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Commencing The Career

July/August 2014

By Karla Hignite

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New models for career services help students—from their early days on campus—to work toward the transition from the classroom to the workforce.

How best to integrate career and academic education isn’t a new question, says Marilyn Mackes, executive director of the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). “What’s pushing this to the forefront today is growing external pressure for accountability from a variety of stakeholders and the demand for data about what happens to students once they graduate.” And that leads to another important question, argues Mackes: How are student career services best organized and delivered? 

According to the “NACE 2013–14 Career Services Benchmark Survey for Colleges and Universities,” of 881 institutions responding, 59 percent indicated their career services departments report to student affairs, 19 percent report to academic affairs, and most of the rest report to development or enrollment management. “Does reporting structure make a difference in how well services are integrated or how well the connection is made between work experience and what a student learns? It’s a question worth asking,” argues Mackes. “For institution leaders, understanding and committing to how that intersection takes place is in the best interest of students.” 

That said, there is no one-size-fits-all career services model. The type of institution and student populations served, institution culture, and funding and organizational issues all factor into the particular career services model that works best for any given campus. However, certain trends do provide a glimpse of the general direction of the career services function within higher education. 

For starters, says Mackes, technology is greatly expanding opportunities for service and communication with students and employers. Career services personnel are also looking to get on students’ radar much earlier in their college experience and to keep them engaged through regular messaging about events and career-related opportunities. 

In addition to the more standard fare of services provided (career fairs, on-campus interview programs, career workshops, career assessment tools, and career resources libraries), career center staff are branching out to nurture stronger relations with employers, faculty, and alumni and to use each of these groups in new ways to increase and enhance career development opportunities for students. For instance, a growing number of institutions are creating employer advisory councils to provide input about the kind of skills students need in the workplace, or to have employers offer case-study research for the classroom that provides real-world problem-solving opportunities for students, says Mackes. 

Relationship Management

Kathy Sims can attest to this shift in time and resources toward building stronger employer relations. “All the technology in the world won’t help you cultivate new employer relationships if you don’t spend time on the ground getting to know their needs and demonstrating how your student talent can fill those needs,” says Sims, director of the career center at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). That level of relationship management requires a continuous dedication of staff and resources, and it must take place on all fronts—with students, faculty, and employers, notes Sims. 

Sims has worked in career services for 38 years at four universities, both public and private. “By the time I started in this field, there was already a shift under way from providing placement services to providing career services and development,” says Sims. While internships and co-ops are not new, the level of importance placed on obtaining one has certainly become top-of-mind for students, as work-related experience has evolved from providing a competitive edge to becoming a near necessity for many graduates. 

The model for hiring and recruitment has also changed, notes Sims. “We no longer focus that much on the volume of interviews for full-time employment for outgoing seniors, because so many organizations now source entry-level candidates from the internship programs and campus recruitment events that target students as early as their first year.” 

With increased attention to employer relations, what sometimes gets lost is the role career centers play in helping students who want to continue with their professional studies, says Sims. Regardless of whether students want to continue with their professional studies or seek employment immediately after graduation, it’s an ongoing challenge to convince UCLA’s 42,000 students that they shouldn’t wait until their senior year to visit the center, she says. “We try to worm our way into every orientation and to cultivate strong connections with residence life staff so they remember to integrate us into their programming.”

Funding Models 

The communication challenge for Sims is partly a resource problem. Many career centers at major universities are not funded at the level they should be to really allow staff to serve students, says Sims. In her case the center has a significant number of full-time staff whose incomes she has to generate. Her office does receive a portion of student tuition registration fees, but that doesn’t begin to cover the center’s costs or salaries, she says. UCLA’s center must assess fees for certain services to employers and to alumni. 

In the same way that funding models vary widely from one campus to another, so do funding solutions, notes Sims. Some career centers have been successful acquiring major gifts. Others have sought corporate funding. “There is a perception that because career centers cultivate relationships with employers, we can find a way to fund ourselves,” says Sims. “Not all employers have deep pockets. We also have recruiters from government and nonprofit organizations, and most of the organizations that do recruiting on our campuses have to be as frugal with their resources as we are on our end. To charge fees that are deemed excessive will only jeopardize opportunities for our students.” 

Increased faculty interest in UCLA’s career center gives Sims hope that new funding sources might be emerging for operations on her campus. “Within the past few years several academic departments have asked to collaborate with our center, essentially funding positions to provide focused attention on their students,” explains Sims. For instance, the history department—one of the largest undergraduate programs on UCLA’s campus—proposed a half-time position to provide career counseling for undergraduate history majors. The department is paying the salary for this individual with funding from a private donor. 

In another example, UCLA’s College of Letters and Sciences is funding a full-time specialist within the career center to oversee internships and experiential learning opportunities for the college. And within the university’s life sciences department, a proposed NSF grant would allow for creating a position to support students. Similar to these other arrangements, the department wanted the position located in the career center to have access to the center’s infrastructure and expertise, explains Sims. 

“We certainly celebrate these successes and invite any opportunity for increased collaboration with our academic departments. Our only concern is that these types of arrangements aren’t permanently funded,” says Sims. “The more internships we develop and the more employer recruiters we line up, it creates pressures on the rest of our staff and expectations on the part of students. If those positions go away, we are in essence left holding the bag.” One solution she sees is to permanently endow these positions.

Customized, Distributed Service

The focus for New York University’s Wasserman Center for Career Develop-ment is customized career services, says Trudy Steinfeld, assistant vice president of student affairs and the center’s executive director. Within the center’s centralized office are smaller teams of professionals who support various entities—engineering, liberal arts, and so forth—in a distributed services model. In addition to serving as liaison with faculty, administration, and student clubs in those schools so they can develop content and deliverables specific to their interests and career pathways, these teams also focus on employer relations specific to those disciplines, explains Steinfeld. 

“Students don’t want to come and speak about their resume or career pathway in general terms and then have you point them to a Web site,” says Steinfeld. “We’ve found that providing boots on the ground is much more impactful.” This includes having a strong physical and virtual presence on NYU campuses in 11 other countries. 

Some larger NYU overseas campuses such as in Abu Dhabi and Shanghai have office space and staff, says Steinfeld. For other campuses—including Florence, Prague, London, Paris, Berlin, and Madrid—the center provides services through a combination of peer educators and other site staff, and taps graduate students to plan programming and provide outreach, including resume critiques. Students from every campus can attend workshops virtually and receive career coaching via Skype. The center’s staff also travel routinely to overseas campuses, and when overseas site staff occasionally return to the New York campus they receive additional training from center staff, explains Steinfeld. Currently the center is developing a network of alumni mentors who also can provide overseas students with career coaching. 

The distributed services model and enhanced overseas outreach are relatively new—both launched within the past two years. Other changes to NYU career services have focused on better use of the center’s resources and staff time. “A decade ago we might have scheduled hour-long face-to-face counseling and coaching sessions. We now keep those to 30 minutes but have increased communication through other channels, including a lot through social media,” says Steinfeld. Here again, the center has tapped students to participate via blogging and Twitter feeds to spread the word about career resources and events. Among other changes, the center recently launched a “recruiter in residence” program, bringing employers to campus to provide students with industry-specific information and advice.

“Our strategy is focused on early and frequent engagement and working with students from the moment they enroll, to begin thinking about the career-related experiences they want to make part of their education,” says Steinfeld. This includes helping students become more at ease about the college-to-career transition. “We don’t want students feeling panicked that their first job will impact everything they do after that,” she adds.

The early-and-often intervention strategy is paying off. According to data collected on NYU’s Class of 2013, by the time these undergraduates moved on, 86.5 percent had accessed center services and resources. Among employed respondents, 46 percent said they obtained their position through NYU or Wasserman Center-related resources. In addition, respondents who said they used an NYU or Wasserman Center resource in securing employment reported a mean salary of $6,347 above that of graduates who landed positions via other resources. 

Skills and Opportunities

The University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, has a different take on incoming freshmen. “While it may seem counterintuitive, we are not in a hurry to see freshmen come in to our office. Our thought is that the whole point of coming to college is to embark on a four-year period of intellectual growth and personal development,” explains Patricia Rose, director of career services. In their first year, students are meeting others from around the world with different backgrounds and studying topics not available to them in high school. 

“We want them to be in the moment and not necessarily focused on what comes next,” says Rose. That doesn’t mean her office isn’t in touch. “We are quick to let all new students know who and where we are, what we do, and that we are here to help,” she adds. 

Communication ramps up in the sophomore year—typically weekly, most often via e-mail, notes Rose. “One message we try to drive home for liberal arts majors in particular—who account for about two thirds of our students—is that their major is not their career,” says Rose. More important is to give thought to the skills they are building, she adds. “We remind students how important it is to develop really strong writing and communication skills, to learn to work as a team to solve problems, and to develop quantitative skills.” 

That last one gets a big push, notes Rose. “Especially for students who may not know what they want to do, we encourage them to keep their options open, and to take a course in quantitative analysis.” With the huge growth in the area of data analytics—which cuts across every industry—employers need people who can help interpret and analyze data. Having good quantitative skills can open doors for any student, she points out. “That’s essentially the whole speech: Pick any major you want, but take responsibility to develop your skill set.” Exploring those additional skills is made easier with the flexibility all undergraduates have to take four courses outside their home school for credit. 

“We also continue to remind students about programs and events outside the classroom they might want to consider,” says Rose. These include opportunities to hear alumni speak about their careers and to shadow them in their jobs. “We even have a dedicated Twitter account called Penn Career Day when we ask alumni to tweet throughout the day about what they are doing at work.” 

As is the case for many college students, internships are a big priority for Penn undergrads. A growing number are exploring multiple internships, often pursuing one after their sophomore year and another following their junior year, notes Rose. “This really is the best possible way to become familiar with a career field, and if a student doesn’t have a positive feeling about that first experience, he or she still has time to regroup and explore something else.”

By the Numbers

Penn’s career services practices what it preaches in the number-crunching department. “We are big on data collection and have conducted surveys of our graduating students since the 1970s,” says Rose. “If a student tells me he wants to be an English major, I can look at the College of Arts and Sciences survey for the class of 2013 to find out, by major, how many are in the workforce or in graduate school, what jobs they have with which employers, when they started working, how many interviews they had, and average salaries for each field.” 

She can also tell which graduates secured employment through leads from Penn’s career services office—which for the class of 2013 was 54 percent of all graduates in all majors—evidence of success in bringing students together with employers, notes Rose. 

Surveys are conducted with employers and alumni as well to develop a sense of how well Penn grads are doing 5, 10, and 15 years out, says Rose. This kind of data is of real interest to prospective students and parents, with whom Rose has had more contact in the past five years than in the 20 years prior to that. “Penn students are generally well prepared for a rapidly changing economy,” says Rose. “We want to expose prospective students and parents to this good story as well by sharing with them how our office works with students, where and how students get internships, and employment trends for graduates.” 

Engaging Faculty

In building the new career center at Wake Forest University, Vice President for Career Development Andy Chan began with seven staff members, but over the course of five years has steadily expanded to his current 35-member team. Components of that team include career education and coaching, employer relations, mentoring, and leadership development. The university’s center for innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship also falls under the office for personal and career development. About 200 students from the liberal arts college and the undergraduate business school each year minor in entrepreneurship and social enterprise, notes Chan. 

Communication with students begins on Day One, with a session during new student orientation surrounding common misperceptions about career development. A separate orientation session is offered for parents. The university also has a student ambassadors program that taps upperclassmen to talk to student groups about their career anxieties and to tell them how the career center can help, says Chan. 

As a core component of the center’s strategy, Chan and his staff have made a concerted effort not only to strengthen relations with faculty, but to fully partner with them. “At many institutions, faculty often don’t know what a career office does, so there are misperceptions that we exist primarily to line up jobs for graduating seniors,” says Chan. Like a growing number of career centers, his office collects first-destination data, and they are using that data to show faculty, by major, where their students end up. 

“Showing faculty the variety of employment roles for their students helps bust myths that students attending liberal arts institutions or graduating with degrees in arts and humanities don’t land good jobs,” says Chan. “Once faculty begin to realize what a philosophy major can go on to do, they can share that bigger picture with current students.”

A second step Chan’s office took early on was to develop a network of faculty who have an interest in career development and who provide regular feedback about how to get more faculty interested—for instance, identifying which data to include in the center’s reports so they are of greatest use to faculty. The center also makes available group sessions providing students opportunities for reflection and introspection about themselves and their career interests. 

“We are also extremely fortunate to have on our staff Kate Brooks, author of You Majored in What? Mapping Your Path from Chaos to Career [Plume, 2010]. When faculty see her in action in their classrooms providing creative exercises for students, they start to really understand that career education begins with personal awareness and development and is much more than mere job-search skills training. We are educating and equipping students to successfully launch into life after college and become adaptable, resilient, and employable in the increasingly dynamic and uncertain world,” says Chan. 

Every career center can coach students on the latest tips for developing a resume, applying for jobs online, interviewing techniques, and all the rest, notes Chan. “What is often missing is that step before the resume, and that is getting students to focus on their personal narrative. We usually don’t spend enough time in that place,” he says. “Yet, helping students focus on that bigger story of who they are and what they want to do with their lives is imperative for staying true to our mission as an institution to develop and educate the whole person.” 

KARLA HIGNITE, Ogden, Utah, is a contributing editor for Business Officer.

“We no longer focus that much on the volume of interviews for full-time employment for outgoing seniors, because so many organizations now source entry-level candidates from the internship programs and campus recruitment events.”

—Kathy Sims, University of California, Los Angeles

“We are not in a hurry to see freshmen come in to our office. Our thought is that the whole point of coming to college is to embark on a four-year period of intellectual growth and personal development.”

—Patricia Rose, University of Pennsylvania

“Helping students focus on that bigger story of who they are and what they want to do with their lives is imperative for staying true to our mission as an institution to develop and educate the whole person.”

—Andy Chan, Wake Forest University