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Campus career centres step up to better serve students

Moving beyond the traditional resumé-writing workshops, many centres are now helping students conceive of their career paths from the start of their studies.

By SUZANNE BOWNESS | FEB 20 2019

University career centres: that’s where you go to get a tuneup on your resumé and cover letter as you’re graduating, right? Yes, just before you exit the ivory tower into the warm embrace of various employers all waiting to welcome you to the working world.

If you’re shaking your head at the notion of an employer receiving line, you should equally be rolling your eyes at the old-fashioned campus career centre description. While the traditional career centre services are in place and as popular as ever – with individual career advising, workshops and, yes, that resumé consultation near the top – most centres have significantly broadened their offerings to focus more on career exploration, self-assessment and even experiential learning. They’re also pursuing students more proactively via partnerships with clubs and departments, and reaching out to students earlier in their educational trajectories. All with the purpose of helping students navigate the Wild West that is today’s working world, with its economic uncertainty, gig mentality and AI invasion.

A good starting point for exploring career centre best practices is a 2017 report entitled Insight into Canadian Post-Secondary Career Service Models. The study was authored by Peter Dietsche, president of PSE Information Systems, which works with postsecondary institutions to improve student outcomes, and was funded by CERIC, a charitable organization that aims to advance career counselling and career development. The report provides an overview of the postsecondary career centre landscape in this country and identifies seven criteria that make a career centre impressive, as identified by a survey of career professionals at 67 participating institutions (32 colleges and 35 universities).

Narrowed from a list of 18, the top seven criteria include: regularly evaluating services, using student satisfaction measures to improve services, measuring outcomes for students and other clients, collecting student use statistics for face-to-face services, embedding career topics in programs, promoting student-faculty dialogue on careers, and collaborating with campus stakeholders. Not surprisingly, these criteria also encapsulate the changes that most career centres have enacted in recent years.

Early intervention

Once among a student’s last stops before leaving university, today’s campus career centres are positioned to catch students’ attention earlier. “We underwent a review and a shift about 10 years ago from helping new grads to look for work to helping students in university conceive of their career path as early as first or second year,” says Tony Botelho, director of career and volunteer services at Simon Fraser University.

Graham Donald, founder and president of the Brainstorm Strategy Group Inc., which advises both employers and educators on improving students’ school-to-work transitions, conducts an annual survey on student career interests. He says students often are aware of only a handful of the multitude of careers and employers out there available to them.

Students also don’t seem to realize the potential value of extracurricular activities and other experiential opportunities to lead them towards their eventual career path. Considering that their focus as high school students was on the grades needed to get into university, Mr. Donald says that students now need to be retrained to think of new goals and to embrace the university experience itself. “University is growing up, it’s clubs, it’s teams, it’s fear, it’s who you are amongst many other smart people. It’s standing up for yourself, while your parents probably did a lot of that before,” he says.

Rather than taking students away from academics, illuminating various career paths often adds a sense of purpose by making course choices and extracurriculars seem more relevant as students realize they’re a way to test out their interests. “We want to support them in gaining some clarity in terms of how to navigate this experience,” says Mr. Botelho. He also reassures students that it’s OK for career plans to evolve. “We debunk notions of linearity,” he says. “Some of our messaging is that almost any degree can lead to almost any occupation.” Bringing in the career angle helps them to focus their efforts and to keep them interested in finding ways to shine, knowing it can have a payoff later on.

At Queen’s University, the director of career services and experiential learning, Cathy Keates, and her team have created a series of “Major Maps” to help students navigate potential futures. The maps recommend not only courses but extracurricular and volunteer experiences that might be valuable to pursue in each year of a program in order to achieve particular career goals.

An example of a Major Map (click to see a larger version): 

For an art history major in second year, for example, the map recommends not only courses but particular galleries to volunteer at, books to read and how to network via LinkedIn. By third year, it reminds students to attend the department’s annual art history graduate conference and to consider a summer course abroad.

Since the maps launched in 2015, they have had over 150,000 downloads online (they are also available in print form on campus). “We’ve used the map as the metaphor: when you go to a new place, you often look at a map,” says Ms. Keates, noting that career requirements and extracurriculars are not necessarily intuitive to new students. “They help them feel more confident about making informed decisions.”

At Université Laval, André Raymond, director of career services, says providing industry profiles and market analysis has become a significant focus of his office. An online portal allows students to see career profiles in 70 fields, along with the kinds of competencies required by employers. “The most important change in our industry is to be more accurate about the quality of information we provide on the job market,” says Mr. Raymond. He says he regularly conducts industry focus groups to keep the information fresh and shares the results with faculties for curriculum updates.

Experiential learning

In addition to illuminating future possibilities, many universities are increasingly facilitating a career test-drive through experiential learning. At the University of Waterloo, already well-known for its long-standing and highly regarded co-op program, Jennifer Woodside, director of the Centre for Career Action, says seeking out experiences as a student can help determine what careers they might be interested in. “Because people are engaging in the workforce from an early point in their studies, they are finding their own ideas and assumptions about where they might fit are validated or challenged right from the beginning,” she says.

Ms. Woodside adds that U of Waterloo’s career centre is testing new resources to help students take full advantage of the university’s flagship co-operative education program, including a Ready for Co-op? self-assessment tool. The career centre also partners with the U of Waterloo Professional Development Program (WatPD) to deliver WatPD’s EDGE academic certificate that helps students take stock of their skills and learn how to present themselves professionally.

At the University of Manitoba, director of career services Gail Langlais says her team encourages career investigation as well. “If students get that experience early in their degree, it can inform their class choices and also other experiences they engage in, and their career path,” she says. The centre also offers a career mentor program to connect students with industry representatives for informational interviews.

Many universities are also incorporating a reflective element into their experiential learning offerings. Wilfrid Laurier University, for example, has added reflection at many levels, from questions built into the Laurier Experience Record experiential-learning tracking tool, to reflective exercises like journaling and discussions added to career presentations in the classroom.

Seeking out students

Proactively seeking out students for career presentations is another change on most campuses. Gone are the days when career centres simply posted a few signs around campus and expected students to show up. Today’s career centres are embracing partnerships with many groups and bringing their message to students where they already congregate: academic departments, student clubs, residences, other on-campus services, and even to off-campus partners in industry and the community.

While universities often have a main office for career services, it’s now common to have additional satellite offices, especially if it’s a large campus. Some of these offices may serve particular populations, for instance international students or designated equity groups (i.e., women, people with disabilities, Indigenous peoples and visible minorities). “For a long time, the thinking was to have everything in one student services centre, but now there is also room for a decentralized model, since research has shown that services are more successful when they are close to where a student lives on campus,” says Dr. Dietsche of PSE Information Systems.

At Université Laval, for example, the campus has seven different offices. Queen’s offers drop-in career advising in the offices for international students, Indigenous students and mature women students. U of Waterloo’s career centre partners with the International Peer Community Group to make the most of that group’s knowledge of the particular challenges of career exploration for international students.

Yet another cohort now receiving focused attention through specialized workshops and career fairs is graduate students. At U of Waterloo, the career centre hires PhD students to facilitate an in-class skills awareness and articulation program for grad students. The students reflect on their graduate experience and identify practical applications for the skills they’ve acquired. Additionally, a new “alt-ac” job shadowing program provides PhD students with access to mentorship opportunities in university departments like the accessibility office, centre for teaching excellence and libraries. At Queen’s, a PhD-to-community initiative sets up similar programs with the local community.

Career centres are additionally enlisting the help of empathetic faculty members to spare some of their precious class time for in-class workshops. Although some academics still regard the career centre with suspicion, many once-reticent faculty are increasingly open to integrating career talks into their classroom, a boon for career centres looking to raise awareness of their services. “Getting into the classroom is kind of the Holy Grail for most service departments because that’s where you have a captive audience, literally,” says Dr. Dietsche.

At Laurier, a new career-integrated learning program tailors presentations to professors’ assignments, helping students to articulate the broader skills that they are developing in their coursework. “Often students are taking the course, but not really thinking about it as a skill development that they’re able to then articulate to employers or relate to their career development,” says Jan Basso, Laurier’s assistant vice-president, experiential learning and career development.

Extending offerings online

Another promising destination for career centre offerings is online. At Université Laval, which claims to offer the most online credited courses in Canada and where 70 percent of students are taking at least one course online, the career centre has started to offer online meetings with career counsellors. At U of Manitoba, a Career Compass portal connects students with academic advisers, faculty and career services, and a CareerCONNECT platform hosts job boards and an events calendar. The Laurier Experience Record portal allows students to track and reflect on their co-curricular and extracurricular experiential learning.

Universities are also developing their presence on technology platforms where students hang out. U of Waterloo launched an innovative series of “Ask Me Anything” career panels on the Reddit platform, where the university community has over 30,000 subscribers. The panels received over 19,000 views. The university’s career centre has also experimented with the popular Chinese WeChat platform.

At Queen’s, the career centre and student government launched a contest asking students to write down all their activities on a white board and upload a photograph to Instagram as a way of emphasizing the importance of embracing the extracurricular experience. After the success of the first year of the campaign, they challenged other schools to take part with the hashtag #italladdsup, which saw the participation of 46 career centres last year.

Besides this impressive effort to reach students, career centres are also changing as a unit. For one, staff are becoming more professionalized. Many have undergone specialized training, although there are still few student-focused career development certificates in Canada (Dr. Dietsche notes that there are many more available in the U.S.). Meanwhile, the CERIC report notes a correlation between universities with more successful career centres and support from senior administration. Mr. Donald of Brainstorm Strategy Group points out that career centre staff are also starting to gain increased recognition within administration, pointing to Ms. Basso’s assistant vice-president title at Laurier as a positive example (previously, titles usually only extended to the director level).

Ms. Basso agrees that career centres are making decided steps forward within the university community. “We were viewed as basically a separate office that students would go to for career development assistance. Now, we’re viewed as a partner in the delivery of holistic education to our students,” she says.

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  1. Heather Workman / February 21, 2019 at 14:05

    Rather than rush through required classes to graduation, encouraging students to take advantage of work integrated learning and co-curricular experiences, starting in term one, is key. So many students start with preconceived ideas of what they will become. Yet when students try volunteering, joining a club or searching out co-op, internship or field school options, they are opened to a whole new realm of possibilities and often career trajectory. Many of our interactive Co-op & Career Centres see student skill gaps and encourage this type of exploration and development throughout the four or more years of interaction with students.

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