How (some) American HEIs are tackling employability.

“For years, most liberal-arts schools seemed to put career-services offices somewhere just below parking as a matter of administrative priority”

This is the view expressed by Nathan Hatch, the president of North Carolina’s Wake Forest University in an article in The New York Times (“How to Get a Job With a Philosophy Degree” September 13, 2013). It sums up the attitude of many senior administrators towards the role of universities in finding meaningful work for their graduates.

Wesleyan University in Connecticut has a new career centre prominently located on campus and urges freshmen to stop by and start a four-year plan. Michael S. Roth, the president, wants the career program “to work with our students from the first year to think about how what they’re learning can be translated into other spheres.”

Andy Chan, a Silicon Valley professional, was hired by Wake Forest University in 2009 as vice president in charge of the Office of Personal and Career Development and says he has “supersized” the career-services office with a staff close to 30 – to offer concierge like services to students. These examples are light years removed from what students can expect to find at most universities. And this applies to all Western countries. If most universities followed the example of these senior administrators, the levels of graduate unemployment and underemployment would decline significantly.

The fundamental challenge for universities is that for generations they’ve been turning out employees. Now, increasingly, they will need to turn out entrepreneurs, or students who have an enterprising approach to finding work.

In order to have a fighting chance of finding meaningful work, graduates must:

  • Know how to find hidden employment opportunities since at least eighty percent of these are never advertised.
  • Know how to market themselves and how to approach employers in a strategically effective way.
  • Learn how to create marketing tools beyond the resume/CV that are focused on the needs of the employer they’re contacting.
  • Understand the role of the Internet and Social Media tools in finding employment opportunities and in creating an online presence that will attract employers and recruiters.
  • Learn how operate as freelancers and contractors, and for those who are interested in starting a small business, how to go about it.

Students are not going to learn these things from most career-services offices who are still operating “somewhere just below parking” as president Nathan Hatch puts it. The whole area of career-services in universities needs a complete overhaul with the objective of providing students with the tools and strategies they need to find meaningful employment in today’s challenging workplace. Many of the people currently in this area have a background in counselling or social work, which is inappropriate for the needs of today’s students.

Finally, since most employment opportunities today are to be found in small businesses, universities must operate closely with this sector and have strong, ongoing ties with groups like the Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses.