Connecting Undergraduates with Careers

Even as the demand for career services from students and recent graduates is rising, many career services centers are seeing their budgets cut. Yet this is a critical moment; there is evidence of increased hiring in some sectors, and many companies are again looking for interns. A recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers shows that hiring of college interns is expected to increase 3% this year after a stark 20% drop last year.

Christian Garcia, director of the University of Miami's Toppel Career Center, and Flora Riley, executive director of career services at Clemson University, offer practical strategies for connecting your students and graduates with employers -- on an ever-tightening budget. We asked Garcia and Riley:

  • How to get the most out of limited resources
  • How to connect students in traditionally "harder to sell" majors (the humanities and the social sciences) with careers

First, Do a Strategic Audit of Your Services

"Do an analysis, get input from students, employers, faculty, even from your own staff -- see what services are most critical. You need to invest what resources you have as wisely as possible."
Flora Riley, Clemson U

You need to know where you are most effective so that you can reallocate your budget to put more resources behind what's working. "What web-based systems are students using most and seeing the most results from?" Riley asks. "What services are students demanding? What resources are proving most effective?"

Riley advises using an impact/value quadrant to assess your services, where the vertical axis is quality of impact and the horizontal axis is cost. Then chart your services on that quadrant. You may want to keep some of your high-impact efforts even if they are also high-cost. "But make sure you are very clear on how you are defining impact," Riley cautions. Is impact measured by the number of students you serve? Or do you have a service that fewer students use but that generates a high number of placements?

Also, make sure that your definition of impact relates back to your office's core goals. For example, are you assessing how keeping or dropping this service will impact retention and student persistence? Or are you assessing how it will impact career placement?

"Track both usage and effectiveness of your resources. Identify which resources are critical to your success. This can help you justify what you need to keep and why, when the time comes for cuts."
Flora Riley, Clemson U

Leverage Existing Resources

"There's a misconception that you have to have a huge budget with tons of resources. No -- success is in how you invest the resources you do have, and in how you leverage the relationships you have with alumni and employers. Those relationships, rather than our budget, are our key resource."
Christian Garcia, U of Miami

Riley suggests making the most of your existing relationships with employers by marketing other majors to them. For example, to an engineering company, don't only market engineers. They may also need a finance person, a marketing person. Leverage the partnerships you already have to place more students.

Garcia suggests increasing your reliance on alumni volunteers through closer partnership with your alumni relations office. "We never pay for guest speakers and panelists," he notes. "Why would we do that when we have alums in the workforce who want to sit on a panel? Or an employer who loves what she does and wants to talk about it?"

Check Your Local Chamber of Commerce

In seeking opportunities for new partnerships, Riley suggests, "you have to go where the employers are." Many new jobs are being developed by smaller and mid-sized businesses, and many of these tend to be active in local chambers of commerce. "So this is an area to target and become more involved in if you aren't already," she advises. "Be at the table. Get your brand out to them. When they start hiring and increasing payroll, I want them to look across the table and see, Ah, there's Clemson, there's Flora, she has graduates and she knows what I do and what I need."

Students from the Humanities & Social Sciences: Focus on Skills, not Majors

"Granted," Garcia notes, "you need an engineering degree to be an engineer and you need an architecture degree to be hired on as an architect. But if you talk to Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, they also want history majors, they want people with specific skill sets. So provide programming that helps your humanities and social sciences students plan where their skills apply to careers. Answer the question of what you can do with a history degree. Offer specific examples of companies that have actually recruited history majors."

For example:

  • Offer programs on careers in sports (trainers, broadcasting, etc.)
  • Do a program on careers in the culinary industry

Garcia notes that the University of Miami does not have a culinary degree program. But the culinary industry is hiring. Your institution trains effective writers, and the culinary industry needs reviewers. "Offer programming that educates your students on careers in this industry," Garcia advises, and "invite a general manager from a local steakhouse."

Get Creative About Internships

"Really market internships to humanities students," Riley advises, "to get them work experience and expose them to career possibilities. Really encourage that route."

Both Riley and Garcia stress the importance of moving away from a "one size" model for internships.

For example, in the past it has been customary to see internships fall within certain expected time periods, such as the August-Sept range for a fall internship. "Things don't fall neatly like that anymore," Garcia cautions. "Now employers need interns in October, at other times. Don't tell the employer that they don't fall into your system. Don't make them wait." The Toppel Center's internship program has rolling admissions for students. As long as there is a specified start point and end point, it is left up to the student how to structure that time with the employer -- whether to begin in September, October, or during the holiday break.

"I think with internships we have to be more flexible."
Christian Garcia, U of Miami

Riley notes that colleges may also need to help students pursue shorter, 1-2 week opportunities with multiple firms -- or month-long internships, rather than a longer summer internship with one firm. "Shadowing and shorter externships can provide excellent opportunities," she advises. "Be creative in getting your students experience."

She does offer a caution, however, when considering shorter-term internships: "Make sure it is an impactful and meaningful internship. It may be a good thing for the student to work for 2 weeks, but can they truly complete a project and not just serve as a gopher for those 2 weeks? Do they actually get valuable work experience?"