Preparing Students for Their First Job: Two Top Five’s

By Bill Galvin, MEd, RRT, FAARC

Bill GalvinBill Galvin

The respiratory care textbooks have been closed, final exams administered, and grades submitted. We have even seen the ritual of parading across the stage at commencement to receive that cherished and valued “piece of paper” — the sheepskin symbolizing the attainment of a degree in respiratory care.

With graduation comes the time for two key events to take place in the life of the newly minted RT: first, sitting the credentialing examinations and second, securing meaningful employment.

While the first event is quite nerve racking and a topic unto itself, it is this second event that can induce pressure and anxiety and pose considerable challenge. After all, one of the major goals has always been to find one’s niche in life, master it, and then practice it in service to others (in our case, to the respiratory-impaired).

Top five list for students

How can students prepare for that seemingly elusive first job? The job market is not only competitive between graduates but also scarce in terms of the number of available positions. Today’s graduate must be prepared with the skills and knowhow to make an impression and compete in a highly competitive health care industry.

While there are numerous publications with a myriad of advice, the top five things graduates can do are:

  1. Research the institution/department,
  2. Carefully and methodically follow the application process,
  3. Be prompt,
  4. Be polite, and
  5. Dress appropriately for the interview.

Let’s embellish them a bit.

It is imperative that the graduate do a little research and learn as much as possible about the institution. What is its mission? What are its specialty areas? What is the culture and level of professionalism displayed by the staff? What is the perception of the local and national community?

Graduates must also follow the employment process and thoroughly and accurately complete the application and submit all required paperwork. They should be honest and forthright and follow the timelines and reporting requirements outlined in the hospital policy.

Being on time is crucial and one of the first issues identified by the interviewer. Displaying a positive and polite demeanor is crucial too — virtually everyone from secretarial support to the staff is mindful of your presence and likely to be consulted on their opinion of your value and “fit” into the department.

Finally, your outward appearance is your first impression and you only get one, so dress conservatively and maintain a degree of formality during this initial first encounter.

Five things educators should stress

In today’s health care environment, program faculty have a role and a responsibility to play in the preparation of the graduate attempting to secure that first job. They need to assist, advise, and cultivate awareness of employment issues, as well as develop specific skills in securing employment. The impetus behind this is the changing marketplace (the decline in the number of entry level positions and/or the increased competition between graduates), the accreditation requirements for assessing outcomes (regional accreditors and professional accreditors, such as CoARC, demand placement statistics), and finally, the fact that it is simply the right thing to do (assist the new graduate to find meaningful employment).

With this in mind many institutions are incorporating such guidance into their curriculum. They often express their goals as the attainment of an education rich in the liberal disciplines coupled with the development of a caring, compassionate, and competent health care professional. These goals are generally rooted in the university’s mission statement and core values. Thus, from the moment they step foot on campus, students should be informed of the ultimate purpose of their education and that securing meaningful employment is among them.

At the program level, securing employment should be explicitly placed in the curriculum. During the course of the orientation to clinical, students are informed of the criticality of making a good impression. At our institution, our director of clinical education actually informs the students that they are being evaluated by the affiliate hospitals and their clinical staff as potential staff. They are told that the interview process starts from the very day they enter the institution. Affiliate hospitals view their clinical arrangement as an opportunity to get a “sneak preview” of the graduates and begin the weaning and selection process well before graduation even occurs.

Additionally, we developed a module within our respiratory care seminar course that speaks to our employment goal by incorporating a “job search process” formally into our RC curriculum. During the course, students are informed there are a number of key components to this job search process. We specify them as:

  1. Performing a personal needs assessment and inventorying one’s skills, attitudes, and results,
  2. Networking and identifying potential employers,
  3. Composing a position-specific and institution-specific cover letter and resume,
  4. Participating in intensive and thorough interview preparation, and
  5. Engaging in the actual interview and follow-up procedures.

Allow me to briefly discuss these essential elements.

We feel strongly that performing a personal needs assessment is a crucial first step. We are essentially informing the students that they must first know themselves. During the course of the semester they are asked to identify their likes/dislikes and needs/wants, as well as their cognitive, psychomotor, and affective skills and abilities. We also tell them that employment is a two-way street where both parties (employer and employee) must be satisfied.

With this completed we move on to discuss the value and importance of networking and establishing relationships with clinical staff and administrative leaders of the clinical affiliates. We inform them they need to begin thinking about the environment and culture in which they can pursue their immediate and long-terms goals.

We then move on to development of a cover letter and resume. We first ask them to develop a “sloppy copy,” which we use to critique and scrutinize. Ultimately, we provide guidance and direction on how a final version would appear. We often use the resources of the Career Development Office as a way to fine tune the final version.

This is followed by an intensive and thorough interview preparation session where the students are first provided a list of “interview questions” they are required to answer and hand in to the faculty. From there each student is required to respond to a few of the questions publicly in a classroom sharing session. This serves a number of purposes. It allows the students to articulate their responses and creates a somewhat simulated experience as an actual interview. It also provides an opportunity for the entire class to respond, ask questions, and secure feedback and opinion from the faculty member.

The final point is follow up, and here the student is informed of what should be done as a sequel to the interview and the value and importance of a thank you letter and post care of the process.

Plenty of work for both

Unfortunately, navigating the existing health care system for meaningful employment is riddled with complexity — from an inadequate number of positions to multiple mine fields where new graduates can stumble and miss opportunities to adequately express their professional skills and attributes. Students must be willing to prepare for the market, but we feel there is an opportunity for program faculty to assist and mentor student graduates as well. Such opportunities should be actualized.

Bill Galvin is an assistant professor in the Frances M. Maguire School of Nursing and Health Professions and program director for the respiratory care program at Gwynedd Mercy University in Gwynedd Valley, PA.