In an economy where college costs are sky-rocketing and the job market is changing rapidly, preparing students for the workforce has become a key selling point for higher education. Students and their parents want reassurance that they’ll get a good return on that degree investment—in the form of a job.
To find out how career services have changed in the ways they prepare college students for the job market, Strictly Business talked to Dr. Julia Overton-Healy, director of the Career Development Center (CDC) at SUNY Plattsburgh. She said that the approach to career development is being turned on its head. “It used to be that people would choose a major, and that would be your career. We’re reversing that now.”
Getting Ready for Anything
Years ago, students might pay a visit to their college or university career services office during their senior year to look at job boards or get help writing their resumes. Today, the CDC’s messaging to students starts even before they arrive on campus. During orientation sessions, for example, staff will coach students to think beyond college early on. “Think about the kind of life you want, and the way you want to make a difference in the world, then we’ll help you fig- ure out which academic program will get you there.”
Another critical change, said Overton-Healy, is that colleges and uni- versities are now tasked with preparing students for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet. “Just think about the explosion of social media,” she said. “We’re seeing things like ‘Social Media Knowledge Curator,’ or ‘Thought Leadership Facilitator.’ Those are actual job titles!”
“Employers want a set of skills that are sharpened and honed regard- less of what you study. So our work at the career center becomes much more about educating for self-awareness, for understanding of [the student’s] core values, how to make decisions, how to work with other people, how to be globally sensitive,” said Overton-Healy. “One of the most interesting opportunities in career development today is to help students learn how to be more nimble, more flexible and more adaptable.”
Moving Center Stage
While Overton-Healy came to the campus in 2014, she said that the CDC began a significant transformation in the spring of 2013 when the university adopted a new campus plan, which highlighted career development for students among several key strategic goals. As a result, the CDC moved to the Angell College Center—“prime real estate” on campus. “With our new location, we’re now in the major pathway for students coming to the ACC for food, club meetings or on their way to the library,” she explained.
Since the start of her tenure, the CDC has increased staffing, adding an employer relations specialist (Tobi Hay) and a halftime career services technology specialist (Michelle St. Onge) in 2014, and an applied learning coordinator (Morgan Pellerin) in 2015. The center also has added five new online technical tools that make career edu- cation and services available to students and alumni 24/7/365; refined programming and services with more strategic efforts for each year of college (first, sophomore, junior, senior); launched several new programs, including Cardinal Chats (informational interviews with alumni) and an Applied Learning Showcase, and expanded the diversity of the center’s career assessment tools. Under Overton-Healy’s direction, the CDC has tripled its student usage numbers and expanded services and resources.
Reaching Back, Looking Forward
The center is also seeing an increase in the number of alumni who are using its services as they navigate career changes. “We help them reconfigure their resumes, for example, or do a career consultation with them if they feel they’ve hit a dead end in [one] industry,” said Overton-Healy. “We help them talk about what skills might transfer into a different industry.”
Several thousand alumni are also using CardinalConnect, the job- posting board, and the career exploration and job search tools that the CDC makes available to them online. “We’re helping [alumni] that we may not actually interact with, simply by making those tools available to them online,” said Overton-Healy. “We’re seeing a few more alumni reach out to us every year.”
Alumni also participate in some of the center’s programming that is designed to help current students explore career trajectories and get more comfortable with the skills that will be expected of them on the job.
For example, the CDC’s Mock Interview Nights give students a chance to do 15-minute “speed interviews” with volunteers. Aside from being fun, Overton-Healy said the quick format also helps students really learn to think on their feet and anticipate questions that might come up in actual interviews.
The center’s newest program, Cardinal Chats, connects students who want to do informational interviews about a certain career path or particular type of job or industry with alumni who have volunteered to talk about their fields. Overton-Healy said career center staff helps prepare the students beforehand—encouraging them to do research, suggesting questions and talking about other things the student might want to know. “And we walk them through the protocol of how to call and ask for an appointment,” she added.
“Then they have these 20- to 30-minute conversations. It’s an amazing experience for students because they get to connect with an alum, and it’s great for the alumni because they feel like they’re giving back, and they are, in very important ways.”
Building “Soft Skills” and Confidence
The students the CDC works with today present an interesting dichotomy. Overton-Healy observes in students what she describes as a “tenderness”—they are not as interested in material things, as they are in making the world a better place. Yet, because they’ve been raised in far more protective environments than previous generations (and in some cases, by so-called “helicopter parents”), they exhibit a certain inability to make their own decisions.
They’ve also had the technological advantage of growing up as digital natives (an advantage that may eventually help them reshape the companies they work for), yet their immersion in technology can make them reluctant to use some of the more traditional—and more nuanced—forms of interpersonal communication demanded by the workplace.
“Communication is always the number one thing employers want, and when they say communication, they mean written as well as oral,” emphasized Overton-Healy. “They want—they expect—students to be tech savvy and when I say tech savvy, it’s more than knowing how to use Microsoft Word or put data into Excel. They expect students to know how to manipulate data, how to use pivot tables, for example. And they expect a social media savvy that even most employers don’t have because they are a little older.” The task of preparing students really becomes more about the myriad ways they will be able to communicate on behalf of their employers and themselves.
“A big element of [the career center’s work],” said Overton-Healy, “is building their self- confidence, self-assurance and self-awareness of what they can do in the world. It’s very much about sitting down with students and saying, ‘Let’s figure out how you want to go forward and change your corner of the planet, and how we’re going to help you do that.’”
TO WORK OR NOT TO WORK?
In addition to encouraging students to think early about their long term goals, Overton-Healy is an advocate for gaining work experience throughout college. “What’s interesting to me is most of our students come into college having worked at least one part-time job before they came to school, but not all.” Many, she explained, have been busy building their college application resumes with athletics or performing arts—perfectly valid and important activities, she said, “but they never learned how to have a job.”
Once in school, that trend continues, often with their parents’ blessing. “They don’t get jobs so they can focus on their academics, but when they go to build a resume, they don’t have any work experience. And therefore they don’t always know how to manage the work experience for themselves.”
At orientation sessions, Overton-Healy sometimes encounters parents who don’t want their kids to work while they’re in college—simply because they want them to keep their grades high. However, having a job may actually make them better.
“If you look at the actual data,” said Overton-Healy, “you and that students who are appropriately busy, and that includes with a job, they actually earn better grades, because they’re not distracted with too much down time.”
She’s told parents, “Students need to have a job. It forces them to learn how to manage time; they learn priority management; they learn valuable working skills.”
PROVIDING OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN BY DOING
One of the newest team members at SUNY Plattsburgh’s Career Development Center is applied learn- ing coordinator Morgan Pellerin. Dr. Overton-Healy said that the CDC invested in this position in response to the SUNY System Administration’s focus on applied learning, and its exploration of making an applied learning experience a graduation requirement, but also, “simply because we at the CDC know that students who complete pre-professional experiences are more marketable.”
Several of the college’s departments have their own robust applied learning programs, such as School of Business and Economics and the School of Education. Pellerin helps students from the School of Arts and Sciences to and applied learning activities, especially in academic majors that may not have such experiences built into the curriculum. He also works with employers and non-proit entities to help create opportunities and to ensure those employers comply with the college’s expectations and standards.
Last year, the CDC received funding
from the SUNY Plattsburgh University Foundation to provide grants to students who wanted to complete an applied learning experience, but who needed financial help to do so. The grants help to defray expenses related to the students’ experiences, such as commuting costs. The Applied Learning Grants program at SUNY Plattsburgh is unique in the SUNY system. Last year, the program disbursed $16,000 to support students in a variety of ways.