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Colleges Must Reinvent Career Counseling

By Jeffrey J. Selingo October 23, 2016 

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

Earlier this year, a study by two noted economists, Lawrence F. Katz and Alan B. Krueger, concluded that all employment growth in the United States since 2005 appeared to have come from what they termed alternative work. While apps for temporary work, such as Uber and TaskRabbit, get most of the attention in today’s gig economy, the two found that the “offline” contract work of freelancers is actually growing the fastest, ballooning by 50 percent over the last decade.

The changing nature of work in the 21st century has serious implications for the job-preparation role that colleges play in our economy. Rather than educate students for specific occupations or broad career fields as in the past, institutions now need to groom undergraduates for a more complex, fragmented workplace with many overlapping pathways.

The growth of alternative work along with the growing threat of automation and artificial intelligence replacing even many white-collar jobs in the future requires college graduates to learn how to direct their own learning throughout their careers. They will need to know when, where, and how to upgrade their skills with employers unwilling to invest in professional development for freelancers in an economy where the skills needed to succeed are ever changing.

A new crop of education providers is already helping recent college graduates in this evolving workplace. Services like Lynda.com, which LinkedIn purchased for $1.5 billion in 2015, offer online training videos for a range of in-demand job skills, like graphic design and WordPress. Koru and Fullbridge organize in-person courses lasting several weeks on communication and time management, group projects, and intensive career coaching. And then there are a growing number of boot camps, like General Assembly and Galvanize, that teach short courses on computer coding and business fundamentals, including project management and design thinking.

Nervousness over the economy and questions about the value of a college degree have contributed to growing expectations that colleges must make career services a priority. This special report on innovation examines some of the career-counseling efforts underway — by colleges, start-ups, and collaborations between the two.

But colleges themselves are lagging behind, because campus-career centers still largely operate in the old economy. While some have taken steps to update their services, too often they offer undergraduates little more than job listings, interviewing skills, and résumé-writing services, and mostly set up students to focus on the job search only in their senior year.

“Presidents claim to care about career development, but then I ask them, Who is your career-center director? And they don’t know,” says Andy Chan, vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest University, and a leader in the field.

It shouldn’t be that way. Prospective students, and their parents worried about their return on investment, want career services as part of their education. So colleges should view career planning not as another service to outsource to start-ups, but as a campus amenity right up there with state-of-the-art academic buildings, recreation centers, and residence halls.

The retooling of career services must start with making such offerings more accessible throughout the undergraduate curriculum, starting on Day 1 of college, and helping students realize the wide range of career choices available to them. Often students heading to college make these choices based on what’s familiar to them from childhood, and pick majors based on their limited experience. Then, when they are seniors and start sifting through openings for full-time jobs, many titles can sound as if they were written in a foreign language.

While doing research for my new book on the transition from college to the work force, I met plenty of college seniors who told me they had never known so many different jobs existed. By then it was, unfortunately, too late for them to switch majors or take courses that would put them on the right career track.

Getting a head start on finding a career is the idea behind the Possibility Project at Denison University, which starts in January. First-year students will work in small teams over a semester exploring who they are and what they want to do professionally. They will also meet with alumni and parents who share stories about similar career paths. At the end of the program, the students plan to develop a short TED-like presentation about one of their passions, which forms the foundation of a career story that one day could prove helpful in a job interview.

Another reason colleges must encourage students to think early on about careers is that the traditional recruiting calendar for employers has been upended in recent years. Internships now play a more important role in recruiting. Some organizations hire up to three-quarters of their intern pools as full-time workers.

Some employers, particularly large ones, have shifted their attention from recruiting seniors to scoping out juniors — even as early as the fall term — to be interns the next summer. “There was a time when 50 employers came to recruit for interns,” Patricia Rose, director of the career center at the University of Pennsylvania told me. “Now we have 180. They want to wrap up talent before anyone else.”

The rising importance of internships means that colleges should be spending just as much time and attention building relationships with employers as they are cultivating donors in their development efforts. But at many colleges, the fund-raising office is showered with talent and money, while career services is tucked away in a forgotten corner of campus.

Here again is where the boot camps and other ventures aimed at getting students jobs have a leg up on colleges. Koru and Fullbridge, for example, have customer-focused operations, marketing themselves essentially as a match-making service and working with specific employers, giving students easy access to recruiters.

Other key reforms colleges should make go beyond the career office. As I interviewed new college graduates for my book, I noticed they had a tough time transferring the underlying competencies they had learned inside and outside the classroom to the jobs they hoped to land. They couldn’t craft a narrative for an interview about how they got to where they were in life, or what led them there, or what skills they had acquired in the process.

Several years ago, Northeastern University noted the same problem with students who had recently completed a well-known feature of its undergraduate curriculum: co-ops, in which they spend entire semesters holding a full-time job while enrolled in college. So the university added a course before the co-op to help students understand how humans learn and encouraged them to reflect and articulate their learning in writing during and after each job assignment.

Now Northeastern is expanding the idea beyond the co-op with a universitywide effort to help students take an inventory of their learning throughout the undergraduate curriculum — before they even arrive on campus — by articulating what they already know from high school.

The ability to transfer knowledge between the classroom and the workplace and back again is what gets new college graduates hired, because it allows them to show in job interviews what they cannot easily display on their résumé or in an application. But college students find that task particularly difficult because they haven’t had to make connections between the disparate capabilities they have acquired.

A typical undergraduate’s life is a series of sliced-up learning experiences — in classrooms, in residence halls, on athletic teams, through research projects, or in study-abroad programs. Colleges should help students integrate what they have learned from each of those experiences. “Our business is to promote learning no matter where it happens, to show it has no boundaries,” says Noah Leavitt, who runs Whitman College’s Student Engagement Center.

The final strategy colleges should follow to rethink their career offerings is to think big. Learning is now a lifelong necessity in a global, information-based economy. But many graduates will struggle throughout their lives to reimagine their careers and then to find the right training at the right time and price.

Colleges can help graduates by creating “plug and play” lifelong-learning platforms that alumni can gain access to throughout their careers. These platforms would not be a simple continuation of the tired and dated services offered by career offices, but would include courses, mentors, and credentials that could jump-start a new career.

Wishing that career paths could be as clear and straightforward for this generation as they were in the past won’t make that happen. It’s time for higher education to focus on the career development of its undergraduates and make the necessary campus investments before outside ventures claim the role of shaping students’ lives after college. While some college leaders will continue to argue that it’s not their job to help students find work, if they don’t take on this responsibility, they’ll be the ones on the market.

Jeffrey J. Selingo, a former editor of The Chronicle, is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a visiting scholar at Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. He is the author of There Is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School to Prepare for the Jobs of Tomorrow (William Morrow/HarperCollins).