A Competency-Based Approach to Career Services in Higher Ed

We had the opportunity recently to connect with several innovators in career services whom we met through a recent CAPA conference; one of these was Dr. Audrey Murrell, the associate dean of the College of Business Administration and director of the David Berg Center for Ethics and Leadership at the University of Pittsburgh, School of Business. Audrey Murrell has developed a unique, competency-based career development curriculum at Pitt Business. We asked her about that program -- its key components, what other institutions can learn from it, and how it is responding to critical trends in career services.

Here is what she shared with us.

How Career Development is Changing

Academic Impressions. Audrey, thank you for this conversation. First, can you tell us a little about how you see career services changing today? What are the trends that career services professionals need to be paying the most attention to?

Audrey Murrell. Previously, universities have tended to take a very centralized approach to career development, where career services functions as a one-stop shop to meet the broad needs of students on campus. What I’ve seen is the need for more specialization. Some schools of business have a separate but complimentary career services office or personnel to meet the specific needs of business students. We're starting to see that now, too, for schools of engineering and for the other STEM disciplines.

The centralized approach is giving way to a more networked approach, where the central career services office works to coordinate more customized efforts within the academic units.

We're also seeing a growing percentage of business students who don't want to start their careers in a traditional large organization but want to work in a more entrepreneurial environment. They want to be in a different kind of firm. They want that opportunity to get involved in the real work sooner and to move up the ladder quicker. We hear our students asking recruiters questions like, "What am I going to get to do? I don’t want to spend all my time climbing the ladder and doing the things that don’t engage me." Two of our students who had offers from major accounting firms recently picked a medium-sized firm instead for this reason.

So we are seeking more opportunities to place students in medium-sized enterprises and in startups. Rather than looking for one firm hiring 100 students, we may be looking for 10 firms hiring 10 students each.

For the past 3-4 graduation classes, we have seen the trend that experiences, type of work, how quickly you get to do engaging work, and the relationship the student is developing with the firm (often during an internship) trumps salary. As students choose meaningful careers, opportunity now trumps pay.

How Pitt Business is Responding

Academic Impressions. Audrey, could you describe the career development program at Pitt Business?

Audrey Murrell. Yes. What we've done at Pitt Business is take a pre-talent management approach. Once our students take a position, that corporation's talent management will take over and develop them as an employee. We need students to be prepared for talent management. We have adopted that as a perspective and an approach. What this means is that we don't just do career services programming; instead, we foster engagement between students and corporate partners.

Our corporate partner program is focused on providing partners with opportunities to interact with students throughout the four academic years in internships and exercises. This engagement starts early, the week freshmen arrive on campus. We have fostered close partnerships between corporations and student professional organizations, and we have established a technology-driven, outside-the-classroom curriculum for career development, tracking the competencies students are developing.

Students have always had an academic transcript, and now we want them to also pay attention to how they are building competencies outside the classroom. For example, we work to facilitate global and cultural competence through extracurricular activities where students engage with corporate partners. We've developed a career development curriculum that is competency-based and informed by a talent management approach. This ensures that by the time students graduate and take that position, they are used to thinking in terms of developing competencies.

Within our career development approach, we have defined 10 key competencies, and for each of the ten, we have a series of activities that we ask students to do; as they do, they progress through four levels within each competency: exposure, participation, engagement, and mastery. We work with the corporate partners and experts to develop the activities and tasks within each competency and level. Here are two examples.

Competency: Leadership Development

  • Exposure: The student may hear a CEO talk about diversity inclusion.
  • Participation: The student is a member of a team working on diversity inclusion within a student organization.
  • Engagement: The student leads such a team.
  • Mastery: The student becomes the president or an officer of a student organization. The key at the 'mastery' level is for the activity to provide the student with feedback on how well they're doing.

Competency: Global and Cultural Competence

  • Exposure: In October, we have International Week on campus. Students participate in activities and international career fairs. They log their participation.
  • Participation: For one week over spring break and for two weeks at the end of the freshman year, students can participate in short-term international travel. They can learn about finance or supply chain internationally.
  • Engagement: An international internship or project (provided through our partnership with CAPA).
  • Mastery: Students participate in an international case competition. They get feedback to demonstrate to them how they're doing.

The technology is critical. It allows for us to provide a type of “gamification” element that helps drive student engagement. This technology was developed by a former Pitt Business student together with his brother (a Pitt Engineering alum) who co-founded a company called Suitable. We give students a specialized dashboard to track their progress, and our recruiters pay attention to this.  We also have a powerful analytics dashboard behind the scene that helps us track progress and outcomes.

Early Results

Academic Impressions. Audrey, what has the impact of this curriculum been? I know it is still a new program, but what are some of the early indicators of how it's working?

Audrey Murrell. At Pitt Business, we have examined 2 years of longitudinal data to determine the impact of our business freshman living learning community (LLC) on student outcomes. The measure of engagement was participation in the competency-based outside-of-the-classroom curriculum. Our data shows that living in the Pitt Business Living Learning Community increases student engagement regardless of incoming academic factors (e.g. High School GPA) significantly such that:

  • Level of overall engagement in our outside of the classroom curriculum was higher among LLC students (61%)  compared to all other  business freshman (50%)
  • Level of engagement in business-specific professional development activities among LLC residents was also higher (58%) compared to non-LLC students (44%)
  • LLC freshman who were engaged had a higher year-end GPA (Average GPA 3.4) compared to non-LLC students who were not engaged (Average GPA of 3.0).  This is regardless of High School GPA.
  • Engaged LLC students had higher freshman retention (98%) compared to non-engaged students living outside of the LLC (90%).  This is regardless of admission factors such as High School GPA.

Advice for Others in Career Services/Career Development

Academic Impressions. What advice could you offer for your peers and colleagues in career services at other institutions? How do you take the first steps toward an approach like this, toward closer partnership between curriculum and career development?

Audrey Murrell. In the first 45 days after I took this job, I sat down with and met every one of our key corporate recruiters, personally. I did more listening than talking. I needed to know 3 things:

  1. How satisfied they were with our level of engagement
  2. What they were doing in talent management in their own organization (their philosophy, their approach)
  3. Where they see themselves going in 5 years (based on shifts in their industry and their competitive landscape)

I spent the first 45 days talking with the recruiters. Then I sat down with the career services team to share that information and discuss those findings.

Third, I looked at what I needed to do to get us configured as a team in the right way. I had to shift some staff and I had to recruit different kinds of talent. I needed specific competencies on our team that could help bridge our traditional academic career development with industry-based knowledge and expertise. In our case, we started a small program called Executives in Residence. Some of the executives are alums, some are corporate partners, and some are entrepreneurs with expertise in specific industries. They complement the full-time career services staff in specific, professional areas. For example, I recruited executives in residence from healthcare, one who runs an analytics firm, etc. Then I worked to augment our team based on what I'd heard from recruiters, to make sure that the really key career pathways are represented in-house and coach students across our core competencies areas.

Finally, a very critical step is to get infrastructure in place around metrics. You have to be able to measure what you do. Analytics is the story for the next five years. We have got to get better at the data around what we're doing, why we're doing, and how it works. This can't just be for evaluative purposes. We need to collect student outcomes data so as to:

  1. Inform decision making, going forward. I'm especially interested in data on what derails student success.
  2. Empower us to talk back to students, to help them make better decisions. We need to get both global and personalized data in students' hands, using our analytics to help students get better at managing the extraordinary array of cocurricular and extracurricular choices before them.
  3. Share information with corporate partners and discuss the profile of the students they've been recruiting from our campus. If we can share what we have done to prepare those students and they can share what happens once those students are placed, we can build better pathways for our students -- so that we don't just place them, but also prepare them for success. We don't want to just say that 90% of our students are placed. We want to say that in 5 years, here's what those careers of impact look like. We are leveraging analytics around career outcomes based on this unique approach to help our students be successful in their careers upon graduation.