Revolution in Career Services

In this article, Sheila Curran, President of Curran Career Consulting, and Steve Goldenberg, CEO of Interfolio, share a candid and provocative discussion on the future of career services in colleges and universities.

Steve: Students graduating in 2009 are facing bleak employment prospects. Are Careers offices prepared for the onslaught of demand from worried students and laid-off graduates?

Sheila: That’s an interesting question, because in all the articles I’ve read about the impact of the economy on graduate hiring, I have only once seen reference to worried students flocking to career services. Contrary to conventional wisdom, in prior recessions, the number of visits to career services offices often fell compared to traffic during good times. And I haven’t heard of any student government organization demanding more assistance for their constituents.

Steve: Why are students not seeing the handwriting of unemployment on the wall?

Sheila: Probably the first reason is that many fall career fairs—and even some held in the winter—were full. To students, employers at career fairs means available jobs. But in late 2008, many employers were hedging their bets, not knowing where the economy was heading. The second reason students aren’t going to their career services office is that they may not be convinced that there is anything these offices can do to help.

Steve: Well, are they right? Can career services offices really do much to help when the whole economy is tanking?

Sheila: Absolutely, but they’ll need a completely different approach. Most colleges have now started doing seminars on finding jobs in a down economy, and that’s great, but it’s not enough. Careers offices need to re-invent themselves, just like they advise their laid-off clients.

Steve: Are you talking about a short-term fix to deal with this economy, or do you have something completely different in mind?

Sheila: Actually, I’m calling for a revolution in the way business is done in career services. The new model would be effective in both good economic times and bad, but its benefits would be immediately apparent.

Steve: And you’d implement this new plan now, when career services offices are under intense pressure to provide more with less? That sounds a little crazy.

Sheila: Absolutely. Here’s why. This recession is different. First, every area of the economy is affected, and probably will be for some time. We’re not only looking at large scale unemployment of college grads immediately after graduation, but also the continued unemployment or underemployment of thousands of college grads for some time to come. Remember, significantly over a million students will graduate this spring, trying to be absorbed into an economy where close to a million college grads lost their jobs in the past year.

My second point, which is probably even more important, is this: Parents who foot the bill are increasingly concerned about the value of their investment in higher education. Their involvement in their children’s futures is not surprising: The average cost of a four-year college education increased at a rate of 5.6% (2.9% above the rate of inflation) between 1998 and 2008. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education 2008 Almanac, the average annual cost for tuition, fees, and accommodation in 2007-2008 exceeded $35,000, and a number of colleges have now crossed the $50K a year threshold.

Steve: That makes sense, but it still makes me wonder how any office could organize itself to give its students or graduates an edge.

Sheila: It’s possible, but it’s not easy. A pre-requisite is university leadership that values the success of its students and graduates. Given that support, career services offices need to change the way they do business. Typically, careers offices are set up so that they are the hub: employers come to them and students come to them. At the end of the revolution that I advocate, careers offices will have much less control, but they’ll be much more effective. Step one is identifying and concentrating on core competencies. Step two is getting out ahead of the game. And step three is building and facilitating a career community.

Steve: I want you to go through your steps in detail, but before you do, are you saying that if something is not a core competency, a career services office should give it up?

Sheila: You’re absolutely right. Giving up programs, services and activities has always been difficult for colleges and universities, but this is the time to bite the bullet. Besides, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the task won’t be done, just that the careers office will not devote time to doing it.

Steve: I need an example.

Sheila: You probably provide the best example, Steve. Ten years ago, if colleges offered a credentials services, they probably offered it in-house through their career services office. Initially there was a lot of suspicion about whether companies like Interfolio could do as good a job as the in-house service. But taking your company as an example, it’s clear that not only can outsourcing save money, it can also provide additional, value-added services to its clients. Almost all careers offices do some outsourcing right now—usually in the form of a recruiting system—but there are other areas of untapped potential for outsourcing. For example, how many colleges have thought about outsourcing the administration of their on-campus interview scheduling or their career fair management? And how many universities re-invent the wheel every year producing career content that is readily available for free on the web. The bottom line is, if something is not your core competency, or if another entity does the same task more efficiently or effectively, careers offices need to consider changing how they do business.

Steve: What do you say to those career directors who don’t want to lay off the person who’s been performing the task in house?

Sheila: In my new model, the careers office would still have just as many staff; they’d just be working on different tasks. So I’d say this to the career director:  If your credentials person is a great performer, re-train her for one of the new roles. Preparing students for careers is not rocket science. It will, however, require that staff embrace change and continuous education.

Steve: OK, let’s move on to your second point: Getting out ahead of the game. What does that mean?

Sheila: Any good public relations firm will advise that when you have bad news, you need to talk about it before it hits the media. The effect of the economy on the class of 2009 is not an exactly analogous situation, because the bad news is not focused on one particular university, but there are still enormous benefits to identifying the problem as early as possible and explaining how you’ll deal with it. Places like Babson College in Boston started a communication campaign months ago. Not coincidentally, they also have a plan to reach out to all their graduates and a commitment to help them until they find work. Few colleges have been as proactive as Babson, but that doesn’t mean it’s too late. Students need to know that the college or university has a vested interest in their success, and that there is some kind of service safety net. I recently picked two students for dinner and asked them how they were doing. Met with complete silence, I probed further. It turns out they were incredibly worried about their internship and job searches, but felt totally alone. The successful careers office will make communication, concern and commitment to students the building blocks upon which they fashion programs and initiatives.

Steve: Are you talking about a proactive approach just for seniors?

Sheila: No, although it’s certainly essential to address the current needs of the class of 2009. What I’d like to see is an emphasis from the day a student sets foot on campus on developing interests and values, and taking advantage of opportunities. I’m a firm believer that the student who makes the most of education—inside and outside the classroom– is the one who is best prepared for whatever they choose to do after graduation. We need to make it the norm for students to not know what they want to do when they leave college and for the whole university or college to support their career development.

Steve: So getting out ahead of the game means communicating expectations about college and career from the time a student matriculates, and articulating the responsibilities of both student and institution?

Sheila: Yes, but the proactive approach must go way beyond setting expectations about how a student can get from college to a career they love. Careers offices must take the initiative to understand the organizations and industries in which their students are likely to be interested. And it can’t just be done through internet research. Careers staff have to get out and talk to employers and help employers determine where there might be a good pipeline of potential employees from a particular college. Essentially, I’m saying Careers offices need to add sales to their portfolio of skills.

Steve: I can imagine you’ll have a lot of pushback on that idea.

Sheila: Absolutely. Someone who is trained as a traditional career counselor may be uncomfortable in a role that asks them to promote their students to employers—even if the promotion is not of specific students but of students with certain characteristics and educational background. In many Careers offices it may be possible to limit the “sales” role to one of two people, and keep the traditional career counselor role the same. But there are enormous benefits to having an entrepreneurial and outward-looking philosophy pervade the whole careers arena.

Steve: I’ve always been a big fan of entrepreneurship. What does entrepreneurship mean in the context of a Careers office?

Sheila: It means we recognize that the careers world is constantly changing, and that we need to adapt with it. Different generations approach work differently. Employers, even Fortune 100 companies, come and go. Careers will exist next year that aren’t even on our radar screen today. The careers world is a fascinating place to be. But it’s not one where we can ever sit still and say “well, we’ve got that one down”. If we are not entrepreneurial in the way we help our students, we’ve lost the battle. I think there’s general agreement now that we must train students not just for their first job, but for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. In the Careers office, we need to exhibit the same kind of flexibility and entrepreneurial attitude that we encourage in our clients.

Steve: This sounds like you’re advocating that Careers office staff act very differently from most university employees.

Sheila: You’re right. It’s the job of the Careers office to help students recognize how their educational experiences connect to their lives after college. Careers staff will never be taken seriously by their academic colleagues until they can prove that they understand the value of the education students receive.

Steve: That’s easy to do when a student studies a pre-professional subject like nursing or accounting. But isn’t it much more difficult when someone is studying a liberal arts subject? I know you got a bachelor’s degree in Russian and Persian. Is there really a case to be made for why that’s a good background for the work you do?

Sheila: The connection between a liberal arts degree and a career is definitely much less obvious when the subject matter of that degree is not the content of a person’s career. But I think we concentrate way too much on the subject matter of a student’s degree. All Careers staff need to be able to articulate what skills and characteristics a student can gain through education in and out of the classroom, and the ways in which students will need to supplement that education with experience in order to be qualified for the positions they seek. What I’m really advocating when I say that Careers offices need to get out ahead of the game is that they take the initiative to help both employers and students identify how they can meet each other’s needs. That doesn’t happen automatically. And it’s a place where Careers staff can really make a difference.

Steve: Let’s move on to your third point: Building a career community.

Sheila: I start from a very strong viewpoint that most Careers offices can’t get there from here.

Steve: OK. I’ll bite. Where’s the “there” that Careers offices can’t get to?

Sheila: I’m talking about mission “scope creep”. Most Careers office missions I’ve read are essentially missions impossible, trying to offer comprehensive services to undergraduates, graduate students and alumni. Even taking alumni out of the equation, the ratio of professional staff to students is about 1 to 1000 in private schools and 1:2000+ in public institutions. Yet, most offices still aim to provide in-person advising and counseling. With the lack of staff, it’s no wonder that most Careers offices get mediocre results in university-wide surveys.

Steve: Are you making the case for more staff?

Sheila: Absolutely, but the reality is that’s not going to happen in this economy—unless, of course, you happen to be in a business school that wants to increase its standing in the rankings. For most schools, I believe the only way to give students the services and expertise they need is to build a career community.

Steve: How does that work?

Most colleges and universities have alumni, parents and friends who are devoted to the school and would enjoy advising students about the career field in which they’re involved. Many times, schools have a formal alumni network, but what I advocate is a much more comprehensive initiative that is actively managed by the Careers office. Members of the Career Community would be tapped to give presentations on specific career fields; advise students one-on-one in their area of expertise; promote students to their companies; and source employment opportunities.

Steve: It sounds like a great idea, but how do you ensure that the Career Community gives good advice?

Sheila: The key is that the Career Community would be made up of individuals with whom Careers staff already have, or are prepared to build, a relationship. It would certainly be helpful to have Community members start providing service on a pilot basis, and it’s important that students have the opportunity to rate their advice and assistance.
Steve: I imagine building a Career Community would be very time intensive for staff.

Sheila: You’re right, but it’s worth shifting some staff responsibilities, or eliminating less useful programs, in order to facilitate relationships with volunteers and expand Careers staff knowledge.

Steve: Wouldn’t a Career Community be expensive?

Sheila: Since the Career Community members would be volunteers, the only financial outlay would be for training and appreciation events. A Career Community provides an incredible engagement opportunity for alumni, so it might be possible to gain some funding from the Alumni Association or Development Office.

Steve: It seems that these offices would be natural allies of the Careers office, anyway.

Sheila: You’re right, but in a recent poll I conducted, almost two thirds of Alumni and Careers offices claimed to collaborate only occasionally or rarely.

Steve: How do you propose a Careers office remedy that?

Sheila: The Careers office of the future needs to be a key player on the institutional stage. It needs to articulate to senior administrators its value and the areas for which it can be held accountable. When these leaders understand that the Careers office can be a strategic advantage, they will be much more likely to appreciate and promote the value of a coordinated effort to enhance the success of graduates.

A couple of years ago at the first Career Summit at Duke, my Vice President of Student Affairs, Larry Moneta, asked the group to articulate why Careers offices were relevant. The fact is, senior university leadership is going to demand that Careers offices prove their worth.

Steve: Once colleges and universities have stopped slashing budgets, do you think that careers offices will get back to business as usual?

Sheila: The short answer is “no”. Over the past thirty years, careers have changed out of all recognition and parental demands for an economic value to their tuition investment have increased to a fever pitch. We can no longer “tweak” an outdated model. It’s time for revolution.

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