HandshakeA collaborative future – how can careers professionals shore up their long-term success?

A collaborative future – how can careers professionals shore up their long-term success?

From Michael Harbaugh, Global Director of Education Partnerships at Handshake UK.

University Careers Services teams are facing a number of pressing issues: dealing with budget squeezes, operating in an unpredictable and fast-changing employment landscape and demonstrating value to an increasingly discerning cohort of students.

Arguably the biggest challenge today, though, is helping students who have faced unprecedented disruption navigate a tough jobs market and successfully enter the world of work. As careers professionals around the world grapple with both tightened budgets and heightened demands for a return on an increasingly expensive higher education investment, there has never been more impetus to collaborate and share best practice.

The team at Handshake is in the fortunate position of seeing first hand the evolving education and jobs landscapes in both the UK and US. We know the challenges and opportunities in both markets and how we can learn from each other to steer through change and fuel better, fairer outcomes for today’s students.

So what are some of the main differences on both sides of the Atlantic and what can we learn from the differing approaches?

Employability vs. employment

In the UK, careers professionals have historically seen their role as predominantly advisory, helping to guide students towards their future career goals, considering various routes into employment and reflecting on the skills and qualifications they have developed that will help them succeed in the world of work. There has been a growing focus on employer/student connection and engagement, but the core focus of the careers service is oriented toward counselling and personal guidance. In the US, careers professionals firmly focus on providing specific, practical, assistance in finding and securing roles – making fruitful connections between employers and prospective employees, enabling interview opportunities, and building industry ties. Much more operational, budgetary, and strategic focus is given to these employer relations initiatives.

There is of course value in both approaches; a holistic model of student support should include opportunities for personal development and coaching, as well as opportunities to employ lessons learned and engage with industry.

For initiatives focused on employer engagement, demonstrating value is perhaps easier; measurable outcomes of event attendance, interviews, and connections are tangible markers of success. There is also a tremendous opportunity for technology to play a role in  scaling connections, where employer matching can be enabled with curated networks and relevance algorithms. At the same time, empowering students to make connections and find opportunities is powerful only inasmuch as those students are prepared with the skills and competencies they need to navigate the difficult HE-to-industry transition.

However, UK institutions’ focus on developing graduate employability rather than employment outcomes means that longer-term relationships between students and careers professionals can be forged. A focus on the skills needed for employment – what they need to know as well as who they need to know – also helps Careers Services engage with colleagues outside of the department, particularly the teaching and learning staff who are also increasingly concentrating on ‘embedding employability’ in the curriculum.

What’s more, an approach which focuses on coaching, mentoring and training is likely to help build student’s confidence – even kick-starting a road to lifelong learning (the idea that skills and competencies can be learnt and built throughout studies, into employment and beyond).

A tech-powered approach

In both countries, there is an increasing realisation that technology has the power to enhance the way Careers Services are delivered. This is particularly so in the wake of the pandemic where staff had to rapidly pivot their services online. Importantly, technology like Handshake’s early careers network opens up opportunities for more people, allowing students to make connections with employers regardless of which institution they attend, what they choose to study, and who they know. In turn, companies are able to avoid missing out on talent because they don't have the resources to embark on dedicated graduate programmes, or embark on the ‘milk rounds’ of old.

The good news is that we’re not in a position where automation threatens the roles of careers professionals, but rather technology can enhance provision, complimenting the skilled work that careers professionals undertake. Indeed, we know that students don’t learn from tech as well as they do from people (if they did, MOOCs would have taken over from lecturers a decade ago), so many institutions are using digital platforms to undertake the tasks they need to complete at scale – such as targeted emails or data capture. This frees up the time of careers professionals to help guide students and deliver the all-important training and coaching element of careers provision. The continued growth of networks will be core to this scaling; more unified infrastructures that allow for easier access to opportunities and relationships will amplify the value that technology can provide.

Why data is no longer a nice-to-have but an all-important necessity

In both the US and UK, there is an increasing focus on harnessing data on how students are engaging with Careers Services employment opportunities, work experience, and even extracurricular activities. Obtaining ongoing data on individual students about their stage of career decision-making and tracking which career development services they are engaging with now complements traditional ‘entry and exit surveys’. As demands for careers services teams to quantify and prove their efficacy increase, this type of point-in-time data will only grow more valuable, and not just from the perspective of external reporting. Actionable engagement data provides essential “in-time” information that allows careers professionals to deliver flexible, dynamic support to suit students’ changing needs. Going forward, the core questions that have to drive any conversation about data-informed practice are;

  • Is data immediately accessible and actionable for my team?
  • Can I use data to identify the students that might otherwise slip through the cracks?
  • Can I utilise the data to tell our broader story of our success and areas of growth?

In order to make plans for the future, most institutions in both territories see this sort of data as a strategic imperative, crucial to enabling them to personalise service for students and help them to engage with career prospects.

What’s next for careers professionals?

There’s no doubt that we’re in a period of change for careers professionals across the world, as they navigate post-pandemic challenges. The good news is that universities in both markets fundamentally recognise the value of Careers Services departments, and this emphasis on careers support and outcomes is only set to increase as student costs continue to rise. This presents an opportunity for strategic investment in tools and resources to support better employer and alumni engagement, and to improve career coaching and support. Technology that helps careers professionals scale their ability to provide an individualised student experience should be a core focus.

We believe that there's plenty that universities can learn not just by looking at other institutions but in other territories too. Indeed, careers professionals surveyed in Handshake’s latest research into the graduate employment market of the future reported that truly holistic collaboration – engagement with students, colleagues and with employers – will be vital in continuing to prove the value of the work careers professionals do.

We see an opportunity for careers professionals in the US to learn from the innovative work their UK counterparts are doing to embed career services into the curriculum and focus on skills development can improve their vision for careers counselling. Likewise, there is much that UK practitioners can gain from seeing the scaled employer networking and alumni engagement that has become core to the approach of leading US institutions.

We believe that this collaborative learning can produce the best holistic model of student support. Technology and networks can help reduce overall time-spend in many areas, enabling careers professionals to deliver nuanced support of both counselling and support services, and also access to far more expansive sets of opportunities for recruitment.

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