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Fields of dreams

Higher education’s stability, perks can provide an attractive lure

By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / May 8, 2011

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After 27 years in the boom-and-bust world of financial services, Suzanne Cuccurullo was ready for something more stable following her layoff from Fidelity Investments during the Wall Street meltdown of 2008. She set her sights on higher education.

“I looked and said, ‘What are the growth industries?’ ’’ recalled Cuccurullo, a former vice president of marketing at the Boston mutual fund giant. “It’s not like Harvard is going to pick up and go somewhere. It’s here to stay.’’

That decision set Cuccurullo on a yearlong campaign to revamp her re sume, skills, and outlook, an odyssey that included circulating a white paper on trends in higher education and establishing a Twitter account focused on the field. It required extensive research and networking. And it demanded that she understand a workplace culture far different from the corporate world.

“I also needed to absorb their language, their concerns,’’ she said, “and make sure my skills could address them.’’

Higher education is one of the state’s largest, steadiest, and most desirable employment sectors, known for great benefits, stimulating atmosphere, and job security. While the industry experienced hiring freezes and layoffs during the worst of the recent recession, it has since rebounded, adding nearly 6,000 jobs since June, according to state statistics.

Higher education offers opportunities for a wide variety of occupations and skills, many transferable from other industries. In addition to professors with PhDs, colleges and universities need financial aid counselors, fund-raisers, and facilities managers, to name a few.

Richard Doherty, president and chief executive of the industry group Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, said colleges and universities are particularly open to bringing in skills, expertise, and perspectives from the outside.

“The essence of higher education is to build and leverage talent, and to attract talent,’’ he said.

Cuccurullo began her search for a new career with a whirlwind of networking, meeting 60 people across 35 institutions, not only to build connections, but also to learn about the industry. She retooled her resume, highlighting her marketing experience, but removing corporate jargon such as “B-to-C,’’ short for business to consumer. She also emphasized activities that she wouldn’t have included for a corporate job, such as work done with an alumni group from her alma mater, Cornell University.

Cuccurullo also had to adapt to a far different interview process. In the business world, Cuccurullo said, she typically had one-on-one interviews. For higher education openings, she interviewed with hiring committees of up to a dozen members.

“It’s unnerving, because everybody has a different expectation of what they want you to do,’’ she said. “I wanted to make sure the answer that I provided was sufficient for all of them.’’

Accepting and adapting to cultural differences are among the greatest challenges facing workers moving from the business to the academic world. For example, while corporate structures tend to be hierarchical, with decision-making powers vested in single individuals, colleges and universities run more on consensus, often developed in sprawling committees.

“If you come in with a corporate approach, there will be challenges,’’ said Alexa Jackson, a human resources associate vice president at Emerson College. “For any professional who has the ability to be flexible, I think higher education is a really great opportunity.’’

After a year of aggressive job hunting, Cuccurullo finally got an offer from Bentley University to become executive director of admissions and marketing. At the same time, however, she was also in the running for a job at a financial services company. She had to decide whether she really wanted to change her career path.

In favor of the new job were perks like tuition reimbursement and a generous retirement plan. A downside was a steep pay cut — up to 50 percent less than her best years at Fidelity.

There was also another question nagging Cuccurullo: “What if I can’t do this?’’

“It was an unknown,’’ she said. “What if I fail? Then I’m that much older, and I have to get back into financial services. It was a little bit of a risk. It was safer to do something I’d done already.’’

Ultimately, Cuccurullo decided to accept the job at Bentley. Cuccurullo, who has college-age children, said she enjoys the challenge of marketing to a younger generation. She also enjoys a particular challenge of college admissions: Once a class is selected, the whole process starts from scratch. There are no repeat customers.

“I have never been happier,’’ she said. “I’m learning new things that I didn’t know. Who gets to learn something new at this point in their career? I feel good about that. I’ve found my passion for what I’m doing again.’’

Types of jobs: Administrative and support positions, faculty, admissions officer, financial aid counselor, finance manager, facilities managers, fund-raisers, marketing, communications, information technology.

Skills needed: Many jobs require college and advanced degrees. Highly valued are communications skills, teamwork, and ability to work across various disciplines.

Training resources: Boston College master’s program in higher education; Northeastern University graduate certificate program in higher education administration.

Online resources: insidehighered.com, for Inside Higher Ed, a news site; chronicle.com, for Chronicle of Higher Education; NewEnglandHERC.org for New England Higher Education Recruiting Consortium.