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Originally published Saturday, October 10, 2009 at 12:20 AM

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Colleges reach out to older, jobless alumni

Institutions of higher education have broadened services for graduates looking to find or change jobs because of the economic downturn, offering networking events, Web-career resources and professional-development workshops in exchange for long-term loyalty.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Life was mostly smooth after Angela Spykerman earned her architecture degree from the University of Notre Dame in 2001. But two years ago, the development company where she worked in Chicago succumbed to souring economic conditions, and she was laid off.

"I remember being scared," said Spykerman, who has since moved to Seattle. "You get into a daily routine, that security of having a job. Then, it's like, 'What am I going to get up in the morning and do? What's going to become of me?' "

Two jobs and another layoff later, Spykerman, 32, turned to her alma mater for job-search assistance, attending a recent "career resource night" sponsored by the Notre Dame Club of Greater Seattle.

Mindful of the unemployment and uncertainty of an economic downturn, universities, colleges and community colleges across the country have expanded services for thousands of older alumni similarly thrust into the job hunt. Their efforts are as much an investment in long-term loyalty as they are about creating community.

Through career centers, alumni groups and satellite clubs, schools are offering more networking events, professional-development workshops and seminars. They're bolstering Web resources and making sure prospective employers come looking to fill for more than entry-level positions.

And they're raising their online social-media profiles on Facebook, Twitter and career-oriented LinkedIn, which offers the chance to join networks, post detailed profiles and make connections through third parties. Washington State University's alumni network on LinkedIn has grown to 7,200, up from 2,600 last year. "That's where we've seen an increase in more established individuals," said Tim Pavish, WSU's executive director of alumni relations.

The past 18 months also have seen rocketing interest in groups such as Cougar Business Network, where WSU alumni can register businesses they own or manage. Seattle University now offers weekly group career-counseling sessions, formerly by appointment only.

And Notre Dame's local alumni club has launched separate networking groups for business-school alumni and local lawyers who are university graduates.

Last month's career-resource night featured representatives from local companies such as Starbucks, Microsoft and Amazon offering job-hunt advice as well as a session about the school's revamped online career site, which offers its 123,000 alumni one-stop shopping for professional resources.

Spykerman had attended club game-watches and happy hours, but otherwise she didn't have much of a relationship with the university before being laid off.

"Before it happened, I never thought, 'They should be helping us,' " she said. "But when it did happen, it didn't surprise me that they were there."

"A bit more complex"

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For older alumni, an unstable economy has prompted feelings of worry and helplessness as whole industries shrivel and others reinvent themselves.

"We have people coming in who worked at jobs for 20-some years, wondering if they need to go in another direction," said Linda Nolte, office manager of Seattle Pacific University's alumni center.

Mortgages and families present a different set of challenges than with newer grads, whose career options are more flexible. "When we meet with older alumni, it immediately becomes a bit more complex," said Daniel Pascoe, executive director of Seattle University's career-services office.

Counselors help them navigate the prospects of career redefinition and possible feelings of fear and betrayal.

"We work around personal issues that can get in the way of a job search," said Jacqui Smith-Bates, of SPU's Center for Career and Calling. "[Counselors] say, 'Your anger is speaking so loudly to me, I can't hear anything you're saying.' We give them feedback on how they're presenting."

Some schools, including WSU and the University of Washington, contract with professional services such as North 40 Network, an Alameda, Calif.-based service targeting alumni age 40 and older.

Institutions of higher education see lasting benefits to re-establishing alumni ties. "Offering career support to students and alumni is the single most effective way to build lifelong connection to the university," said Sia Apostolakis, of Northwestern University's alumni office. Over time, she said, that translates into a stronger school community as well as increased pride and alumni donations.

For Notre Dame grad Spykerman, the payoff is more immediate. After losing her job in Chicago two years ago, she moved here in early 2008. Eventually, she parlayed her interior-design experience into a job as a sales consultant for the downtown Seattle office of Waterworks, a national merchant of high-end bathroom fixtures.

Things were rolling, she said, even as she noticed ever more updates among Facebook friends lamenting lost work and relocation. But one month of high sales was followed by two slow months, and in May, her boss got a phone call: Waterworks was consolidating and closing its Seattle operations.

The design-consulting business she's started has been slow-going, so she took notice of last month's career event. Along with two potential job leads, "the biggest thing I took away from it was to get my LinkedIn profile updated," she said. "I had no idea how many people were using that as a tool."

That's the kind of result that pleases career centers and alumni offices.

"We want the degree that someone earns from WSU to continue to deliver benefits to people throughout their lives," WSU's Pavish said. "... We don't want it to be a place where you come for four years, get your degree and never look back."

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

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