How can colleges best prepare students for careers in a volatile, uncertain environment? This is the question recently asked by Marie Cini, the former provost at University of Maryland University College and former president of CAEL.
Career service offices, she observes, are first and foremost job search centers: reviewing résumés, publicizing job openings and arranging interviews. What they are not about, for the most part, is career preparation, a longer and more intense process involving self-analysis, skills building and genuine insights into the job market.
Career preparedness is more important than ever. The employment landscape, already undergoing profound transformations prior to the pandemic, now faces a new crisis. Less than half of those out of work expect to go back to their old jobs.
College and universities need to ask themselves how best to prepare new, existing and returning students for an economy in which the disruptive process of creative destruction has accelerated, job shifts are frequent and employees must repeatedly retool and upskill.
We no longer live in a world where one can start at the bottom and work one’s way up or an environment where one can realistically expect to spend a career at a single company.
Let me offer some suggestions about how to embed career preparation across the undergraduate experience.
1. More students need to undergo a systematic assessment of their interests, skills and aptitudes.
The goal is certainly not to administer an aptitude test, but rather to help students reflect on their skills, interests and goals.
2. Students need to be better apprised about the shifts in the job market and the structure of employment.
Not surprisingly, few students are familiar with the range of job possibilities and the education and training that these require. Nor do they know much about skills gaps, growth sectors or emerging areas of need.
3. Institutions need to offer more courses that address contemporary work life -- and the challenges it poses.
One striking example is Guttman Community College’s Ethnographies of Work, a two-course sequence in which students use workplaces as research sites to practice, refine and master the ethnographic methods of research design, observation, mapping and interview. Another model is Stanford’s Designing Your Life course, which applies design thinking to life and career choices. There are few better ways to understand the hiring process, workplace collaboration and work-life balance issues.
4. Experiential and applied learning need to occupy a bigger place in the undergraduate experience.
Internships, externships, earn-learn and co-op opportunities, field and clinical placements, and service learning all offer exposure to actual work environments, while giving students a chance to apply the skills they have acquired in the academic courses.
5. Make skills workshops, certificate programs and industry-developed professional certifications widely available.
You may have seen that Google is poised to offer online certificates in data analytics, project management and user interface design. It wouldn’t take much for colleges and universities to wrap academic support around such programs.
There are a host of ways that higher educational institutions could help students develop skills that would enhance their employability. Certificate programs, briefer than a minor, and often incorporating an internship or a project, can give students a basic credential in such areas as research methods or sustainability.
6. Establish preprofessional centers.
Many campuses already have a premed and a prelaw center to prepare students to apply to medical, dental or law school. Other popular areas deserve similar support: arts management, business and pretech are obvious examples.
7. Enlist alumni.
Alums are an insufficiently tapped resource. Sure, it’s great when they donate money -- but their value to undergraduates lies elsewhere: in the advice they can offer, and the introductions and connections they can make.
As Cini observes, the split between education and career preparation needs to be bridged. I have had the opportunity to look closely at salary data three and five years after graduation, and in far too many instances, the salary outcomes are shocking. It’s not just for-profits that fail the gainful-employment rule. This Department of Education rule that “requires schools to provide their students with an education adequate enough for them to pay their college loans back” is not unreasonable. I suspect that many students could do better if our institutions provided them with more information about employment opportunities and gave them straightforward ways to build their skills.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.