Four ways to weave job skills teaching into the university experience

With research finding a hefty proportion of graduates underemployed, what can higher education do to improve career readiness? Erica Estes and Sean O’Keefe offer advice


University of Arkansas
31 Mar 2024
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Two people sit and discuss a CV
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As inflation rises, student debt soars and the job market changes rapidly, it’s more important than ever that higher education is preparing students for the workforce.

new report by the Strada Institute for the Future of Work and the Burning Glass Institute found that 52 per cent of four-year college graduates are underemployed a year after graduation, and 45 per cent remain underemployed after 10 years. The problem is particularly acute for Black and Latinx graduates, who experience higher underemployment rates than their white and Asian counterparts.

These findings should be a wake-up call to higher education. But the Strada report also highlights a promising solution. Students who participate in internships during college are 49 per cent less likely to be underemployed. Also, students of colour who complete internships typically see greater benefits from that experience than their white peers. Strada’s report calls for universities to provide quality, personalised education-to-career coaching for all students, beginning early in their educational journey.

Unfortunately, the landscape of career services often fails to meet these needs. The latest Student Voice survey by College Pulse and Inside Higher Ed found that more than one-third of students never use their career centre’s offerings, and among those who do, only 17 per cent receive help securing internships and 12 per cent get interview preparation. This gap is even more pronounced for first-generation students and women, who are less likely to land paid internships – critical experiences that can open doors to future employment.

At the University of Arkansas, findings like these inspired us to launch a multi-year effort to weave career readiness into the fabric of the students’ college experience. By integrating career services into classes, student organisations and campus jobs, our goal is to ensure all students have equitable access to resources and experiences that pave the way towards fulfilling, skills-aligned careers.

Here are four key facets of our approach:

Relationship-building with employers of interest

Research shows that over half of college internships and jobs come through personal connections. Students who have opportunities to network with employers are over five times more likely to feel their degree was worth the cost. Yet, while 70 per cent of first-year students want to network with professionals in their desired field, only about 25 per cent of seniors actually do so before graduating. To boot, first-generation students are even less likely to participate in networking activities and secure internships.

To help students develop the relationships that accelerate career exploration and open doors to opportunities, we’ve partnered with Career Launch to offer a career readiness curriculum and group coaching that prepares students to identify potential employers of interest, initiate and sustain professional relationships, craft compelling narratives about their backgrounds and goals, and practise career conversations.

As a result, 86 per cent of participants report reduced career anxiety after the programme, and 78 per cent say learning strategic networking skills have increased their likelihood of persisting to degree completion. An increasing number of faculty and programme managers are finding value in embedding Career Launch into their courses and student support programmes.

Targeting students less likely to find careers after graduation

Teaching students to build social capital requires staff and faculty to learn from diverse perspectives and expand their own networks. Within each institution, career liaisons connect students with potential employers and alumni via career fairs, employer information sessions, job boards, class presentations and networking events.

Increasingly, liaisons are also forging relationships with faculty members. It’s these internal partnerships that have catalysed more professors to integrate career preparation into their curriculum – especially for majors like English or exercise science, where career pathways are less clearly defined. 

For example, after data showed exercise science students needed more career exploration support, the liaison collaborated with a faculty member to embed the Career Launch programme into his introductory course requirements. In addition to supporting students in class to build professional relationships and to tell their own stories to others, it also allowed the professor to reinforce the many ways students can explore career options.

Career readiness assessment upon entry and graduation

We knew that we wanted to organise our efforts around the NACE career readiness competencies, but we needed a way for students to understand their current skill levels in each area. The Career Launch assessment dovetails with both the NACE competencies and career mobility best practices.

For the next academic year, we’ll incorporate the assessment into first-year experience courses, on-campus employment programmes and make it available for all students. We’re also asking graduates to complete the assessment when applying for graduation. As students progress through their academic and co-curricular experiences, they’ll develop greater awareness of career readiness benchmarks and be able to track growth in domains like relationship-building, professional communication, career development, job search skills and interview preparedness.

A common language for articulating career skills

During résumé reviews and mock interviews, we noticed that students often omitted experiences that don’t seem “professional” – even when those experiences helped cultivate valuable competencies like communication, teamwork or leadership. To provide a unified framework for spotlighting career-aligned skills, we adopted a digital badge system that allows any campus event or activity to be “tagged” with the NACE competencies it helps develop. Students can earn all eight competency badges (plus a “Career Ready” badge for LinkedIn) by attending engagements and reflecting on how those experiences fostered career skills.

By making the competencies part of how the university community discusses and frames involvement opportunities, we’re equipping students with a common language for articulating their transferable skill sets in conversations with professionals and potential employers.

While still in the early phases of this expanded career readiness integration, we’re optimistic it can broaden access to enriching postgraduate pathways. As the work progresses, we intend to continually analyse the correlation between students’ career readiness assessment results and their post-graduation outcomes to refine and enhance our efforts. By taking a holistic, institution-wide approach that embeds career readiness into the student experience, we’re making sure our graduates are primed to navigate today’s opportunities – and adaptable enough to pivot toward the careers of tomorrow.

Erica Estes is assistant vice-chancellor and executive director of the Offices of Career Connections at the University of Arkansas and Sean O’Keefe is the founder and partner of Career Launch social enterprise.

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