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Northland-area schools placing students into jobs before graduation

Second-year physical therapy students Carolyn Despot (from left), Amber Kantor and Alyssa Schroeder take notes during a lecture portion of their Thursday afternoon class at the College of St. Scholastica. In the background, spine models hang on a utility board. The physical therapy program at St. Scholastica claims a 100 percent job-placement rate. (Amanda Hansmeyer/Duluth News Tribune)

DULUTH - Dayn Besel has a year left in his physical therapy program at the College of St. Scholastica, but he already has a job waiting for him after graduation.

At St. Scholastica, 100 percent of physical therapy students get jobs in their field. It's among a handful of programs at area colleges and universities with high job-placement rates, even in these trying economic times.

For the rest -- even some students in programs with traditionally high placement rates such as engineering and accounting -- the outlook is tougher, said Julie Westlund, director of career services at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She has heard a couple of tales of reneged and postponed job offers.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, job prospects for the class of 2009 are flat. The list of majors and programs that almost guarantee a job is increasingly short, but they do exist.

The most in-demand majors, according to the association, are accounting, mechanical and electrical engineering, computer science, business administration, economics and finance, information systems, computer engineering, management information systems and marketing.

Locally, the quickest employment routes through community and technical schools are niche programs such as phlebotomy, hemodialysis and welding. At four-year schools, environmental, health care, engineering and transportation-related majors are good bets and will continue to be, several people interviewed for this story agreed.

The number of environmental sustainability jobs has doubled in the past year, said Clare Hintz, campus sustainability coordinator at Northland College in Ashland.

"It's moving so fast we don't have names for these jobs yet," she said.

Students who graduate with sustainable business and environmental science majors are highly sought after, she said, because they're poised to help companies become more efficient and environmentally responsible -- a growing trend in business.

Northland College has restructured its curriculum so that, starting next year, all programs will have an environmental focus and students can leave college prepared for several kinds of jobs.

"As a society we can no longer afford to work in ivory towers of this discipline or that discipline," Hintz said.

Chris Markwood, provost of the University of Wisconsin-Superior, said employers are looking for skills that can be applied to a variety of jobs. UWS advises students to be broadly educated and not pigeon-hole themselves into one area.

Landing a job this year might mean casting a wider search net and moving to an area where there is job growth, Markwood said.

Job searches will be more challenging than ever, UMD's Westlund agreed.

"Students will have to work harder to sell themselves," she said. "It's more than a specific major; it's a skill set they can bring," including those for oral presentation, a strong work ethic and writing skills.

At UWS, the transportation and logistics management program has a 95 percent job-placement rate. The 10-year-old program supplies transportation managers to replace an aging work force at trucking companies, government agencies, warehouses and big-box stores, said Richard Stewart, director of the program's research center and a professor in the program.

"There's very little in the world you can do without transportation," he said, and global trade won't stop because of a recession. "We are the great hidden empire."

At St. Scholastica, business management, health-care programs and computer science have high placement rates. Physical therapy jobs are available even during a recession, said Denise Wise, chairwoman of the school's program.

"Physical therapists are effective in getting people back to work and back to society," she said, making it a service that's more readily reimbursed by health-care providers than some others.

Health-care careers are in demand in some geographic areas more than others, said Cathy Richards, director of career services at St. Scholastica.

"It depends on the candidates -- if they are willing to relocate, any student is going to get hired," Richards said. "What varies is how long the job search is going to be. Some students could take four months to find a job because they are maybe not as thorough. That's why it's important in a hard economy to network."