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Colleges must do more to help grads find jobs. Here's how.

Bob LaBombard is CEO of Minneapolis-based GradStaff.  GradStaff helps recent college graduates discover how their transferable skills translate into the workforce and then matches them with entry-level jobs.

In this piece, LaBombard addresses how both colleges and students go wrong in job searches. He stresses the role of personal networking in landing a job and says colleges and faculty often fail to make students aware of private sector jobs, steering them instead to graduate school.

By Bob LaBombard

When people think of job-hunting resources for college students, most imagine a vibrant and active career services office on campus. But a survey of more than 5,000 recent college grads shows that only 20 percent of college seniors actively use career services. In fact, almost half say they visit career services “rarely” or “never.” Given mounting student loan debt and a still-choppy job market, you’d think graduating seniors would be flocking to career services in droves.

What explains this apparent repudiation of the career services function? I believe that the following factors may be at work:

Millennials are more likely than prior generations to put off their job searches until after graduation. Travel, volunteer work, taking time off or “figuring out what to do next” are all frequently cited reasons for delaying the job hunt.

The services and counseling available from career services are often not helpful, outdated, or miss the mark.

College seniors are sold on the idea that social media networking and job search techniques are the most effective ways to get good jobs. In fact, job seekers are increasingly more likely to conduct a job search from their dorm rooms, than they are to walk the 50 or 100 yards to visit career services.

The career services model on college campuses is broken and rapidly losing relevance. This is underscored by the fact that, at best, only about 25 percent of graduating seniors have a professional job by the time they graduate – amazing, given that there is an all time high of 5.8 million job openings and we are almost a decade removed from the great recession.

The good news is that, based on student and parent pressure, career readiness and job search support is quickly gaining increased emphasis. As proof, many colleges are observing a rapid decline in applications and admissions. Long-term survival for many colleges will depend on creating better job prospects for graduates and having quantifiable data to prove it.

As colleges think about career readiness and move to redesign the career services business model, what help can the Class of 2017 expect now? Here are several important actions colleges can implement immediately to help the “gap” grads.

Put private sector jobs first, not last. GradStaff data shows that more than 60 percent of new grads don’t know where their education and skills fit in the work force. In short, they don’t know what jobs to apply for. What’s worse, the overwhelming advice they receive, especially from professors, is to go to graduate school. Sadly, opportunities in the private sector are seldom offered.

Collect and disseminate alumni career information organized by major. In giving more exposure to the private sector, start collecting and analyzing alumni career information. Make this information available in aggregate, as well as for networking purposes. Psychology majors, for example, need to know that there are plenty of private sector jobs for them – from data analytics and sales, to underwriting in insurance and social media marketing. There are literally dozens and dozens of entry-level destinations for majors of practically every discipline.

Help students develop and articulate their “value” proposition. Major selection is most often not the key factor determining career path. Rather, it’s the combination of transferable skills and life experiences that are critical. Employers highly value candidates with critical thinking, effective communication and leadership skills honed by participation in athletics, theatre, music and student government, as well as internships and summer and part-time jobs. Further, colleges need to train counselors to guide this process.

Teach college students how to network effectively. While young millennials seem tethered to their smart phones and iPads, In reality, they are not effective networkers. Similarly, even though LinkedIn is an excellent social networking platform that many recent grads are using, almost all new grads need coaching on direct personal networking, which is still one of the best ways to get a job. Informational interviews should be used to connect with contacts ranging from parent referrals, friends, parents of friends, and most importantly, alumni. Develop a mentor network to teach these skills.

Market your college’s brand. Other than alumni, colleges really do a poor job of creating a brand identify and selling it to employers. Let’s face it, it’s a competitive marketplace. The colleges that do the best job of getting opportunities for their students are those that do active outreach to all employers – not just those employing alumni. The technology and social media tools now available to build a brand and optimize exposure make this incredibly easy.

For too long now, colleges have put the primary onus for finding a job on the student. While the student clearly must take the initiative, colleges must do more to help. Finding a job is a lifelong skill that all of us typically use 10 or more times during a career. Given its importance, teaching job search skills is every bit as important, if not more important, than some of the courses offered in the classroom.

With applications and class sizes down 20 percent or more at many colleges, especially private colleges, there really is no choice. Colleges must act now to revamp career readiness strategies or face continued declines in student population, reputation and post-graduation hiring rates.


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.