From Career Counseling to Career Services: How Colleges and Universities are helping graduates and alumni find career opportunities.

Career ServicesColleges and Universities have provided career counseling and hosted job fairs for many years now. An institution’s commitment to placing students in the workforce was, an afterthought, more than an add on. These services were available to students who sought them out, usually in their senior year.

They enjoyed limited support both monetarily, and in terms of faculty, administrator and employer involvement, depending on the institution. But, with the advent of the most recent recession, the serious uptick in student debt, and the increased demand by consumers and government for more accountability from higher education regarding both graduation and work placement rates, these services are being re-imagined.

Colleges and Universities across the country are moving beyond counseling to help prepare, connect, advise, and in the case of older alumni, even assist in retraining. These institutions are transforming what was a counseling approach into a proactive service model and are actively engaging with employers and collaborating with faculty and administrators to provide a clear path for graduates as they hope to embark on a career.

While translating that newly earned diploma into a career, not just a job, isn’t easy, it is sorely needed. According to the US Department of Labor, as of June of this year the unemployment rate for ages 20 - 24 was 10.5%, 11.7% for men, and women slightly less at 9.1%. While this number doesn’t break out those with degrees from those with only a high school education, these numbers are high compared with the overall unemployment rate of 6.1%. What is even harder to determine is what percentage of those graduates are “underemployed.” In other words, how many are working full-time jobs in fields other than their chosen profession. Another group that is career challenged is the so called “long term unemployed.” These are older workers in their 50’s, even early 60’s, whose careers were abruptly ended during the recent economic downturn. And, while the unemployment rate for those 55 and older is only at 4.4%, this number doesn’t account for the many individuals who have essentially dropped out of the labor pool. Many of these individuals are turning to their alma mater for help.

Just what are employers looking for?
One of the critical factors in helping students find successful careers is building a bridge between the academic community and employers. Career Centers are looking to the business community for their input and assistance in identifying exactly what skills are required in the marketplace.

An online survey conducted in 2013 by the Hart Research Associates on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities entitled It Takes More than A Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success asked 318 employers with 25 or more employees, and with more than 25% of their new hires holding an associate or a Bachelor’s degree, just what skills they would like to see graduates possess when applying for work? While this study reveals a variety of insights, some key findings are of particular interest. Employers currently site innovation as their key focus currently - 92% agree, with over half strongly agreeing. Candidates who can be instrumental in helping these organizations invent the future must have “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems.” Employers see this as even “more important than his or her undergraduate field of study (93% totally agree; 59% strongly agree.)” The survey goes on to detail that, in addition to broad areas such as ethics, intercultural skills and professional development, employers place the “greatest degree of importance,” on more specific skills and learning outcomes. These include, in descending order of importance:

  • Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
  • Ability to analyze and solve complex problems
  • Ability to effectively communicate in writing
  • Ability to apply knowledge and skills to real world settings
  • Ability to locate, organize and evaluate information from multiple sources
  • Creativity
  • Ability to work collaboratively

Interestingly, while the majority of those employers polled felt that college grads have the basic skills and knowledge to succeed at entry-level positions - 67% agreed, only 44% felt that those new hires would have the necessary skills needed to advance. In other words these employers are suggesting that if graduates were going to turn their first jobs into a career, they needed more experience solving the kinds of real world problems that employers face every day.

On a positive note, the majority of employers, 74%, still support and endorse a liberal arts education, suggesting that just “field specific” knowledge and skill set are not enough to ensure career success. This runs counter to what some politicians are suggesting, and is a warning that academia should be careful not to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water.

How are schools responding?
Schools are taking this message to heart and are making changes to how student career services are organized and delivered. Some are changing reporting structures. Where they once reported to either student or academic affairs, they now report to development and enrollment management. This kind of alignment enables not only the efficiencies that come with process improvement and the capture of valuable data, but it also delivers a consistent message to students, parents, boards of directors and government that higher education is serious about delivering the workforce needed to fill the jobs available in 21st century.

The National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE) conducted a Career Services Benchmark Survey of 1,969 member schools in 2013. Of the 881 schools that responded, it is clear that many institutions are moving beyond helping students build resumes by offering a variety of services and tapping into both traditional and digital media to reach and enable their student population. These schools are actively seeking additional resources as well as “buy in” from administrators and faculty to support their Career Services efforts. They are also offering a wide variety of services for students to consider:

  • Career counseling available in person and online
  • Career fairs for both general and specific vocations
  • On-campus interview training programs
  • Work/study programs
  • In office student employment
  • Career assessment tools
  • Career resource libraries
  • Academic internships
  • Employer internships and co-operative education programs

Starting Early and Staying Engaged
While traditional career counseling often did not begin until senior year, Career Services is reaching out to students much earlier - sometimes as early as orientation. By keeping students connected and engaged through emails and messaging regarding career centric events on campus, as well as sharing data regarding past outcomes, Career Services is encouraging students to consider possible career choices when making academic decisions. They are also building and strengthening a relationship with students and reminding them that resources are available to them. Additionally, in sharing this same data on student placement and success with faculty Career Services offers teachers a unique perspective on where their students land after graduation. In building strong ties with faculty, Career Services hopes to encourage mentor relationships during matriculation, and even following graduation. Institutions are also tapping upper classmen and alumni to talk with younger students early on about the “ins and outs” of career choices and employment possibilities, providing guidance and addressing fears.

Internships continue to take on more significance in determining future employment. Students are being urged to seek internships and other co-operative education programs earlier as well. Exposing students to real work environments in their sophomore and junior years can give them time to adjust their course selection based on real-world experience. Many companies in search of young talent, particularly in the high-tech sector, are targeting students long before their senior year. Campuses are able to keep their finger on the pulse of emerging trends and changing needs by creating employer advisory councils to maintain ongoing dialogue about the talents, skills and competencies needed by prospective hires.

So, by collaborating with employers, faculty, administrators and alumni, Career Services offers multiple perspectives for students faced with a wide array of career choices. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, all of these efforts are being reinforced by a new strong underlying message - that students also bear a large responsibility to prepare for their future work life. Career Services is there to enable students, to help them identify strength and weaknesses and to encourage self-awareness and self-determination long before they go for that job interview. These services are designed to help students tell “their” story, to test the waters of potential jobs, and feel confident they have built marketable skills.

Aiding alumni
A number of institutions are using the internet to offer support and assistance to older alumni who have found themselves out of work after a long career. The majority of Colleges and Universities have a presence on LinkedIn and have established groups for alumni to interact and network. Career Services is utilizing webinars, podcasts, to provide instruction on a range of topics from, how to update a resumes, to how to use social media to build your network. Alumni newsletters and email keep alumni connected and informed about pertinent course offering, job training, and placement programs.

Addressing Challenges
Of course there are always challenges facing institutions trying to change, the greatest of which are money and resources in the form of staff. Some schools are augmenting their budget by charging students fees for placement services, testing and other a la carte services. Others are seeking corporate funding. Some collaborate with individual academic departments sharing a part of their budget in return for focusing on capturing those much sought after internships for students coming out of those departments. While some of these approaches are viable others are truly not scalable. What is needed are stable endowments to support these much needed services.

Despite these challenges, much progress is being made. Opening a dialogue with employers looking to higher education for innovators and entrepreneurs is a great and much needed step forward. These employers are asking higher education to prepare graduates for the kind of fast paced, real world problem solving that comes from a mix of education and experience. If employers truly value the skills and broad understanding that come from a liberal arts education and these institutions and their students can balance the fine line between a major and a career - getting the best out of one while preparing for the other - we are looking at win-win-win situation. In transforming the career placement programs of yesterday into Career Service Centers today, Colleges and Universities are more than capable of filling the jobs of tomorrow.


It Takes More Than A Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success - An online survey among employers conducted on behalf of the association of American Colleges and Universities by Hart Research Associates

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) is the leading source of information about the employment of the college educated. NACE connects more than 5,200 college career services professionals at nearly 2,000 colleges and universities nationwide, and more than 3,000 HR/staffing professionals focused on college relations and recruiting. The professional association forecasts trends in the job market; conducts research into salaries, professional benchmarks, and best practices related to college recruiting and career services; and provides members with professional development opportunities. For more information,

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