Startup helps new college grads prep for that first real job

  • TECH
  • Saturday, 27 Sep 2014

TRYING FOR A JOB: New Western Washington University graduate Ian Harvey, left, listens as Koru co-founder Josh Jarrett, center, critiques Harvey and the rest of his team's dry run of presentations they will do for potential employers.

After Ian Harvey graduated from Western Washington University this summer, he was unsure just how to land his first job in his field of communications.

Sending out resumes seemed like an exercise in futility, and Harvey didn't know how to get his foot in the door at one of Seattle's fast-growing tech companies, where he hoped to work.

Over the past year, he and hundreds of other recent graduates have paid US$2,750 (RM8,980) for a four-week training program at a Seattle startup called Koru.

The program aims to put the polish on their resume, give them a crash course in business skills and provide a tough-love assessment of their networking instincts.

A growing list of colleges and universities are partnering with Koru to help prep recent graduates and current students for the working world.

The list includes two Washington schools - Washington State University and Whitman College - and nearly a dozen schools around the country, including Vassar, Brown, Pomona, Williams and Occidental, and the University of Southern California.

Koru also works with students from other colleges and has programs in San Francisco and Boston.

It is one of several companies trying to bridge a gap between the know-how that fast-growing tech businesses are seeking and the skills students learn in college, said Tony Wagner, a Koru partner, author and expert-in-residence at Harvard University's Innovation Lab.

"There is a growing mismatch between what kids have to do to get a degree versus the skills they need in today's innovation economy," Wagner said.

Founders Kristen Hamilton and Josh Jarrett say their company offers more than a simple prep course for the business world. They hope to influence what colleges themselves teach their students.

"Somehow, the system is failing graduates," said Hamilton, the chief executive officer, as she reeled off millennial statistics: 50% or more are underemployed or unemployed, yet the average student debt for college grads is now more than US$29,000 (RM95,000) per borrower.

Koru appears to be the only such company in Seattle, but at least a few others nationwide are offering similar so-called "bridge programs."

For example, Fullbridge, a Cambridge, Mass., company, offers month-long business-training programs to new graduates at five locations, including Los Angeles.

Koru says 90% of its participants get jobs that require a college degree after they finish the program. Nationally, that's true of only about 44% of recent college grads.

Whitman College partnered with Koru because getting students ready for the business world is not part of the liberal-arts college's focus, said Kimberly Rolfe, the school's director for business engagement. "Everything here is broad learning _ we focus on communications skills, collaboration, asking questions," Rolfe said.

Yet for students who are on certain career paths, Koru is a big help, she said. The program is good for "students who are a little bit gritty, want to get in there and make something happen, but may not have all of the resources and network in place," Rolfe said.

During the program, students are given a business problem and work in teams to come up with a solution. It's not theoretical, the problem is real, and when they're done, they'll present their solution to the employer.

For example, one group had to come up with ways to boost the visibility of a local foundation for a Seattle digital-marketing company.

"It's a short amount of time, and a lot to learn," said Harvey, the Western grad. "But that, in and of itself, is an element of business."

Is Koru just helping the well-heeled student gain even more of an advantage in the job market? Its founders say it isn't.

Only about a fourth of applicants are selected. Co-founder Josh Jarrett said the program has rejected applicants from prestigious schools like Stanford and taken students from smaller schools like Eastern Washington University.

About a third of students get some form of financial assistance, often from their schools, to defray the cost of the program.
Jarrett thinks Koru's success doesn't argue against the need for a good liberal-arts education.

Colleges should teach a foundation of learning that will allow students to adapt to changes in the workforce over 20 years, he said. Yet employers often want students to have very specific skills that can be used immediately in the workplace.

"If you have one skill, and the economy of the world changes, you're out of luck," Jarrett said.

The Koru coaches do something else that colleges don't do: They give grads a very blunt, direct assessment of their skills _ and their weaknesses.

During one dry run of a business presentation, the coaches offered specific advice to four students about how they had just performed.
Slow down, one coach said. You're too cocky, displaying too much ego.

You're using too much hand-waving _ or not enough. Your body language is wrong. You're jumping to conclusions too quickly. And your presentation doesn't tell the viewer how you are going to measure success.

"This is real world, man," said Ben Richardson, a Koru coach and vice president of employer engagement. "You will have to give presentations wherever you go."— McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
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