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Counselors’ Challenge to Place Students in the Workforce

Marisa Materna looks into the little known career and role of school career counselors, guardian angels who must summon up their marketing and publicity savvy and be a strong networking agent to shepherd students into the working world.

Nellie Tehrani is a career advisor at the The Art Institute of California Los Angeles for students seeking animation jobs.

After four long years of exams, planning your graduation thesis, drawing classes that leave you with charcoal stained fingers, bloodshot eyes from late nights in front of the computer, damaged disks, blood, sweat and tears now comes the hard part going out and finding a job! This is the time of year, when students begin the worrying, hand-wringing process of putting their knowledge and talents to use out in the world and this can seem like a daunting task. But there is someone whose sole purpose is to create these opportunities and guide their flock to the promised land. That angel is the career counselor.

Most art, animation or film schools have career services centers to help their students with placement in the industry of their choice. Whether through an internship, full-time job or just an interview, these counselors can be the best cheerleader and resource for a graduating student. But what exactly does it take to be one of these guardian angels, and how do they connect with the industry, especially when the industry is in perhaps a slower period.

As a former animation studio recruiter myself, I dealt with many of these counselors, so I went on the trek to learn more about these guides and find out just exactly what it is like to be one of them.

Art Institute of Seattle, devotes six months to each graduate, helping to craft résumés, reels and cover letters.

You Make it Happen

Career counselors take on the enormous task of placing their students into the workforce. The Art Institute system, for example, graduates students every three months so there is a constant influx of students that come through the career center throughout the year. The counselor will begin the process by meeting each student, discussing their goals and learning more about their background. Art Institute advisors begin working with the student in their last quarter before graduation. Scott MacIntire, career counselor at the Art Institute of Seattle says, We advise them on résumé preparation, creating wish lists, cover letters, and interviews. Once a class has graduated, we work diligently with them for six months doing everything we can to help them find work.

Tim Leborgne of The Animation Workshop in Denmark exposes his students work to professionals at the annual Annecy festival.

Other schools, such as the School of Visual Arts in New York City, have their counselors partner with several instructors and, during the first week of classes, they will go to the classroom to give workshops covering topics such as résumé and portfolio preparation. Leslie Hammond of the School of Visual Arts said they also offer a series of career development programs every semester that include studio visits, alumni panels and job searching tools.

Rose Duignan, director of industry relations & career development at Expression College in Oakland, California, sees students as early as six months before graduation. She will work with them over this period getting to know their talent and skill set, assess what makes them unique and what will help their résumé or reel leap to the top of the stack.

They advise on issues as simple as how to dress for an interview and even calling them the day before to remind them of the interview or to the more delicate and strategic such as guiding a less skilled animator dreaming of Hollywood to pursue other alternatives more suited to his or her talents.

All in a days work say most. Many career services advisors usually have some sort of counseling, headhunting or recruiting background. Strong customer service and sales related experience can be very useful as well. An art background is helpful particularly one appropriate to the major area of study of the students (such as Duignan, who has more than 20 years experience in the visual effects industry), but it is not always required.

At the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York, counselors get students to think about portfolios and résumés early in the academic year.

Ups and Downs

One of the biggest challenges the counselors confront is adjusting to the changing face of the industry. Certainly, technology has been the biggest change over the years. And has this had a negative effect on their progress?

Actually, the 3D students have an amazing array of companies to choose from in the world, with so many new small and medium 3D animation and gaming companies, replied Tim Leborgne from The Animation Workshop in Denmark.

Marc Scoleri, Art Institute of Philadelphia agrees, There are new opportunities in the field of 3D modeling, Flash animation and motion graphics everyday, however most of them never make it to the job seeker through the Internet, newspaper or employment agencies. These are the jobs that are found through referral and internships.

This is where the career counselors networking and marketing skills get a workout. It is more crucial than ever to develop networks with companies, studios and organizations. Creating long term relationships can protect students from being affected by any downturn in the industry. Scoleri says, I tend to look at what the industry calls a slow down as a shift in needs. Helping the student concentrate on the opportunities and not on the negative becomes the focus of these counselors. He continues, I believe in finding target companies and pursuing them no matter what the industry is dictating. Eventually you will meet or talk to a person that can help you get into the field in either a freelance or permanent basis.

Marc Scoleri of the Art Institute of Philadelphia finds that most jobs in the new fields of 3D modeling, Flash animation and motion graphics are found through referrals and internships.

We are constantly contacting local employers, inviting them to our portfolio presentations, says MacIntire. The key is keeping your ear to the ground so-to-speak so you know what is happening and building those long term relationships with employers so they can keep you updated.

Many career counselors, themselves, join industry organizations and societies and volunteer at events that increase their own opportunities to network and make new contacts.

Among these strategies, comes another unique challenge: reminding the students that the animation industry is about more than just videogames and cartoons. Its important to realize that there are a variety of opportunities available that will welcome skills and talents in art and animation such as commercials (particularly boutique and local studios), scientific visualization, healthcare, visual effects, live-action storyboarding, and even government and military operations.

Duignan agrees, Get creative! Right now Im working with NASA on a project that involves our students and faculty members participation. I look outside the entertainment industry for visual media opportunities in scientific imaging, architectural modeling and such. We also developed an in-house Real World program with local studios such as Pixar and ILM that utilize our students with projects such as PSAs and title sequences.

Similarly, Red Giant is an in-house production studio at the Art Institute of Los Angeles in Santa Monica. This helps students get real life experience while at school, explains Nellie Tehrani, one of the career advisors at The Art Institute of California Los Angeles They work on real projects from companies who bring them to us and get to work in a fast paced environment with real deadlines to meet. Its a great experience for our students.

European schools such as The Animation Workshop in Denmark would rather its graduates stay on the continent than flock to the U.S. for jobs.

Bringing the Outside World In

One of the most effective tools a counselor can use is to create opportunities for studios and companies to see their students work. Leborgne from Denmark, is fortunate to be able to take his students to one the largest international animation film festival in the world, Annecy in France. Here, his students will be able to rub elbows with legendary animators, connect with companies and studios from around the world and network with recruiters as well as other artists like themselves.

There are plenty of similar events in the U.S. and Canada that advisors and students can attend. Festivals and trade shows such as Visual Effects Society Festival (June 18-20), SIGGRAPH (Aug 12-14) or the Ottawa Animation Festival (Sept. 22-25) offer many opportunities for students to network, learn about the industry and search for employment.

Bringing the world to them, through career fairs, portfolio reviews, graduation screenings and recruiter speaking visits create exposure for the student to have their work seen and perhaps meet the principals of a particular studio.

Leslie Hammond of SVA finds that there are less studio recruiters these days and that its harder for east coast graduates to get noticed by California companies. Photo credit: Malcolm Lightner.

Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida has had tremendous success bringing studios to their schools. Phyllis Schaen, director of career services at Ringling said, This year alone, they had visits from ILM, DreamWorks, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Electronic Arts, Rhythm & Hues and Blue Sky. Often, we were the only school they visit outside of the California pool. She attributes this not only to the quality of their students and program, but that she and her assistant director have been working hard to develop these relationships with studio recruiters for more than a decade.

Students in Europe have had the distinct advantage of close proximity to festivals such as Annecy, but they tend to still look to the U.S. for the job of their dreams. Leborgne admits they would prefer these students to stay in Europe and contribute to the growing industry there. Our goal is to provide the European animation industry with the best possible talents. And we hope to keep those talents within Europe, to feed our intensely active and evolving multi-national industry. But we are also aware that an experience at a high end studio in the U.S. or Canada or Australia can provide our students with invaluable know-how and expertise.

In the United States, career counselors face unique challenges of their own. SVAs Hammond says that the biggest difference shes seen in the industry is that there are definitely fewer studio recruiters and particularly fewer California based recruiters who are willing to visit the east coast. Weve taken a more proactive approach in marketing our services to employers via promotional materials, solicitation, etc, she says.

The student should also take responsibility in this process and, as a team, the student and counselor can create tremendous opportunities. We encourage the students to generate a list of companies that we can contact together, says Scoleri. I role-play with them on how to make a professional call to a company in order to sell their skills.

Although many career counselors are required to make certain placement goals that are set for them by their institutions, they all state a genuine concern and enjoyment of helping these students pursue their dreams. I think you need to love the students first. Otherwise, why bother? I find it incredibly satisfying to encourage the talent and work ethic that will help these young people succeed, states Duignan.

Certainly setting placement goals creates incentive and accountability and, of course, a high placement rate of students, ultimately helps enhance the schools reputation to generate new admissions. Thus, these career counselors have become an important and strong marketing tool for the schools and this position is no longer simply a guidance counselor.

They are an advocate, a coach, a trusted mentor that utilizes marketing and publicity savvy as well as their ability as a strong networking agent to shepherd these students into the working world.

Students who take the most advantage of the knowledge given to them by their counselors and make efforts to improve their reels, ask questions and learn about the industry will have an edge in this competitive market. Duignan says, The door is always open and the ones that are smart and aggressive know how to utilize our services.

Make use of the services available on campus and the wisdom and connections of these guardian angels, whose job is to help in any way they can to make your dreams come true.

Marisa Materna has worked in the animation industry for more than seven years. Most recently the director of communications and studio relations at Klasky Csupo, she also recruited artists for the studio after two seasons as festival coordinator for the World Animation Celebration. She now consults on animation film festivals and projects across America. Marisa is a life-long world traveler and, as a self-professed festival queen, she is an independent animation film festival fan and advocate.