FARMINGTON — When Chris McKee graduated with a degree in business and economics from the University of Maine at Farmington in 1992, finding a job was starting to get tough.

“It was certainly challenging. Over the last 20 to 25 years, when has it been good?,” asked the vice president of corporate programs at Geiger, a promotional marketing firm based in Lewiston.

“There are jobs in certain industries and new jobs coming … a fair number of opportunities,” he said of the current work environment in Maine, but it’s one where competition is high. It includes the challenge of competing with experienced workers, sometimes ones overqualified for the position.

McKee and other business leaders, mostly UMF alumni, recently participated in a program meant to give UMF students a sense of what to expect while helping them prepare for the transition from college to careers.

Held annually for the past six years, the College to Corporate symposium featured a panel discussion followed by an opportunity for students to network, dine and ask questions of the businessmen, one on one.

“This event offers our students a great opportunity to discuss some real-world career issues with Maine business leaders, many of whom have graduated from UMF,” Stephen Davis, UMF career counselor, said in a release.

McKee was joined by Sven Bartholomew, UMF Class of 2002, vice president, Bangor Savings Bank; Dana Bullen, Class of 1987, president and managing director of Sunday River Ski Area; Natasha Erb, ’98, assistant controller at Franklin Memorial Hospital; and Michael Duguay, director of developmental services, city of Augusta.

McKee’s first job out of college was in a bank in South Carolina. Growing up in central Maine, he thought banking was what he wanted to do. He found it’s not about learning what you want to do but more about what you don’t want to do.

When he started at Geiger’s, it wasn’t as vice president. He worked in a company call center. Bartholomew started in a mail room. Bullen worked in a rental shop at Sugarloaf ski resort in Carrabassett Valley, he said.

Each shared how they got their foot in the door of their respective companies and how they worked hard to do what needed to be done, he said.

“Whatever your job or career plans, plan on working very hard,” he advised. “You have to be willing to work, not just land the job.”

One thing he has noticed about successful people is their writing skills. Many business people were English majors, he said. More education, throughout one’s career, is another key to success.

As a member of UMF’s alumni committee, McKee said the committee has explored ideas for more formalized intern programs and ways for business leaders to mentor students.

Although the reality is young graduates will have to go where the jobs are for now, many want to come back and raise their families in Maine. Many out-of-state students want to stay, he said.

From his position at Geiger over the past 16 years, he has considered what internships could be offered that would add value to the experience of both the student and company. The state and business community need to do more to keep them here, engage them and support their innovative ideas to start businesses, he said.

McKee, now of Wayne, was impressed with the students’ ability to meet new people, network and ask questions. The panelists were peppered with questions, he said. He was also able to question them and learn about the options for study students have that weren’t available when he was in college, he said.

He credited Davis, moderator Jennifer Eriksen, UMF director of alumni relations who acted as moderator, and the business department faculty for the organization of the symposium and the opportunity it provided for students.

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