Re-thinking Career Services in Times of Employment Uncertainty

In the spring, all eyes are on new college graduates and their future plans. Current indications are that the employment situation is easing, but bachelor’s graduates aged 20-24 still face plenty of challenges. Average annual unemployment rates for this cohort have remained stubbornly around 9%, and underemployment is rampant. So who has been helping these students and grads get a leg up, especially if they don’t have well-connected parents or a stellar GPA?

This monumental task has, in the eyes of parents and the public at least, been assigned to College Career Services offices. But few have held higher education accountable for making this service work. And, if parents are expecting any kind of personal attention for their sons and daughters, they will frequently be sorely disappointed.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2012 survey of over 800 colleges and universities, there is an average of one careers professional for every 1645 students served. Staffing ratios are substantially worse at large public institutions and correspondingly better at small liberal arts colleges. Some colleges—even relatively small ones—spend as little as $50 per student per year on career-related services. Over the past three, economically challenging, years, the budget situation for careers offices has actually deteriorated. NACE data shows that nationwide, the median operating budget for careers offices shrank 8% between 2010 and 2012, from $34,000 to $31,000.

At a time when we should be expecting colleges to enhance their career services to students, many have taken a defeatist approach, lacking confidence to believe that anything they do could make their graduates more attractive to employers. To many in higher education, careers offices are cost centers that deserve to receive the same reductions as every other administrative office. And, career leaders have too often been complicit in their own marginalization, unwilling to challenge the status quo on behalf of students.

Connecting College to Career in 2012

In the midst of this bleak picture, a recent conference at Wake Forest University, titled Re-thinking Success: From the Liberal Arts to Careers in the 21st Century offers a glimmer of hope. The Conference drew a crowd of over 200 presidents, faculty, high-ranking college administrators, and career directors for an inaugural three-day discussion.

The brainchild of President Nathan Hatch, and Vice President for Personal and Professional Development, Andy Chan, Re-thinking Success brought together leaders from academia, industry, the media, and careers, in a forum designed to start a national conversation about how students can best navigate from college to career.

The Conference provided plenty of compelling reasons why colleges—particularly those where student majors don’t automatically equate to specific careers—need to provide a better ROI for families. And, schools like Wake Forest, the University of Chicago and Washington University, provided eloquent testimony on the potential impact of careers offices, when they have institutional support.

But there’s the rub. Despite the evidence that successful career initiatives can encourage matriculation, enhance alumni engagement, and even contribute to fundraising goals, the majority of colleges and universities are stuck in an old paradigm, oblivious to the opportunity for institutional differentiation through graduate success. Sadly, most career leaders have been unsuccessful at conveying the potential value of their initiatives.

Leading from Below

The Re-thinking Success Conference illustrated the importance of senior leadership in enhancing career outcomes. High visibility, large budgets, internship funding, and presidential support send a strong message that work experience and career preparation are an important part of an institution’s enduring value to students. But when budgets are tight, and there are multiple pressing problems to address, elevating graduate success to the top of the agenda is difficult. The careers message can often get lost, obscured by more immediate issues relating to faculty, admissions, and fundraising.

The answer is to lead from below. Career directors have often shied away from greater visibility and accountability. But if change is going to happen, and the marginalization of careers offices stopped, those closest to the career success of graduates will need to take responsibility for moving the agenda.

Key Strategies for Moving the Careers Agenda: A Plan for Career Directors

  • Know what results you intend to achieve, craft a compelling story, and become visible. Getting other people excited about your vision for graduate career success is critical.
  • Don’t ask for money—at least, not yet. Show what you can do by a critical review of your operations in light of your new vision. Get data to identify what services, functions and programs create the best results. When you’re not getting real value for money, cut the activity.
  • Redistribute your discretionary money, for example, corporate donations or career fair fees. Use the money to get some quick, high-impact, wins. Try a few pilot programs to show what you can do with limited funds.
  • Partner with faculty. Educate them about what their graduates are doing and encourage them to share career stories that were influenced by the student’s choice of academic study. Support their desire to attract more students to their major. And, if the Romance Language faculty plan to offer a seminar on careers using languages, offer to co-sponsor and promote the program.
  • Build systems to capture and nurture contacts who can be helpful in advising students on their careers or promoting their career success. Faculty and administrators will be happy to provide you with names when they trust the information will be wisely used.
  • Identify how career outcomes and your new initiatives can help other departments achieve their goals. Admissions offices need career success stories. Alumni Relations professionals appreciate the opportunity to partner on successful programs involving alumni. And, plenty of schools have discovered that careers professionals can help pave the way for discussions with donors on multiple institutional fundraising priorities.
  • Build a career community of alumni, parents and friends, all of whom have a vested interest in the career success of students and graduates.
  • Engage students, early and often, and make them partners in their own success. One reason why students are often disappointed with Career Services is that they don’t understand their own roles and responsibilities. Students typically don’t listen to adults, but their parents listen to university messages, and students do listen to each other. Make sure students play a leadership role within the careers office as peer advisors and program directors. When students have ownership of initiatives, they are much more likely to encourage the involvement of their peers than when they are simply “consumers” of career services.
  • Find opportunities to talk to senior leaders and trustees. Be the resident expert on careers. These meetings are wasted if you simply talk about what services and programs you offer. Instead, paint the national picture, using data and anecdotes. Then relate what’s going on outside the academy to what is happening to your students. Finally, explain what you have been able to accomplish with your current budget and the impact additional resources would have on your students’ potential for success.

When senior leaders have no experience with careers, getting them to ease up on the purse strings is a challenge. But, your energy, excitement and vision can go a long way to convincing them that a new approach to careers can be as good for the institution as it will undoubtedly be for students, especially when your success is backed up by verifiable metrics.

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