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A clipboard holding an applicant's résumé sits on a desk above a job application. From left to right, a blue folder bearing tabs that say "interview tips," a cup of coffee and a keyboard are also visible on the desk.

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It’s a dreary Monday in New England, and I am sitting in front of my computer reading résumés and cover letters from students in my senior seminar in sociology. My students, like those at our urban comprehensive college in general, are graduating with extensive work experience and have lots to showcase when applying for jobs. And before turning in these résumés and cover letters—a required course assignment—students had an hour of face time with a Career Development Center professional, access to lots of sample materials (including a customized résumé draft designed for sociology majors) and encouragement to set up an appointment for individualized feedback from a career counselor. Some of the final products are great.

But some remind me, sadly, that while our academic programs are evaluated in part based on students’ postgraduation outcomes, one of the biggest factors in shaping those outcomes—the preparation of the documents students use to apply to jobs—is a “nonacademic” skill that most faculty members do not have the training or qualifications to teach. Some students know they need support in crafting these materials. The students who need this support most, however, have no idea, for instance, that their five-page, double-spaced résumé with paragraph-long descriptions of each job they have held, starting with the first, is not what employers are looking for. Thus, despite urging, they often don’t seek out the professional support that is available in our institution’s career development center.

If politicians and administrators are serious about using postgraduation outcomes as a key metric, they need to provide more support for ensuring that students learn—at multiple levels of the curriculum—how to craft strong application materials, prepare for job interviews and execute an effective job search. Otherwise, it will not matter how well prepared for the job our students are or how excellent an employee they would be, because they will never get in the front door to show just how much they can do.

This is a major equity issue. Some students have parents, relatives or friends who are hiring managers or human resources professionals who can review their application materials, while other students don’t even know anyone who works in a career in which such materials are required. And it is also an equity issue in program reviews that use postgraduation outcomes as a metric, as job-placement rates become just another reason that programs enrolling more advantaged students will come out ahead.

I have done what I can for my students by requiring these résumés and cover letters as part of our senior seminar, but I have the skill set to support students with drafting and to provide careful critiques of their materials. It is not reasonable to expect that all faculty members do. Even among faculty who have this background, it can be hard to squeeze in another thing to cover alongside all the academic outcomes that must be fulfilled to prepare students for the next course or the professional licensing exam. And students often won’t seek out this support on their own. How can we fix it so that our students can compete fairly for the jobs they are qualified to hold?

I have a few ideas, but all of them require resources and support.

  • Careers across the curriculum. Like writing in the disciplines or quantitative literacy initiatives, careers across the curriculum programs could provide professional development to faculty in all disciplines and at all levels to help them build the skills to infuse career-related material into their courses. Partnerships with career development centers and staff could provide opportunities for assigning mentors to specific courses for wraparound career support, requiring meetings with career counselors as part of coursework and developing customized curricular materials. At colleges and universities where many students are working, infusing this material into first- and second-year general education courses could help students compete for jobs with better pay and working conditions even before they graduate (and could provide better opportunities for career exploration for students who are not yet sure of the right path forward). Requiring career development visits prior to and during internship courses could continue to build these relationships long before senior seminars. Students could be required to meet with career development professionals at one or more points in their academic program.
  • Partnerships. Career development professionals on campus work very hard and are experts in their fields, but career development centers often do not have sufficient staff, resources or opportunities for professional development that will help keep them on the cutting edge. The simple answer, of course, as in all of higher education, is to hire more, pay more and provide more professional development. Where that is not enough to provide the level of services needed, colleges and universities can create partnerships that enhance service availability. Alumni who are hiring managers in diverse professional fields can be brought on board as volunteers or for a small stipend to provide coaching and support for students pursuing related careers. Colleges and universities could build partnerships with their state or local departments of labor and training, including exploring co-location and joint staffing options that could provide enhanced services to students and recent graduates.
  • Summer workshops. Many students do not realize that they need job-search support until after graduation, when they begin applying for jobs and discover they are not finding the kinds of opportunities they are seeking and are not being invited for interviews or receiving offers for the positions they do apply for. But by then, it may feel too late. Thus, career boot camps offered later in the summer after students graduate, perhaps in late July or early August, might occur when students discover their need. All recent graduates could be invited to participate in such programs free of cost, offered over a week or a series of weekends at times when campuses are less busy or by using remote synchronous delivery systems and focusing on résumé and cover letter development, job-search skills, networking, and interview preparation. As a bonus, such programs might have the benefit of enhancing alumni engagement with the institution.

It’s worth noting that some large employers are moving away from the standard cover letter and résumé application process and toward various forms of skills-based testing or structured video interviews, often processed by artificial intelligence. And while those who worship at the gospel of the algorithm would have us believe that these types of assessments are more equitable and harder to game, we’ve seen time and time again that biases remain baked into these systems, which themselves present new kinds of obstacles. Mastering standardized tests is a specific skill, for example, and many students suffer from profound text anxiety, factors that will make it easier for some and harder for others to get jobs.

If skills-based hiring takes off, that does not mean we can wash our hands of supporting our students’ pursuit of career, assuming that we’ve taught them well and that their skills will shine on their own. Rather, it means that we will need to adapt the support we provide, relying on alumni to help guide the development of preparation and practice materials so students know what to expect and are ready to excel upon being confronted by skills-based assessments.

Regardless of the form the future of hiring takes, academic departments cannot alone be held responsible for students’ employment outcomes if institutions do not commit resources and build strategy to enhance students’ job-seeking skills and prepare them for the world they will encounter upon graduation. We can and must do better for our students, but we cannot do it alone.

Mikaila Mariel Lemonik Arthur is a professor of sociology at Rhode Island College.

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