With new calls for accountability and transparency on placement numbers and returns on investment, colleges are working to ensure that students see their degrees – and the money they put toward them – as worthwhile, not only in the programs and courses they offer, but in the services students can use to find meaningful work.
The career services office has been a longtime fixture on most campuses, but what goes on in that office is changing as the job market becomes more complex – and, for many, more challenging.
NHPR spoke with two individuals who work in college career services, and who have seen the changes since the Great Recession began. And one thing they agreed on was this: While hiring has improved, the unemployment rate for 18 to 24 year olds remains well above average.
James Kuras is Career Services manager at Plymouth State University. He says students are starting to understand that the next step after graduation isn’t always a permanent, full-time position.
“What I’m seeing over the last few couple of years with our Plymouth students is an understanding that they’ve got 45 plus years to work after graduation," Kuras says. "Our students are understanding that they’ve got to build their career in a different manner: work for employers, build some skill sets and then be able to leverage those skills with a future job search.”
That, Kuras says, may mean working as an intern, or volunteering to start out - building skills over time. "Five years ago or seven years ago, it was all or nothing," he says. "Now our students understand that they’re going to have to sort of take baby steps and walk through the process.”
Another suggestion to students from career services: look beyond their comfort zones, says Roger Woolsey. He's director and Senior Assistant Dean for Dartmouth’s Center for Professional Development.
“A lot of students want to stay on the East Coast corridor and compete with students in Boston or New York or Philadelphia," Woolsey says, noting that there are "great opportunities" in other regions of the country. And, he says, many students overlook opportunities in smaller cities and towns. "They always want to work for the big brands – the big banks, for example," he says. "There are smaller companies, medium sized companies in small towns across the country that could utilize their services.”
The worry, of course, is that students are still in a position where they’re trying to stand out as one relatively inexperienced potential worker among sometimes hundreds in an applicant field. But both Kuras and Woolsey say that sending out resumes cold to company after company is NOT the best job strategy in 2013. As Kuras puts it, “having people know who you are prior to the job search, that’s the #1 job skill that students need to have.”
There’s always been a “who you know” component to job searching, but this is now a key element – maybe the key element – of career services: showing students how to mine their personal and professional networks, to seek out alumni and get their names in front of people who hire.
Woolsey says in a job market where 70 percent of all jobs are unadvertised, students must be willing to speak up.
“Young people today use social media more than a lot of us," Woolsey says, "but we have to teach them the etiquette of communication. Students are often times afraid of how they initiate that contact with an alum. How do I start that e-mail? What is cultivation? They’ll use social media with their friends but when it’s meant to be used for professional gain, they need to be taught.”
The biggest wrinkle in all this, of course, is that while career offices are advising students to prepare for a longer, more complex employment track, student loans have not changed – most students get a six month grace period, then the bills start coming in. James Kuras says negotiating temporary jobs and permanent debt isn’t easy.
“There is not a right answer," Kuras says, "in terms of that every student is going to be able to immediately be able to cover those loans from college, be employed, move out of their parents’ house, and have a decent income and start to be able to put some money away.” Part of what he and others in Career Services teach is money management - but, he says, "I don’t know anybody, in terms of myself or my colleagues across the state, who has the answer" about reconciling these two forces.
Career services is going to have to keep looking for those answers, says Roger Woolsey at Dartmouth – at least as long as students continue to start their post-graduation lives carrying student debt and looking for a break.
“It’s troublesome," Woolsey says, "to see that they’re going to have to go and find a way through all of this. So I don’t envy them – but that’s why we have to work extremely hard.”