As a new academic year approaches, the expectations for college career centers have expanded remarkably from even a few years ago.  Once viewed as a place where students came for resume reviews, internship listings, and career fairs, the career centers of today & the future, must grapple with a new set of aspirations, about how best to engage students, employers, and other stakeholders.  They must be agile, innovative, flexible, technologically savvy, and responsive to the shifting needs of their constituents (e.g. students, employers, alumni, academic depts., and senior administrators). It is no longer acceptable to just be a career services center, with effective career coaching, innovative programming, and a robust online career management system.  You must also become a career education center.  That is, you must increase your capacity to address the rapidly evolving career education landscape, especially as it pertains to assessment and to employers’ use of technology in the recruitment process.

My goal as a consultant is to provide strategic & thought partnership, to enable my college career center clients to transform themselves into models of excellence for their institutions, based on their unique circumstances. The following outlines how to facilitate this transformation, in order to become a best-in-class career center for the 21  century and beyond.  In order to thrive, the career centers of today and the future must also become:

1) A Key Partnership Center-  

many career centers are understaffed and overworked, which makes it difficult for their team members to manage their day to day responsibilities, while also focusing on partnership building.  However, the reality is that by investing time in partnership development, you may be able to increase your reach & effectiveness, while lightening your workload in the long-term.  Partnership building entails forging relationships both internally, with academic departments & other Student Affairs offices (e.g. Academic Advising, Orientation), and externally with employers, the community, alumni, and possible donors.  Explore opportunities which will allow you to heighten the visibility of the center, and maximize staff capacity.  For instance, by collaborating with academic departments, you may be able to offer for-credit career classes, which can be taught by both your staff, and by faculty in the specific department. Some career centers even offer non-credit career education classes, as a means to facilitate academic engagement with students. Such partnerships can raise the awareness of students & faculty about your value.

Partnership development will also enable your career center to become the primary information hub for parents, students, faculty members, alumni, employers, and senior administrators to find out about career & labor market trends, internship & employment opportunities, and other career education/career management data.

2) A Quality Assessment Center-

the word “assessment” is consistently tossed about in career center circles. However, it is often not used in an expansive manner.  That is, the types of data which tend to be most important to career centers, and those who supervise this area, is the graduate employment and knowledge rates, usually in the form of First Destination surveys.  Historically, career centers would proudly tout their graduate employment numbers in glossy reports, to demonstrate their effectiveness in helping students find jobs.  Their knowledge rates and employment rates would consistently be above 90%, leaving little room to examine actual gaps in student career behavior (e.g. trends in students who were not employed).  While this information is important, it does not provide a full picture of the effectiveness of a career center’s work.  This kind of assessment data, while necessary for marketing and accreditation purposes, often does not meet the criteria for quality assessment. Quality assessment involves collecting and analyzing data with a level of scientific rigor.

Your center should position itself as a quality assessment center, with staff members who are well versed about key metrics regarding career center success & productivity (e.g. website visits, most often viewed website pages, most common student career concerns, best attended programs, most sought out employers or industries, trends in student career behavior, etc.), and who have the ability to analyze & extract key findings from them.

If you are short-staffed, you might wish to work with your college’s Institutional Research or Data Science department on quality assessment projects.  By consistently conducting quality assessment, your center can capture how best to improve its services and provide useful information to other stakeholders, such as academic departments, who may be curious about their graduates’ career plans and typical career behaviors while still enrolled.

Further, you should consider assessment of your career services operations as a whole.  According to the recent NACE Benchmarking Survey, only 50.8% of career center respondents have assessed their career services’ operations within the last five years, with the primary mode of assessment being student satisfaction surveys.  Given the way technology is rapidly upending recruiting and shifting student & employer expectations, it is critical to utilize a more rigorous assessment method, either in the form of a self-study or an external review, to better understand how to adapt to the changing career education, employer engagement and career management realities, and how your center can enhance or maintain its performance.

3) An Innovation Center –

the old career services center model of the past is extinct, and the career center of the future has yet to be fully defined.  However, career centers of the present should be engaged in the dialogue about what that future will be for students, employers, and other key stakeholders.  True innovation requires that you ask the right questions and are willing to invest time, money, and effort in finding answers to them, such as how best to serve different generations of students, or students from various backgrounds.  Being able to understand & anticipate employers’ changing demands & processes will be critical to being responsive to them.

As a former career center director, I would constantly be pitched the latest innovation by companies that did not truly understand my unique needs or circumstances.  I finally recognized that some of these innovations must emerge from within the career center, rather than by external vendors who don’t fully comprehend the complexities of our work.

Career center staff members are well positioned to offer their perspectives about the key technologies & tools, which would facilitate their work with students and employers, but rarely have the opportunity to weigh in on such matters. Thus, there should be a space created for such discussions to occur, allowing career center staff members to share their expertise with technologists, to build the appropriate tools for their present & future work.  Florida State’s Tech Center is a great example of how to create such collaborative spaces within a university setting.

4) A Professional Development Center

artificial intelligence and other technologies are gaining more influence in how recruiting is done and how work is organized.  As a result, career center staff members are no longer expected to solely review resumes, conduct mock interviews, and discuss career options.  They will now need to prepare students to master video interviews, manage artificial intelligence algorithms, and respond to immersive technologies such as VR.  In order to do so, these staff members will need to learn more about these technologies and the utilization of them by employers.  In this vein, it willbe critical for career center staff, especially the senior leaders, to view their work as a profession & career education as a distinct discipline.   For far too long, career centers and their work have been viewed as separate from more “academic” pursuits.  However, as a vocational psychologist, I have long championed the cause of viewing career education as an academic discipline, akin to psychology or computer science.  Acceptance of career education as a discipline, by both senior administrators and staff members themselves, will bolster a more robust commitment to training & professional development. As such, it will be essential for you to invest in quality and consistent professional development, from conference participation to training throughout the academic year.

5) A Profit Center 

the previous recommendations will require more staff capacity, and greater financial capital.  Unfortunately, too often career centers are viewed as cost centers, rather than profit centers.  That is, the university, either through student fees or direct investment, funds the department, without seeing significant monetary returns. In fact, the previously mentioned NACE Benchmarking Survey indicated that an average of 78% of career center respondents’ total operating budget was funded by their institution.  While such support from your institution is greatly appreciated, according to the survey, the average non-personnel operating budget was $35,000, which remained flat from last year, and is not a robust enough investment to achieve ambitious goals.  Further, career centers tend to be at risk, when the university needs to cut budgets due to financial shortfalls.  Therefore, you should consider other innovative revenue streams, such as employer partnership programs, securing grants, and obtaining sponsorship.  For instance, by receiving a small research grant from the NACE Foundation, I was able to conduct a study, which resulted in a greater understanding of the career behavior of our diverse student population.  By focusing on the issue of profitability, without losing the integrity of your mission, you can quickly establish yourself as a department that contributes financially to its own success, which in turn will encourage your institution to invest more readily.

As the value proposition of colleges and universities continues to be debated, your career center has a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate its unique significance in supporting students in their transitions during and after their academic tenure. While some of these recommendations might seem daunting, by committing to a manageable portion of them, you will find that your career center will quickly be on the path to transforming into the best-in-class institution you aspire to be.

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