Why Higher Ed Should Invest in Career Services, Not Abolish It

Why Higher Ed Should Invest in Career Services, Not Abolish It

Ryan Craig, a prominent education technology investor, recently published a piece in Forbes called Abolish Career Services. Akin to Andy Chan’s “Career Services Must Die” TEDx talk in 2013, it came with an eye-catching title, except this time, it was less of a play on changing how career centers work and more about the abolishment part. 

First off, we could not disagree more with Craig’s assertion that higher ed should abolish career services. Frankly, it’s a misguided and short-sighted recommendation.

Second, Craig clearly isn’t seeing the innovation in career services that we are, here at uConnect. After 10 years of working directly with thousands of career services practitioners, I can say with confidence that career services is a field on the rise. 

Rather than abolishing career services, higher ed should be doubling down on their commitment to career services, so career leaders have the resources they need to scale their impact, build partnerships across campus, and enable more students to realize great outcomes. 

Day in and day out, we continue to see the outsized impact career services can have on recruitment, retention, and outcomes when they’re empowered and resourced with the right tools, budget, and a seat at the table:

Few things give me more professional satisfaction than seeing career leaders, who have been long overlooked, get the recognition they deserve. But before we dig deeper there, I want to step back and first rebut Craig’s attack on the career services industry and suggestion to get rid of the function altogether in higher ed. 

Why higher ed should invest in career services

Since starting uConnect in 2013, we have worked tirelessly to understand why the overwhelming majority of students enroll in higher education to launch or advance their careers, yet so few meaningfully utilize career services. During this time, we’ve worked directly with hundreds of colleges and universities, thousands of career leaders, and many of the most highly regarded vendor partners in career services. 

In our opinion, there’s no better (or more important) time to double down on helping the career services industry thrive, than right now. 

At a macro level, the need for greater career support across the spectrum is clear: 

  • There are nearly six million people unemployed, and more than 11 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • Gallup reports that more than 80% of people struggle to find meaning and purpose in their work.
  • Gen Z seems to be as uninspired by career pathways as any generation in recent history.

The simultaneous growth in those not able to find work (unemployment numbers), coupled with more employers not able to find the talent they are looking for (increased job openings), clearly highlights that people need education, skills and career support, perhaps more than ever, to keep up with the quickly changing and growing demands of today’s employers.  

Double-clicking into the implications for higher education, it’s well-documented that students are motivated to enroll and persist in higher education by career prospects and outcomes.

According to the 2022 State of Higher Education Report by the Lumina Foundation and Gallup, 61% of students enrolled in higher education said being able to pursue a more fulfilling career was a major reason they enrolled. Sixty percent cited the ability to get a higher-paying job as a main reason. What’s more, in a recent survey of over 7,500 students, administrators, and faculty, an astonishing 82% of respondents defined student success as work/career readiness.

Today, the stakes for career services professionals in higher education are as high as they’ve ever been. In his article, Craig goes into depth about the inadequacies of the career services model and his recommendation for campuses to abolish the function.  

We don’t disagree that the older, more traditional model of career services isn’t set up for scale or success. However, we argue that it’s no time for career leaders to be on the defensive against those questioning their value. Rather, it’s time to be on the offensive—with as much confidence and conviction as ever. 

For too long, career services has been misunderstood by higher ed leadership. They’ve been woefully underresourced, and expected to help large, diverse cohorts of students all launch rewarding careers, despite minimal institutional support. Historically, many career leaders have struggled to deliver, and for a variety of reasons, chief of which is the challenge of meaningfully engaging the critical mass of students in career planning and exploration—particularly early in their journey. This has led to a disproportionate impact on the perception of the value that career services offers.

The resources and opportunities career services offer are often known to few and have been overshadowed by sweeping judgments and absolutes about their effectiveness—rather than increased support for solutions.

The reality is engagement with career services can be transformational for students. Career teams offer:

  • Content, data, and assessments to help students explore and identify career paths
  • Connections to large and diverse alumni networks to help students build professional relationships and gain first-hand insight into career paths
  • Experiential learning opportunities to give students experiences they can leverage to launch their careers
  • Access to thousands of employers and jobs—across all industries—through recruiting events, job postings, and more

The notion of abolishing career services and re-establishing it as a “faculty-facing support function” is, again, ill-advised, at best. 

Career teams spend far more time than any of their campus counterparts engaging with employers, understanding their needs, and staying atop trends related to the radically evolving world of work. 

It’s time for career leaders to stake their claim, step up, and make the case to own student engagement in career planning, exploration, and post-graduate outcomes. At the same time, it’s a pivotal moment for the field. The shift in students’ motivations and priorities is an opportunity for career leaders to rethink their approach to career services and develop more scalable models that are likely to impact student success and institutional effectiveness in a durable way.

Career services should shift their role from provider to facilitator

One area we agree with Craig on is related to the critical role faculty and staff can, and should, play in this equation. In his article, Craig argues for an all-hands effort from faculty and staff to collectively support career pathways and outcomes for students. He argues faculty and staff should be trained to support students in this area:

“Abolish career services and reestablish it as a faculty-facing support function. Career services professionals should train faculty, staff, and administrators to build and extend professional networks, provide ongoing support, manage work-integrated learning programs…” 

We could not agree more about the need for career leaders to evolve their role, from being the ones who provide career services to the ones who enable it across their campuses and communities. Most career leaders we talk to say if faculty and staff systematically integrated career planning and exploration into the core student experience, it would change everything.

That’s why dozens of career centers have launched Career Champion programs to train faculty, staff, alumni, and even parents and families, on how to have better career conversations with students. And why others continuously build relationships with faculty and staff across campus to offer:

  • Classroom presentations
  • Career competency and skills language for syllabi
  • Short courses for students that simulate the job application process
  • Career development and life design classes
  • Career outcomes and labor market data 
  • And more 

In our opinion, the question is not if career services should be a collective effort, but rather how we can implement a model that facilitates that in a systemic way. A colleague of mine said it best: “When career services is everyone’s responsibility, it’s no one’s responsibility.”

Let me explain. 

We believe career services teams should be empowered to take ownership of career pathways and outcomes. That will require not only an expansion of their budgets and staff but also an intentional shift in their roles, from being the providers of career support to facilitators of it. To being thought leaders on campus, informing and empowering all those that engage with students to support career pathways. 

As I mentioned earlier, career services professionals interact with employers every day. They are hosting employers on campus, leading site visits with local companies, hosting virtual career fairs and panel discussions, and constantly staying up-to-date on changes in the labor market. They also offer incredible resources like:

  • Job boards to connect students with thousands of opportunities
  • Mentor platforms to connect students with alumni and industry mentors
  • Mock interview tools
  • Personal branding services
  • Skills assessments
  • And much more

Sadly, relying on a model where engagement with these valuable insights and resources requires students to visit or engage directly with career services severely limits their potential impact. 

With student-to-career staff ratios at upwards of 5,000:1, there’s no way career teams will ever be able to provide the specialized support students need on their own. But because career teams have the insights, own the resources, and know how to talk about them with students, they’re well-positioned to empower faculty and staff to ensure all students are able to realize the potential of these resources.  

Conversely, if career services were to be abolished, as Craig suggests, it would most certainly result in a free-for-all of siloed, likely redundant career initiatives, uncoordinated and disorganized, and a degraded experience for students and employers.

Three ways career services can engage more students

Based on what we’ve learned over the last 10 years of working with career leaders, here are three key areas we think career services can invest in to successfully implement a coordinated and collaborative approach to engaging students in career planning and exploration at scale:  

1. Branding: Career leaders need to brand themselves as the ones ultimately responsible for career pathways and outcomes. They must be seen as the thought leaders around career planning, exploration, and employability, and be positioned as a resource, and trusted partner for faculty, staff, and others. Instead of duplicating efforts, career teams must be seen as a source of information, guidance, and tactical advice on how to support students in their career journeys.

That way, those who want to help support students can focus their energy on evangelizing resources that are already available to students, rather than going out to source their own resources. 

2. Digital communication: Supporting large and diverse student populations with always evolving interests and goals, combined with having to understand the dynamic needs of the world of work, means change is constant. If career leaders are going to empower their campus partners, providing all stakeholders with access to career information, resources, and insights whenever they might need it, without any friction, is foundational to setting them up for success in those conversations.

With new resources, connections, and opportunities available (often on a near-daily basis), career leaders must ensure they have a dynamic digital presence and personalized email and digital communication tools to ensure all stakeholders have the information they need at their fingertips.

3. Partnerships: Having career resources and services accessible to campus partners is, in many ways, a prerequisite to empowering them to support their students’ career pathways. But in most cases, that isn’t enough. Career leaders must understand the full student lifecycle, from application to graduation, and who is influencing students at each stage of their journey. They must also understand which campus partners are engaging with which students and who is best positioned to help them engage the more elusive and underserved student populations.

Once identified, career leaders must build authentic relationships and develop strategic partnerships to systemically embed career into the student experience. Key to this will be career leaders’ ability to empathize with their campus partners, understand their day-to-day, and identify opportunities to help those partners leverage career services to more effectively do their work and reach their own goals.

For specific ideas and advice on how to work with partners across campus (and get a seat at the table), check out the Breaking Barriers column from longtime career services and higher ed leader Daniel Pascoe Aguilar. 

Career services should stay… and evolve

For career leaders, this means shifting the way they spend their valuable time by investing more in one-to-many methods of sharing digital resources, advice, data, and inspiration. Not only does this increase access to those resources for all students, but it can also make 1:1 counseling more personalized and effective. Critically thinking about how career teams allocate their own staff resources can result in more time to stay on top of important trends in the world of work, and training faculty and staff on how to integrate career services into their day-to-day work.

As Toni Rhorer of UC San Diego said in a recent Career Everywhere podcast episode, it’s about redefining engagement—beyond traditional 1:1 appointments. 

All of these shifts could result in outsized gains in influence, impact, and outcomes in a more sustainable and durable way. However, career leaders cannot do this without support from university leadership. They need to be equipped with the resources, tools, and support to make these investments and impact more students.

For institutions, proactively engaging students with career resources and information, throughout the entire student journey, will likely lead to more students (1) enrolling in higher ed with a vision of career outcomes (2) persisting with purpose and (3) completing with the skills and confidence they need to launch (or advance) their careers. 

At uConnect, we’ve been working hard to help schools implement this shift and, I’m proud to say, are seeing career leaders thrive in their ability to scale their impact by shifting from providers to thought leaders and facilitators.

For those interested in learning more, we share tactical advice, best practices, and success stories (featuring many of our partners) in a resource hub for career leaders that we call Career Everywhere. Check it out here.  

To learn how uConnect can help your team scale their work and engage more students, fill out the form below to schedule a demo.

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