Career/Tech Education

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Essays on how to improve connections to careers for undergraduates

Inside Higher Ed and the Strada Education Network hosted a virtual event last month with current college students on career exploration during the pandemic. We asked several experts and one of the student panelists to write essays about how colleges and universities can better bridge gaps between education and the job market. Those essays follow.
-- Paul Fain

Student Employment in the Pandemic

By Jaime Nunez

As an organization that employs college students, we have experienced firsthand many of the themes discussed in the “In Their Own Voices” webinar. Like these students, the learners we work with every day have faced a rapid succession of challenges and adjustments during the COVID-19 pandemic. Through their experiences, there is so much we can learn about how best to support their success.

As Kasey Fox asked in the webinar, "In coursework, how can we teach students soft and hard skills -- things that students will need to know after college?” We understand the challenge. In fact, this question was the driving force behind launching Education at Work (EAW) in 2012. Our goal, then and now, is to employ college students on behalf of innovative business clients in technology services, financial services and health care, empowering students to minimize their college loan debt while gaining practical work experience, developing their skills and expanding their professional networks so they can transition into strong careers after college.

When the pandemic reached the United States last spring, over 1,000 students were working with EAW on-site at campus locations around the country.

We’ve all seen the disruption such changes have caused and how students’ plans and support systems have been impacted. In a recent Strada Public Viewpoint survey, 53 percent of college students reported they had jobs or internships canceled because of the pandemic.

EAW students can be particularly vulnerable to those disruptions: 40 percent are first-generation college students; 72 percent say our tuition assistance program -- up to $5,250 per year -- is critical to funding their education. With their needs in mind, we made a decision that many employers would find risky -- and it has paid off.

Since shifting to remote work, we have seen an increase in the overall productivity of our student population. Without the need to commute to a physical location, students are working more hours without having to sacrifice their academic coursework -- all while increasing metrics and key performance indicators for our clients. And while we know external factors may be involved, EAW’s retention through the pandemic is at an all-time high.

Certainly, there were challenges and risks to consider -- among them security compliance, employee performance and financial investments for necessary work-from-home equipment and technology. But we trusted our student workforce to continue to deliver as they shifted and adjusted to this new way of working.

Along the way, we identified three lessons that are important to managing student employees remotely:

  1. Value the benefits of personal communication. Without having a supervisor they can see in person and turn to for questions, our students must rely on one another through virtual and digital channels. So we have created more frequent informal check-ins and virtual events to increase students’ sense of connection. We’re finding the personal touch of a phone call has a larger engagement impact than ever before. Similarly, the investment in a personal experience -- such as a care package or a personalized gift -- carries more weight and influences retention now more than ever.
  2. Impress the importance of structure and responsibility. We’ve helped our students understand the importance of professional etiquette when working at home. We’ve also been candid in outlining how the conveniences of remote working also come with additional responsibilities -- including the need to set work-life boundaries. We work to ensure each of their home-work environments meets our security and compliance standards, and we also adjusted our hiring process to include new questions to identify those who could meet the needed daily job expectations on their own.
  3. Seek partners to support student well-being. At first, our students were hugely appreciative of the work-from-home situation -- there was a sense of novelty to it. But once that novelty began to wear off and interpersonal connections were lost, we saw increased mental health issues set in. As these issues arose, we connected with our university partners to ensure every team member was equipped with the mental health and counseling information their institutions were providing. At the end, leveraging our relationship with university partners, we were able to triage student issues -- ultimately leading us to retain students at EAW and their universities.

Despite the uncertainty, we’re learning from this experience and seeking the best ways to thrive while meeting our mission to see our students succeed. And we know the best way for our organization to thrive is to ask our students what they need to do so themselves. Working together -- colleges, employers and, most importantly, student workers -- everyone will benefit.

Jaime Nunez is president of Education at Work, a Strada Education Network affiliate.


“That’s great and all, but how will it help me get a job?” -- A professor’s reflection on career connections and course content

By Timothy L. Hawthorne

He sat in the back row of my introduction to geographic information systems (GIS) and mapping class. He looked uninterested as I lectured on the theoretical and societal challenges of working with GIS and mapping technologies. I had just finished what I thought was an illuminating point about the tracking and surveillance challenges of location-based mapping applications that are rampant on our smartphones and tablets.

I talked about the ethical implications and limits of using such technology to map people. I let the class know that we could perhaps use these same mapping technologies for the “public good” if we encourage participatory and community-based uses of the technologies. I asked the class to think about how to involve everyday citizens in mapping work and in environmental and social decision making.

The hand of the student in the back row shot up into the air. I was encouraged. I thought I said something that piqued his interest. Instead, I received a rather critical, inquisitive look and he said, “That’s great and all, but how will it help me get a job?” A few vigorous head nods ensued from those around him. I could sense I was losing the room and my audience.

That moment happened about eight years ago in one of my undergraduate courses. At first, the question bothered me. It made me wonder why the student couldn’t figure out how the elaborate critical theory and GIS point I just discussed mattered to him. But as I’ve reflected more over the last few years, I agree with the spirit of his critical question. As a professor, my hope is that students take knowledge gained in my courses and apply it to something they are passionate to find a career they love. This student’s question revealed what I was missing. Maybe my connection between critical GIS theory, mapping data, course content and careers wasn’t as apparent as I had thought?

Students want a clear pathway to their next step. They want their classroom learning, and their investment in time and coursework, to lead somewhere. I was failing that student and his classmates not because my content was uninteresting and unimportant, but because it appeared unconnected to a career outcome, which in this student’s case included hopefully becoming an environmental GIS analyst.

How could I better connect course content to career aspirations? For that I turned to my colleagues in industry. I encouraged my students to attend regional user group meetings and conferences with GIS industry leaders at all levels, and I joined them at these industry events as well. I invited these same industry colleagues to engage formally in my classes and research team meetings as part of careers sessions and outside class in informal career dialogues in panels, at conferences and over Zoom in the COVID-19 world. And I built in time for students to ask me and these industry experts questions about career development and networking.

A seismic shift followed, for both my students and me.

The energy and excitement from my students in my courses and in our research group hit new levels. The students asked more questions, they wrote more emails, they met more people and they showed a renewed interest in learning technical skills in a way that considered the implications of these technologies in society (that lesson I was trying to make in class back then). The new excitement wasn’t because I told them these skills and ideas were important, but because industry leaders (including some of their recent peers who graduated and had success on the market) told them these skills and ideas were important.

The shift in mind-set and inclusion of new industry voices allowed our students to see the connections between course content and their career goals. And importantly, it centered their possibilities and aspirations at the core of their learning. This shift made me a better faculty member. I fed off the energy in the classroom, in our team meetings and every time I received an email of excitement saying a student had made an industry connection or landed a new position.

For faculty that are hesitant to integrate more professional development and career readiness training into their courses for fear of it “watering down” their course content, my advice would be that it is OK. It’s enhancing content, not replacing it. Adding in career discussions, dialogues with industry contacts and talking about cover letters and résumés allows our students to make connections between our course content and their career interests. To me, at the end of the day, that’s what I hope happens as a professor.

The student in the back row with the frustrated career question helped me recognize the power of career connections in my own course content. Now, more than ever, in an uncertain economic time, we can do more to better connect our student learning experiences to career goals. And by the way, the student with the frustrating question -- he ended up landing his environmental GIS position. And that point I made about critical theory and people mattering in mapping? He said that helped him land the big role at the company he ended up working for because they liked that he understood that people mattered in the technology and that communicating with stakeholders was a core value of their organization. Connection made.

Timothy L. Hawthorne is an associate professor of GIS at the University of Central Florida and founding director of Citizen Science and GeoBus™. He and his team work to connect science and society through maps, apps and drones. You can learn more about the team’s work at www.citizensciencegis.org.


Life After College

By Kasey Fox

Ensuring students are prepared for life after college is no easy task. It is not a line you check off on a to-do list or a topic you revisit once a year; the stakes are too high.

The right approach should be for colleges to make readying students for the workforce part of a mission statement so deeply embedded within every nook and cranny of an institution that it drives and influences every decision made and serves as an orbital centerpiece for all policy and procedure.

Despite the expectation that students graduate from college and enter the job market equipped with a certain level of skill sets and knowledge, many find it difficult to apply the knowledge learned in the classroom to real life. In a country with some of the most innovative technology and brilliant human minds, surely there are solutions within reach to help better prepare students for the workforce.

Increasing student support means to reach them through multiple attempts, on various levels, through diversified channels, while continuously revisiting what that mission statement is and evaluating its relevancy to educational objectives. All too often, colleges are so focused on enrollment, recruiting strategies or producing high retention and graduation rates that they lose sight of the underlying objective -- supporting students. Instead, they could redirect some of those efforts to supporting faculty members in finding more creative approaches for designing coursework and lesson plans.

Most professors have professional experience outside the classroom within their discipline, and many are active in those roles in addition to teaching. Why, then, is there a gap between the real-world applications of a class and what is taught in the classroom? It’s far more useful to the student to get insights into future job and career opportunities.

Reading from a textbook simply does not provide students with valuable contextualized learning experiences. The use of knowledge needs to be the priority, not the possession of knowledge.

Students often have an expectation to be entertained by the instructor in the classroom. It might sound like an outlandish concept, but what if instead of ignoring it, this desire for entertainment was embraced? This would mean supporting students by meeting them where they are and by devising alternative teaching methods such as storytelling, field trips, guest speakers -- anything students can attach meaning to as they inch closer and closer to that life after college phase.

Feedback plays such a vital role in students' overall growth and development. Students want more thorough feedback on assignments and graded materials. How are their writing skills going to improve if no one outside an English class is giving them feedback on grammar and word choice? If the goal of the assignment is simply to reach a certain word count, where is the applicability to a real job?

Instructors are accountable for incorporating learning about what happens in the job market into their courses, and universities are accountable for providing them with the support they need to do so. I taught swimming lessons and coached competitively for many years. If a student was having difficulty grasping a certain stroke concept, it was not because they didn’t try hard enough or weren’t smart enough. It was because I failed. Somewhere along the line I had failed to teach that student in a way they were able to understand.

One approach worth investigating would be to simply ask students to jot down the types of activities they think someone in that profession performs on a day-to-day basis. Compare those responses against actual duties and fill in the gaps from there. Best practices can change so quickly within any given industry. And it’s important for students to study the most relevant and current information.

Career centers could provide better services that extend beyond the basics of career readiness. Perhaps they could break down what they offer by category, where career center staff members handle specific focus areas instead of one person managing all program majors.

Alumni also are an underused resource. Creating mentorship programs between students and alumni would help students feel more connected to the university and provide them with a wider support network. Alumni also would benefit from being able to give back and help guide another student to success on a path they’ve already traveled.

The bottom line is that there needs to be greater focus on supporting students in life after college -- a mission statement pursued with the same tenacity college leaders and professors encourage their students to bring to their pursuit of a degree.

Kasey Fox is a senior at Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis.


In a Virtual World, We Can’t Afford to Wait for the Class of 2021 to Wander Into Career Services
By Christine Cruzvergara

The Class of 2021 is growing worried about their job prospects -- and rightfully so. In the midst of the global pandemic, about one-quarter of undergraduates seeking bachelor’s degrees say they have had a job or internship offer canceled. According to a recent survey of 980 students, less than 40 percent of students feel confident they’ll find a job or internship by summer 2021.

Career goals have long been a primary reason students go to college, yet few institutions have positioned career education as a core student experience. About 40 percent of students never visit a college career center, with students from marginalized and low-income backgrounds being especially unlikely to use the services. In this moment of crisis, it is essential we bring these services directly to students and stop hoping they will wander through the career center’s door on their own.

Here are five ways we can elevate career education on college campuses.

Integrate Career Services Into the Academic Mission

About half of career centers report to student affairs when academic affairs would be a far more apt home for their services. At many institutions, academics are the one true, common requirement of every student. Integrating career education more fully into the academic experience can ensure no students -- particularly underrepresented students -- fall through the cracks. Career education should be embedded in every step of a student’s academic journey, with career competencies and experiential learning being directly linked to course syllabi and pedagogical practices.

Fortunately, this is a growing trend among institutions, with about a quarter of career centers now reporting to academic affairs. Drew University’s Launch, Carthage College’s Aspire Program and Georgia State University’s College to Career QEP efforts are all strong examples of bold and systemic integration of career education into the academic experience.

Use Technology to Scale Services

Rethinking career services may seem like a daunting goal, especially when, according to a recent survey of career services leaders, half of career centers have had their budgets cut during the pandemic. Technology can expand the reach of career services so institutions can smartly use their limited resources to personalize services for the students who need it most. Requiring all students to activate and complete an online career profile as part of course enrollment, for example, can guarantee that every student is automatically exposed to career resources.

For many students, this one act will provide them with enough of a nudge to engage more fully in their career education, freeing up time and energy for staff to focus on students who require greater outreach and intervention. This creates a system that is designed for scale and where one-on-one services are ancillary, enabling a sort of office-hours structure reserved for students who lack networks of privilege and might need the most help.

Tap Alumni and Community

Research from Gallup and the Strada Education Network has found that having “a mentor who encourages a student’s goals and dreams” ranks among the most important factors in determining if a college graduate finds success in work and in life. Unfortunately, few students report having a mentor. Institutions should activate organic connections between students and alumni who can provide guidance and encouragement. Johns Hopkins University, for example, has pivoted from one-on-one career services appointments to focus more heavily on alumni mentoring and peer-to-peer learning models. This allows the university to redirect professional staff toward focusing more directly on academic integration while providing students access to mentors with real-world experience.

Embrace Virtual Experiences

As the pandemic continues to complicate face-to-face interactions between students and potential employers, digital experiences are especially vital. Eight in 10 students now tell us they have only met with employers virtually this year. This shift has helped reveal just how valuable virtual experiences can be -- and the importance of not treating them as second-class versions of face-to-face interactions.

We have seen how a well-planned virtual meeting between a student and an employer can be even more meaningful than a brief walk-up (or walk-by) at a physical career fair. We have seen how these interactions generate greater data and insights into how many students are actually connecting with employers. And we have seen how they can expand access, allowing busy students the flexibility they need to engage with these opportunities. Institutions can embrace and optimize virtual experiences, even beyond the pandemic.

Help Employer Mind-Sets Evolve

Higher education is only half the equation. Employers, too, must reimagine how they identify and hire workers. They should eschew traditional recruiting methods like focusing only on small sets of core schools and setting arbitrary GPA requirements, and they should use digital strategies to dive deeper into more diverse talent pipelines. Widening recruitment windows, using more inclusive language in job descriptions and being more transparent about compensation all go a long way in diversifying applicant pools. Institutions can leverage the relationships they have built with employers to encourage this shift, opening their eyes to the talent all around them.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illuminated and reinforced the need for change. Many of these suggestions do not require extensive resources, but they will require systemic coordination across the institution and real commitment from senior leaders. It’s time to align career education as a core experience for every student at every institution.

Christine Cruzvergara is vice president of higher education and student success at Handshake and the former associate provost and executive director of career education for Wellesley College.

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Strengthening Equity in Career and Technical Education

An Urban Institute-led partnership will work to support community and technical colleges with the transition to online learning. The project includes a focus on closing completion gaps, particularly for Black and Latino students in online, credit-bearing bearing career and technical education programs.

The ECMC foundation is contributing $2.5 million to the effort, which will include the National Council for Workforce Education, the Instructional Technology Council and others in a coalition that will support 15 community and technical colleges.

“CTE programs play an important role in preparing students for good jobs. Even prior to the pandemic, there was evidence of equity gaps for students of color,” Shayne Spaulding, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, said in a statement. “As so many programs have been forced online, this exciting new collaboration is in a unique position to support colleges in making their programs more inclusive and accessible, ultimately leading to higher success for students.”

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Survey: Many Americans feel powerless over ability to advance professionally

New polling research from Strada Education Network finds that many Americans feel stuck professionally and don't buy in to potential of education to change their career circumstances.

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