High Heels and Ivory Towers

I once had a student tell me that she had never been to career services because it was too far a walk in high heels. I had another student with a 750 GMAT. He was on full scholarship, slept in class every day, barely spoke, hardly bathed and aced every exam. My MBA Director cried every time she saw him, knowing she had no shot at helping him get a job. You can’t make this stuff up.

This week’s Chronicle of Higher Education has an article by Tim Sandoval on the suspect nature of many college’s job placement statistics. It is a tough job market. Colleges that claim high placement rates have an edge in attracting students vis-a-vis schools with less impressive numbers. The crux of the article is that many schools exaggerate their placement rate. Part of the issue is technical: students are more likely to respond to questions about post-graduation experiences if they are employed than unemployed. Since colleges typical report the results only from those students who responded to their survey, the employment numbers have an upward bias. The other part of the problem is that there are no commonly held standards on how to report such data: Schools consciously fudge.

The real problem runs much deeper: Universities everywhere have career service centers staffed by professionals sitting behind their desks waiting for that woman in heels to walk in and start her career exploration process. They are also waiting for that MBA student to show up properly attired at this year’s career fair with the right set of questions to ask the right set of employers. University administrators reason that centralized career services are the most efficient way to offer job search assistance and provide would-be employers with one-stop shopping for all of their human resource needs. They build impressive facilities to achieve this goal. The problem is: she’s not coming. She reckons that if this was really an important part of the college experience, there would be for-credit classes about it in the curriculum and faculty would take an interest in her career prospects. Since there isn’t—she will just wait until after she graduates to worry about it. That MBA student thinks his obvious genius will prevail. He really doesn’t need anyone’s help. He’s not coming either.

This situation persists because many faculty and administrators don’t really believe job placement is the goal of a college education. They are committed to providing the critical thinking and adaptive skills that will benefit people no matter what their chosen occupation or profession. Like my disheveled MBA student, they think genius will prevail. So, faculty see career services as “that place over there that can help you find a job if you can’t figure that out on your own.” Students, recognizing a bad sales pitch when they hear one, don’t go and don’t respond to surveys from strangers who played no role in their post-college employment success. A lack of commitment leads to faulty programming, backed up by faulty data collection.

We are not the Diesel Truck Driving School or Lynn’s School of Cosmetics and Hair Science. We are not in the business of supplying a well-defined set of employers with the human resources they need to perform very specific jobs. But it is the twenty-first century and most students have to work for a living before, during and after they leave here. And like it or not, most students do not have the polish to win high-paying jobs on their own. Waiting for them to recognize this and come to us, is a really bad strategy. Until faculty partner with career service professionals to develop a proactive, systematic program of curricular and co-curricular activities that prepare students to compete as professionals in today’s job market not much progress will be made. Most accounting departments get this. They tend to be the best at preparing their students for professional careers. Others need to take note.

The good news is that if you are a student who recognizes the need to invest in developing your professional demeanor and job search skills, there are many career services professionals just waiting for you to make an appointment. So put on some flats or a shirt and tie and make the walk over to career services starting in your freshmen year. If you start now, you can wear those heels (or clean shirt) with a smart looking suit the first day on your new job.


12 thoughts on “High Heels and Ivory Towers

  1. Great post! I completely agree! The goal of college is to help a student learn the things they need to get a job and be successful in it. I think that the UCF CBA has shown that they know this: video streaming classes offer the time during the day for internships and the experiential learning office is conveniently located in BA I. Also, many of my teachers actually talk about how to use some experiences in your class (such as Cornerstone) on a resume or in an interview.

  2. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” In other words, you can force someone to go somewhere or do something, but you can’t make them value it. I think this maxim applies to Career Services (and higher ed, in general) in a couple of ways. We can force a student through curriculum to go to workshops, get counseling, and attend job fairs; but unless there is a compelling value proposition, they won’t take it to heart. If the workshop is poorly facilitated or the counseling comes from someone who hasn’t actually ever hired professionals or the job fair is full of companies looking to fill “kill what you eat” sales jobs, students won’t see value in that. By the same token, a career in HR has reinforced that, “what’s measured gets managed.” A manager who doesn’t care about employee turnover will suddenly see the light when that metric is measured and they are held accountable to it either through their pay plan or performance appraisal. Want to see faculty and college administrators focus on career outcomes? Tie their funding in some way to that metric. Higher education is changing. If we think rules like “Gainful Employment” will only ever apply to trucking and cosmetology schools, we are mistaken. Besides, figuring out how to deliver on the promise of education is the right thing to do.

  3. I am a graduate of the UCF College of Business and now work at a school like the ones in your example. We do have to provide specific types of employers with specific tools in our students, and our Employment Services team plays a huge role in that. In our business, having employment numbers does make a difference and will continue to be more and more important in the public universities as well. With the job market being what it is in this state, having a school that is adept at helping prepare students and helping them find work would be a huge advantage. A school could create an entire marketing campaign on that premise alone right now, and many technical schools do.

    I agree that having the resource on campus is fantastic, and normally, it is also under utilized. If the value of such an opportunity could be understood by the students, as early as freshman year, it could make the college experience even more rewarding to their lives and careers in the future. I know when I was a freshman, I was similar to the MBA student in thinking that my intelligence alone would take me where I needed to go. Once I started interviewing for positions after school, I became sadly aware of how different post-college careers are from in school, part-time jobs. If I had taken advantage of the services while I was there and understood their true value, I might not have taken 7 months after graduation to find full time employment.

    • Joshua

      What a great post. The range of career aspirations and combinations of talents of our students make it difficult to have focused career services in the way you describe. That said I agree that great career services can be a key differentiator for a school. The Kelley School at Indiana is a great example of this.

      Also thanks for sharing your own personal experience…it should be required reading for all freshmen…..

  4. I agree with Lonny that you can’t make a horse drink, however from my personal experience if you beat them over the head enough times, at least some will drink! I graduated from the college of business in 2009, at a time when many of my fellow graduates were fearful of the lack of opportunities available due to the economy. The year before I graduated, due to my hearing “career services” over and over again from my professors and student clubs, I stopped by on a whim; boy, am I glad I did. The office offered practice interviews with real employers and information sessions with recruiters – I attribute my gain of employment (which was secured before I even graduated) to career services.
    In my personal experience, it looks like “tell ’em, tell ’em what you told them, then tell ’em again” worked. I find it interesting that I did major in accounting, which you mention has faculty that does a better job of preparing students for career development. If other faculty members don’t do this, it is a great disservice, indeed.

    • Hi Carmen:

      I think it has to go beyond faculty just telling students to go…..they have to be willing to bring career services to the students by integrating it into the curriculum and supporting co-curricular activities that give students opportunities to practice and refine these skills. Lots of highly reputable business schools do this and it makes a huge difference in how their graduates are perceived by recruiters and employers generally. As we focus on improving the UCF and COB brand, we need to take responsibility for this and be proactive in our approach. It is just too important too leave it up to the motivation of individual students. They are “our products” if you will and as such it is important that they go to market ready to compete as business professionals.

      • I can agree with that point and attest to it working. In the school where I work, we make our employment team part of the classroom at different stages in school, from the second day of class all the way up to graduation. The Employment Services team sends representatives to the first class students are in, and lets them know who they are and what they do. With so many incoming freshman at UCF, this could be part of orientation in order to reach them all. We have a round of interviews and sign offs the students are required to get before graduation which includes our employment team. Also, about a two months prior to graduation the employment team will start pulling students into the office to discuss their plans after graduation and help where possible. Mock interviews, and resume drafting are just a couple of the services they go over with the students. From my personal standpoint, after seeing the integration of that service into the school is a model that could help all schools.

  5. Lonny- I think I understand your point of view, but I disagree with, ” A manager who doesn’t care about employee turnover will suddenly see the light when that metric is measured and they are held accountable to it either through their pay plan or performance appraisal. Want to see faculty and college administrators focus on career outcomes? Tie their funding in some way to that metric.” It is like the proverbial horse-and-water: An individual/ group could be great at advertising and advocating for students using Career Services, but you can’t MAKE the students go. Unless there is a reward for going or a consequence for not going, there’s only so much you can do to put it out there. Yes, one would imagine that the “reward” for going is being better prepared to enter the workforce, but clearly that is not motivation enough because if it was, we’d see more students utilize the service! There are students who will attribute their lack of preparedness/ lack of job offers to everyone else- despite the services being available with people more than willing to help- instead of taking responsibility and acknowledging that there was nothing standing in their way, except themselves. So why should faculty and administrators be punished for that?

    Dean Jarley- My take on it is I think it is important to stand back and look at what the student expectation is versus the current practices in place, and realistically evaluate whether the college/ university have the resources (aka- people & money) to make the student expectation happen. I think that is where there is a disconnect. There are lots of caring faculty and staff but simply not enough of us to do what we’d like or to give the students what they want (which we would like to give them!).

    • Hi Lisa: student expectation is part of the puzzle, but we must go beyond it. I think of students as clients who we shape so that they can reach their ultimate potential. This may require us to help them understand why they must take ownership of their future. Career management is one of those areas and we can do this by being proactive in shaping both their expectations and behaviors…..

  6. I had one student who told me directly that she couldn’t make it to office hours for statistics because she couldn’t figure out military time! Had someone told me that as hearsay, I would not believe it but she told me herself. I didn’t make this up.

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