We left the days when college students could spend four years without ever setting foot in their campus career services center in the rearview about four years ago. New grads could get away with it then — the job market was solid, and hiring was still steady. Then the Great Recession grabbed the economy around the throat with its icy fingers and refused to let go. While things are finally starting to look up for college students, career counselors in higher ed have seen the handwriting on the wall and realized they’ll have to adapt to do their jobs successfully.
One of the biggest paradigm shifts in the career advising world has been targeting students earlier, as in freshman year, instead of waiting until junior or senior year to try to place them. Schools like Providence College seize on parents’ weekend (they call it “Freshmen Family Weekend”) as an opportunity to inform Mom and Dad at the same time as Junior on what his options are for career development assistance. Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston partly credits its strong placement rates to connecting with kids sooner rather than later.
But many schools, including Wentworth, are not only offering their services sooner, they’re extending them to alumni. These offerings range from the more basic, but free, to the thorough, but paying members only. Penn State — one of the best-rated career services providers in the country — assists over half a million of its graduates around the country (and, presumably, around the world) with one-on-one counseling, webinars and workshops, and networking events. Wentworth’s Career Services partners closely with the school’s Office of Alumni Relations and the school’s alumni association to both help recent graduates find work and keep older alums looking to hire kids from their alma mater in the loop.
Speaking of webinars, career advisers have also sharpened their matchmaking skills to take advantage of today’s tech. No longer do students have to wait around for a career fair to connect with a hiring company. Some career services departments have set up online portals to connect recruiters with their student body by posting internship, part-time, and full-time employment opportunities. And some have done the reverse, compiling job postings from multiple sources into one easily searchable resource for students.
And as in virtually every other sector of American life, social media has come to play a part in the new career services, as well. Many centers or individual counselors maintain regularly updated blogs with tips and tricks and updates for on-campus career-planning events. Since it’s pretty much a perfect vehicle for sharing such info, handfuls of colleges have also jumped onto Twitter” and Facebook to connect with their audiences in an arena they know students spend a good chunk of their time each day.
Law school students have faced a particularly brutal job market in recent years, with only around half of them securing full-time jobs that actually required their legal expertise. To help, career services at schools like Moritz at The Ohio State University got proactive, stretching their contact network across the country and reaching out to law firms and businesses that typically had not sought law grads before. They also began monitoring students’ job searches after graduation, tailoring their help to pinpoint the specific kinds of jobs students want and helping them craft resumes and cover letters. They even added two counselors with law degrees themselves.
Unfortunately, adding more paycheck-drawing employees to the department roster has not been the norm in this new era of career services. Surprising as it may seem, most career centers have had to deal with less money in the budget. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the median funding level for career centers declined 8% between 2010 and 2012. The average ratio of students to counselors in 2012 was an astounding 1,645:1. And with a poor job market facilitating a rise in their popularity on campus, you can bet today’s counselors are having to learn to be efficient to survive.
Of course, many of the things career counselors have always done — providing resume help, teaching networking skills, facilitating interview practice — they’re still doing. These will always be staples of the role that they play in helping students join the working world. The difference in these basic areas is just a subtle one, one that helps make the schools that earn the highest grades for career services so good: a focus on real-world value. Counselors and students alike now recognize like never before just how much the odds are against them, and they’re committed to teaching and learning, respectively, the things employers are looking for.