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Your Approach to Career Services Might Be Failing Students

The EvoLLLution | Your Approach to Career Services Might be Failing Students
Institutions are ignoring one of their biggest assets in the struggle to keep pace with a rapidly evolving workforce: the career center.

For years, institutions have left career centers on the sidelines. They are neither staffed for all students to use them, nor do students have a clear picture of what to do at the career center beyond hone a resume, cover letter or interviewing skills. They are told to go early, but to do what?

Fortunately, there’s a growing number of institutions—Carthage College is one—who realize our future rests on the value we provide to the people we educate. Guiding students toward the careers they want is a vital element of this value proposition. We need to understand the needs of our region and create models for service that allow us prepare graduates to get good jobs and make an impact in their communities. Few people have the luxury of earning a degree purely for its intrinsic value, and it is confusing for students and their families to sort through information and misinformation about educational tracks and careers. Are some majors better than others? Do rankings matter? Which career paths are worth pursuing? Are colleges providing real value, or should the college experience be skipped altogether?

The traditional model of career services expects students to already know what they need to proactively  manage their careers. But few students have the knowledge and few centers are organized to make the traditional career services model the best model. Even adult learners with years of work experience may not realize when they need help or struggle to find time to access valuable support. Students and professionals at all life stages need to learn the habits of mind and the skills to manage their careers, and we have a unique capability in higher education to design a multi-year experience that lets students practice these skills over the course of our years with them. This guidance is not just for students in professionally focused programs. It needs to be for all students, and we believe it needs to extend beyond basic professionalism and reflection skills.

What could be more important for our colleges than helping students understand how their learning in and outside of the classroom matters and fits together? Why do we ignore such important life design skills, when our students’ success is our success? When graduates succeed and know we played a role in that success, they become our admissions advocates, mentors for students and active donors—growing the pool of active alumni that institutions need to survive.

In contrast to the traditional user-driven approach to career advising, we chose a new approach. Starting in fall 2019, Carthage automatically enrolls all new students in The Aspire Program, a four-year career development program. Participation in the program embeds a clear framework for students to design their curricular and co-curricular experiences with an integrated support team from the beginning. Students have access to a support network of peer advisors, faculty and staff on campus,  alumni and friends of the College. From their first days on campus, students begin completing elements of The Aspire Program and working with their assigned Career Specialist. The Aspire Program offers a structure for students in all majors to be on track for post-graduate success by giving them direction and connections. The basic career development components of our program are complemented by entrepreneurship, leadership, creativity and skill development.  There are many paths to success and students learn how to shape their path and adapt when the unexpected occurs.

Given the volume of misinformation about education and careers, the community of practice created through The Aspire Program’s support network helps us to provide alumni and students with ongoing guidance and training about intersections between on-campus learning and off-campus outcomes. With an estimated 40% of jobs likely to change radically within the next 10 years, these sustainable connections and lifelong learning skills are investment in students’ futures and ours. Career Specialists are important for their role as individual career advisors, but perhaps more important for their role as connectors—getting students in touch with on- and off-campus members of the network who can provide insights and open doors. The Aspire Program’s specialized, consistent support proactively prepares students for the jobs and professional norms we know exist today, while helping them to create the personal networks and knowledge necessary to thrive in times of change.

Whether providing a fully developed career program for your students or exploring enhancements to your existing offerings, it is essential to understand your student population and their needs to maximize the investments of resources. The traditional career center is like expecting an average person to be a medical professional, guessing on the steps to keep themselves healthy without having the training to know the implications of their day-to-day choices on their long-term goals. Too many students do not know how to shape their career path, even though they genuinely care about post-graduate outcomes, and we have a responsibility to help them to navigate the complex process of building a career and a meaningful life.

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