How Is Your Institution Preparing Students for Careers and Employability?

by Melanie Booth

Last week I attended a Lumina Foundation convening called Next Generation Work-Based Learning, during which we engaged with five colleges and universities that are addressing work-based learning in a variety of ways. The institutions, represented by small teams (which included students!), were:

This convening  had as its main intention the sharing of current work and challenges related to work-based learning, and laying the groundwork for a potential multi-institutional project focused on enhancing and expanding equity in work-based learning opportunities. If you’re a follower of our work, you will know this is right up our alley, so it was great to be invited to participate and to learn.

I gleaned several take-aways from this convening, including some ways that institutions might reflect on how they are structured and resourced to support their students in preparing for the complex world of work in the 21st century.

1) What is the ratio of career services staff to students? 

Of the five institutions represented, the ratios of career services staff to students were all over the board, and of course this basic metric is by no means an indicator of quality or effectiveness. For one thing, it depends on how you count career services personnel — in some cases, some were career counselors situated in career centers, some were departmental faculty engaged in career-oriented student support (such as internship placements), and some were staff embedded in an academic advising unit or another existing office.  However, it could be useful for institutions to consider the potential of this information as a baseline for what they have in place. Then they could consider how (and how well) career services in all forms are deployed at the institution.

2) Where, how, and how well are career services deployed organizationally?

Some institutions had a designated career support team for individual schools, such as the school of business, and then a career services office for, well, everyone else. Some institutions had faculty charged with advising, including career and internship advising, while a career services office was charged more with helping students prepare for the job search process. Some had career services centralized; others had career services totally decentralized; and of course there are mixed models. Institutions wishing to self-assess might want to first inventory their existing organizational structures, talk to their students to understand the benefits and challenges of the existing structures, consider how to best deploy career services support for all students, and then consider what would be their most useful evidence of effectiveness.

 3) How are institutions addressing inequities in networks that students have?

Coming to college with well-established and helpful networks for career preparation is a particular challenge for low SES and first generation students. To address this inequity and the need for student support in this area, some institutions have designed intentional programs (e.g., alumni mentor housing arrangements for summer internships) that can support network development and networking skills. Likewise, each institution at this meeting was considering how they supported all students in their “professional socialization.” With the new majority students attending higher education, the traditional suite of career services offerings may no longer be sufficient for serving all populations.

4) Do students have on-campus jobs, and if so, to what extent are they intentionally designed as learning opportunities?

On-campus jobs for students can be leveraged as learning opportunities with intentional planning and support structures. For example:

  • Do positions have job descriptions and learning outcomes? Do students know what they can expect to learn from an on-campus job?
  • Are supervisors trained in developing work-based learning in their units and assessing it?
  • Do supervisors give students feedback, and is student performance recorded anywhere?
  • Do students reflect on their experiences and make meaning from them in regard to their professional preparation?
  • Are students engaged in substantive work projects they could add to a portfolio or cite on their resume or LinkedIn profile?

5) How are off-campus jobs leveraged?

58% of students work while enrolled in college. Whether this is full-time or part-time employment, how is the institution intentionally integrating or leveraging these off-campus work experiences for students to connect with their academic learning and to build on professionally?

6) What is the overall coherence of career and professional development programming to support employability preparation across an institution? 

Is the campus as a whole directed not only at academic learning, but at work-based learning and employability preparation? What are the intentional practices in place to support this for all students, and how effective are they as a cohesive approach? Again, these are just a few questions institutions could use to self-assess their own approach and determine any areas to improve.

7) What do students say?

As represented by the students participating in the convening, students themselves (as well as recent alumni) can offer valuable feedback and ideas to better support their professional development and career preparation. It’s worth partnering with students to determine what’s working, what could be improved, and how to go about best supporting students in this area.

On this note, I will conclude with this statement from one of the students represented from these five institutions during the student panel session of the meeting:

Students need to have opportunities to put our ideas into practice, to test, to experiment, to apply, and to deepen our learning and prepare for our futures. Colleges need to provide these opportunities for us; we are not all positioned to get them on our own, or even to know we need them. 

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