Thursday, May 16, 2013

Career Services as Educational Appetizers

I have to confess some bias when it comes to career services, since my Mom directs the career services office for the MBA program at Drexel.  

That said, I was a little disappointed in this piece from IHE about recommended changes for career services offices on campus.  As provocative as the title was, the content struck me as, if anything, tame.

The traditional model for career services offices involves a few counselors who see students on a drop-in basis, usually at the end of their academic careers, and who try to coach the soon-to-be grads on search and interview skills.  In more progressive places -- hi, Mom! -- they’re involved in co-ops and internships.  

The idea behind the traditional model is that soon-to-be grads are already pretty much good to go; they just need to learn some etiquette points to get past the initial interview.  It’s assumed that students will figure out for themselves that they need the help, so just run a few workshops on resume writing and interview basics and call it good.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen a welcome trend take hold.  Instead of waiting until the end of a student’s program and then trying to retrofit a student for what’s out there, now some colleges are building career counseling into the first semester.  The idea is to help students identify their own interests early on, with the goal of improving motivation for degree completion.  Students with clear goals are likelier to stick around through the hard times than are students who are just drifting through.  “Interest inventories” and the like are supposed to help students figure out where their particular strengths and passions are, the better to find the right fit.

Going farther, I would love to see a more thoughtful discussion between the career services folk and the future starving artists.  You want to be a painter/photographer/artisan furniture maker?  Okay.  You should probably take a course on how to start your own business.  How, exactly, do freelancers handle marketing, taxes, and budgeting?  For people who want to make a living with their art, these are not trivial matters.  In this case, arts education and business education aren’t oppositional; the latter enables the former.  Some perfectly wonderful artists have come to grief because they did not know how to handle those things, so they wound up either not handling them, or being taken advantage of by the people to whom they turned for help.  And while local employers aren’t necessarily clamoring for more artists, people with passion have a way of making their own breaks.  As Richard Florida has documented, a thriving arts community has a way of paying off for everyone else.  If students with a passion for music learn how the economics of it work, they’ll stand a much better chance of being able to make music for a long time.

Early exposure to career services can also help in some of the more traditional academic disciplines.  When I taught at DeVry, students who saw themselves as future LAN technicians used to ask me why they had to take my gen ed classes.  I told them that their tech skills would get them their first job, but their communication skills would get them promoted.  Hearing that same message early on from the career services people would have helped.

And it’s not just rhetoric.  I go to plenty of employer advisory boards, in a host of fields, and I always hear the same thing.  Yes, technical skills matter, but so do the “soft skills” of deriving meaning from ambiguity, communicating clearly, and knowing the difference between making an argument and having an argument.  (I know educated adults who struggle with that one.)  If students could hear that early, from people who don’t have an obvious vested interest -- which is to say, the instructor of the course in question -- it could save a lot of unnecessary struggle.

I suspect that the “afterthought” status of career services, on many campuses, is a holdover from the time when it was assumed that college-educated people already had the cultural capital upon arrival to navigate the work world; all they might need would be a few last-minute pointers.  But that’s just not true anymore, if it ever was.  For students who really don’t know the score upon arrival, waiting until they’re leaving is just too late.  Better to get to them early, so they can appreciate what the academic side of the college can offer before it’s gone.