to have the resources to explore these avenues and contribute to the company’s bottom line. I also want to work for a company that is small enough to be able to respond to changes in the market.

Deen King-Smith: Corporate culture is important. In my first corporate internship, I spent two summers at Goldman Sachs & Co., and the culture was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Just being in an environment where people work hard for eight to 12 hours a day, go out after work to have some fun, go home, sleep and wake up the next morning to do it all over again made a big impression. Goldman was intense. Plus, there was the legacy of one of the oldest and largest investment banks on Wall Street: “We’re the best and we’re the brightest, and this is our passion. This is our legacy. This is what we do.” It was amazing, and I learned a lot.


Justina H. Mikals, 29, a Cleveland native, is set to receive her M.B.A. from Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management in May. Her concentrations have been in global supply chain, manufacturing and technology management. She received her bachelor’s degree from Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, in 2000, where she majored in manufacturing engineering and engineering management. Mikals worked as a training manager/applications engineer at Firestone Industrial Products Co. in Carmel, Indiana, and has completed internships at Cummins Inc. in Columbus, Indiana, and Neaton Auto Products Manufacturing Inc. in Carmel, Indiana.

I spent the last two summers in Seattle working at Microsoft. It’s a huge company nowadays. But it still had some of that Silicon Valley fun in the culture. There’s a soccer field, a football field and a baseball diamond in the middle of the campus. It’s not rare for you to see your manager going out and playing softball during lunch for two hours.

Rachel M. Myers: For me, it’s definitely going to be comfort. I have to feel comfortable in my place of employment and with my employees and my employer in order to do what I think is the best job that I can do. If I’m not comfortable where I’m working, then I won’t be able to perform at my best. I want to feel that I am actually adding something to the company and helping with its goals, along with my goals.

Forward: Why might you select one employer over another?

Carlos A. Kemeny: After a few years of going through the interview process for internships, I gained enough confidence in my abilities to start interviewing employers. I have found the level of sincerity from the interviewers and current employees to be a good indicator of whether I would be happy working for a company.

It becomes apparent who loves their job and who despises it. If a company sends out a passionate interviewer, I get excited about the possibilities of working alongside him or her. On too many occasions, I have been astounded by whom industry-leading companies choose to be their interviewers and representatives at special events.


Shawn Jordan, 28, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana., is a Ph.D. student in engineering education. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical and computer engineering from Purdue University and has held summer internships at Tellabs Inc. in Lisle, Illinois, and Burlington, Massachusetts; Shure Inc. in Niles, Illinois; and Raytheon Co. in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Jordan has received the Magoon Award for Excellence in Teaching and the Graduate Student Award for Outstanding Teaching for his work as a teaching assistant at Purdue. As a freshman, he founded the Purdue Society of Professional Engineers Rube Goldberg team, which went on to win two national championships for the design of complex machines. He has made several television appearances with his team’s Rube Goldberg machines, including two on the Jimmy Kimmel LIVE show on ABC.

On a specific onsite interview with a leading defense company’s leadership development program, interviewers more than voiced their discontent with the [rotational program for new managers]. In a recent exclusive recruiting event, a leading oil company had a representative who was too drunk to be taken seriously. It is without saying that I became so disgusted with these companies that I would not even consider working for them.

Ghazi A. Saleem: It’s not the human resources people that shape my impression of a company. Instead, I consider my peers interviewing with me and the company representatives present during dinners and informal gatherings key measures of how much I will like working for a company. I could potentially be working alongside these people, and if I don’t connect with them, I won’t be too keen on joining the company.

I’m very fortunate in that I had two offers—one from a bank, the other from an aerospace firm. I started looking at the financial services sector because in the book, “The World Is Flat,” [author Thomas L.] Friedman suggests that anybody in the United States who’s in the manufacturing business either should have a unique product or else be prepared to lose their jobs to overseas competitors.

The aerospace industry is very specialized, but eventually people in India and China will catch up. This is a serious consideration for me since I’m looking for long-term stability. I thought, “OK, 10 years down the road, will I be working for the same company, or will my job be outsourced?” For anything that is made in the United States, people overseas are getting better at producing it cheaply. So I guess manufacturing jobs are gradually going away, and it’s a major dilemma facing people who are passionate about working in the manufacturing sector.

Forward: Is the metals industry on your radar at all?

Kemeny: It’s definitely not the first thing that comes to mind, to be honest. But whatever is intriguing and has promise would be of interest to me. So if the right opportunity to work with a great group of people comes up, I would not be opposed to that.


Ghazi A. Saleem, 37, a native of Pakistan, is slated to receive his M.B.A. from Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management in May. His concentration has been in operations and technology management. He received his bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering in 1992 from the U.S. Air Force Academy, where he received a Department of Defense scholarship. Saleem speaks four languages. He worked for the Pakistan Air Force as a technical data analyst and then later worked as team leader on an engine project at Pratt & Whitney in East Hartford, Connecticut. He has worked as an intern in the global product development group at Dell Inc. in Round Rock, Texas. 

Saleem: I’m not opposed to it. Ryerson Steel came to recruit on campus, and I was very fortunate to be given a job offer. It was not on my radar at all. But the Ryerson representatives at the company presentation were so passionate that I thought, “You know, this sounds interesting and something I might like doing.”

I was interviewed by the CEO for the position, which was very flattering. It’s not every day that you get to meet the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Eventually, I decided not to go with Ryerson because with an aerospace background, I thought I might not add as much value to that company as I would have liked. But the people were awesome. I cannot say enough good things about them.

[Chicago-based Ryerson in 1995 started a program to recruit students with high potential, says William Korda, vice president of human resources. Two or three graduates are hired each year and trained so that they can compete for a general manager position within four to five years. The distributor targets the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business; the University of Wisconsin–Madison, School of Business; and Purdue’s Krannert School of Management. While it is unusual for CEOs to be involved in the hiring process, particularly early-round interviews, CEO Neil Novich is the presenter at most campus functions, is involved with recruits and approves each promotion, Korda says.]

Jordan: A well-structured public relations campaign from the metals industry could help educate people on what opportunities are available to new graduates.

Forward: What industries seem the most appealing to you, and why?

Myers: I definitely want to start in construction. I am fascinated by structures such as the Golden Gate Bridge, the Eiffel Tower and the U.S. interstate road system. I like that the industry is hands-on. I prefer to be on-site while the construction is going on, instead of being in an office all day. Eventually, I want my own construction company.

Jordan: The consumer product design, telecommunications, computer and audio industries seem most exciting to me because of their strong focus on brightening the future with technology.

Justina H. Mikals: I was looking to get into a company that was developing new products for the future—not just a commodity-type business, but something that was very innovative, coming up with new ideas, things that you haven’t thought of yet. [Mikals recently accepted a position at Waltham, Massachusetts-based Raytheon Co., where she will begin in a two-year leadership development program in the supply chain field.]


Rachel M. Myers, 21, who was raised in Cleveland, is a Purdue senior scheduled to graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in construction engineering and management. After graduation, Myers plans to pursue a graduate degree in civil engineering at Purdue’s College of Engineering and then a career in construction. During college, she held two internships at Messer Construction Co. in Cincinnati. She is president of the Purdue Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers and a member of the Construction Engineers of the Future. She also is involved with Purdue programs aimed at recruiting and retaining minority students and women in engineering programs.

King-Smith: I’m leaning toward working at a consulting firm like McKinsey & Co. and focusing on high-level strategic problems at different companies and advising them on how they can leverage technology. For example, if a company wanted to move into the VoIP [Voice over Internet Protocol] sector, which is currently dominated in the consumer market by Vonage [Holdings Corp.] and [Ebay’s] Skype, I could take a critical look at that industry and say, “This is what has worked in the past for these companies, these are what your assets are, this is where you can add value, and this is where you can differentiate yourself from the market and possibly make an impact.” I like the strategy piece of it.

Forward: How important are considerations such as pay, benefits and the opportunity to advance?

Saleem: Money is important, but it’s not my determining criteria. I’m also not too focused on location or other issues like fringe benefits. I want to work at a place where I can add value and be recognized for what I’m doing.

Myers: Pay and benefits are important. Paying the bills is an important part of life. However, if I’m doing something I’m passionate about and I love, I would ultimately do it for free if I had to because I love doing it. I don’t really want to be stuck in a dead-end job where I feel like I’m going nowhere. Therefore, I want to be a viable part of the company and feel like I’m giving something to the company. So I would like to be able to advance.

King-Smith: As far as opportunities for advancement, that’s important. I don’t want to be stuck doing the same thing all my life or at the same position for an extended period of time at a firm. I can’t say that it’s a dealmaker or a deal-breaker unless it’s something that’s overtly obvious. That’s a judgment I’d have to make after I get there and work for six months to a year.

After you get there, I feel a lot of it comes down to who you report to directly. If that person is a champion of your work, then you’re going to move up. If he or she is not, and he or she is not giving you the support you should be getting, then that itself may become an issue.

Forward: How important is a company’s policy on work-life flexibility, and do you think you’ll be able to achieve a satisfying work-life balance?


Carlos A. Kemeny, 24, who was born in Brazil and raised in South Bend, Indiana, expects to attend Purdue’s Krannert School of Management following completion of his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in May. He will concentrate on entrepreneurship and general management. Kemeny has interned at Air Products and Chemicals Inc. in Santa Clara, California; Purdue University’s Office of Technology of Commercial- ization; and a patent law firm in Salt Lake City. Currently, he is researching global engineering ethics at the School of Engineering Education at Purdue. Kemeny runs marathons, is a violinist and serves as the concertmaster for the Purdue Symphony Orchestra.

Jordan: I think that a lot of the industries I’m looking at right now realize that people need flexibility, and that’s just a given. Many companies are saying, “As long as you’re getting your work done, we really don’t care when you come in—as long as you’re here for your meetings and you finish what you need to get done.” I think that shows a company respects its employees and that the company realizes its employees can make smart decisions when managing their own time. They are adults.

Mikals: My first full-time job was as an applications engineer at Firestone Industrial Products in Carmel, Indiana. After a year on the job, I asked for a two-hour lunch flex-time option. No one else in my office used this type of flex-time option for regular work hours, but it worked well for me. My two dogs were puppies and could not be left alone for long periods of time. This allowed me to take care of them and also put in extra hours if needed because I was not in a rush to get home at the end of the day. My boss was understanding of my request, and as long as I put in my hours and got my work done, he didn’t see any problem with it.

Last summer, I had an internship at Cummins in Columbus, Indiana. The first day on the job, my manager asked me what hours I preferred to work. At the time, my husband and I lived in an Indianapolis suburb. For the summer, I rented an apartment in Columbus to save on commute time, but I would drive back home to Indianapolis on weekends. I asked to work 9 hours a day Monday through Thursday and leave at lunchtime on Friday to beat rush-hour traffic to Indianapolis.

A big attraction for me at Raytheon is its flex-time program. Depending on your manager’s approval, it is possible to schedule your hours over two weeks so that every other Friday is paid time-off.

King-Smith: One thing I really liked about Microsoft was that I didn’t have to be at work at 9 in the morning. I enjoy going to work out in the morning. If I didn’t have any [early] meetings, I could come in at 10 a.m., do my work the rest of the day and leave when I finished it all. It wasn’t about appearances. It was more about getting your work done—however made sense for you.

Forward: Do you think it will be difficult to find the right job, or do you think you’ll be in a position to pick your spot?

Kemeny: I’m the type that likes to open as many doors and opportunities as possible. When the decisions have to be made, I’ll logically decide what the good choices are and compare them to my goals. I’ll actually pray about them, as religion plays a tremendous role in my life.

With that said, my father always taught me to reach for the stars. I’ve had many disappointments from rejection letters sent by companies and schools. But I’ve also felt successful as I have learned from each of these experiences. As a student of these experiences, I know that I will be able to pick the perfect job. Whether that means working for a large corporation or possibly even starting up my own business, I believe that I will be led to the right opportunities and to the right people when the time comes.

The Purdue students were interviewed in January by Judith Crown, senior editor of Forward magazine.