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CAREER ADVICE

The role of the university career centre evolves with the times

Career centres are providing students with a range of new options to help them with the changing job market.

By ZANE SCHWARTZ | JUL 24 2013

Career centres are changing, trying to integrate what they do with the rest of the university, and providing students with the skills that will serve them throughout their professional lives – not just in finding their first job upon graduation.

Karen Foster, a postdoctoral fellow at St. Mary’s University, does research on youth unemployment and underemployment. She says that while universities are primarily institutions of higher learning, inherently different from colleges or vocational schools, they “do have some obligation to prepare students for the labour market.”

At the University of Regina, a hands-on approach to helping students find jobs is taken from day one. During frosh week, students are “bombarded” with information about the co-op program, paid internship placements and the unique “UR Guarantee” program, says Kevin Bolen, director of student employment and engagement.

The first cohort of students enrolled in the guarantee program graduated this year. They’ve spent the past four years receiving training on networking, resumé writing, interviewing skills and, for many, a series of job placements. If the participating students can’t find work within six months of graduation, the university promises to pay for another year of school for them, so they can hone existing skills or get another degree.

At most universities in Canada, career centres are not a priority, says Mr. Bolen: “Many career centres are self-funded, through employers paying for spots at job fairs, postings for students and space rental.” Heather Kelly, who runs the career centre at the University of Toronto, says this isn’t so at U of T. While they take in some money from employers, says Ms. Kelly, the university administration provides “the vast majority” of funds. U of T’s career centre, like many, is “changing with the times” she says. Ms. Kelly points to a pilot program run last year called Explore It, which paired a class of second-year political science students with recent graduates who have established successful careers. “It provided students with an opportunity to see that there are so many options out there, no matter what you’re studying,” she says.

U of T is one of five schools that make up the University Career Centre Metrics Working Group. The group, founded in 2007, also includes Trent University, Western University, University of Waterloo and University of Windsor. Composed of the directors of university career centres, the group collaborates on where they see value in their own practices, and how universities can improve what they do.

Kristi Kerford, a founding member of the working group and director of the career centre at Trent, says “the mandate of a career centre is not to place students – it’s to help students gain skills to place themselves.” Ms. Kerford explains that the group came together to try and understand the impact they were having on students, and how to improve all their services, not just help students find jobs.

Ms. Kerford says that a university career centre needs to help students establish the skills that will serve them well at any point in their life. Students at Trent are predominantly in the arts and sciences and so may not have a well-defined career path. “When a nursing student comes to see me, it’s pretty straightforward. When it’s an English major, it’s less so. That’s why teaching skills, not just getting them a job, is so important,” Ms. Kerford says.

Across Canada, career centres are rolling out a variety of new programs designed to respond to a changing job market. At Ryerson University, the WhoPlusYou system is entering its third year. Instead of students searching for jobs, employers search for them. Students upload select information on a database that employers can access to search for graduates to match their needs.

At the University of British Columbia, the career centre is being merged with the Centre for Student Involvement. It’s part of a broader trend at UBC, but also across Canada, to try and integrate the whole university in career services. “Career is an outcome that can’t be owned by one office,” says Janet Teasdale, UBC’s director of student development.

While career centres try and integrate with other departments, and conduct outreach, they still often miss students who simply don’t know about the services on offer, or come in too late, says Jessica McCormick, national chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students.

She sees the real problem as university administrations that do not focus on career education. “Career centres are often doing fantastic work but if the university doesn’t see helping students get jobs as part of its function, it’s very difficult.”

Ms. McCormick, who worked at the career centre at Memorial University while a student, believes that universities could do more to promote their services. “If a student doesn’t come in to the career centre until the end of fourth year, the options are far more limited” she says, explaining that often career centres have the resources to help, but students just don’t know about them, or aren’t seeking them out.

At the University of Regina, the focus on helping students find jobs is pervasive. All students, regardless of field of study, have to complete at least one semester of experiential learning, such as a co-op or internship. “We see our role differently from a lot of other schools” says Mr. Bolen, “parents like knowing there’s a practical part of every degree that can lead to a good paying job.”

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