June 26, 2018

Turn your career services department into a lively student hub

Employability is at the core of career services. It is a key ranking criterion in many European countries and should never be overlooked. However, we know that your job goes further than making sure your students have a job after their graduation: this makes is essential for students to use your institution’s career services.

You key mission is to help every student reveal their full potential and find a job in which they will thrive. This way, you will end up with motivated and happy alumni who want to pay it forward and help current students from your school. The process of making sure everyone is in a place that suits them is a virtuous circle: happy alumni mean better networking for current students, meaning better employment, meaning happier alumni, and so on. Make the most of it by focusing on helping students from the minute they walk into your school!

Students in their first year often don’t focus on their future career too much, giving much attention to the curriculum (sometimes…) and not thinking about job choices yet. They won’t come searching for you. You will need to grab their attention from the start if you want them to start getting the right job search reflexes, increase their employment rates and be happier with their career.

Don’t take anything for granted

The beginning of the year is the best time to introduce yourselves to students, whether they be new or coming back on campus. Holding a presentation in a lecture hall, for about half an hour, is a must. If you can make it mandatory, it’s even better!

Students will not come and visit you if not prompted to do so. Gathering everyone into a room for half an hour at the beginning of the year will get them into the mood you would like, and will give them an overview of what you offer. Whether they already had an idea of what you do doesn’t matter: assume they don’t know anything about you because some students in the room will be in that situation.

On this topic, Anne, a University Partnerships Manager at JobTeaser, says: “In 90% of cases where career services complain about not having enough visitors, it’s a communication issue, not a student problem”. Using great tools and providing great service is worth nothing if you don’t make them known to everyone: this is the whole point of this yearly presentation.

Once a year, grab everyone, put them in a room, preferably with free food to get their attention and tell them about what you do. Introduce the people in the career services department, give a quick overview of their career path and what they like. Show that every person on your team is human and friendly, that students can relate to them, and go to when they need guidance. We’ll talk more about the idea of “career people over of career services” later in this post.

In your presentation, talk about the benefits of using career services at least as much as you mention the actual services you offer. Try getting students involved: get happy students from an earlier year group to talk about what counselling has brought to their career choices, for example. Alumni are always a safe choice!

Constantly remind students of the Career Services’ existence

Once your presentation is over, don’t let memories fade until the following year’s presentation. Stay active and visible on campus and online to maintain your notoriety among students.

Every month, try to implement at least three different notoriety-building initiatives, which are exclusively communication actions: workshops or panel discussions are what you want to promote, not the promotion activities themselves.

Building a thematic newsletter

One thing you can do is create a monthly newsletter or print content piece for students, giving them useful advice for their career. Unlike the back-to-school lecture, which is very general and goes through benefits of using the career services, this communication process has to be practical. Don’t talk about what you could offer: give detailed, although short, advice, and include a quick reference to what the career services department can offer in regards to this need.

For example, in September or October, you could send a newsletter that tells the student that it’s time to start thinking about which companies they will target. You could include a comparison between startups, small and medium companies, and multinational corporations, and finish by reminding students that you offer career counselling appointments for students who don’t know which field they could choose.

Emilie, a University Partnerships Manager at JobTeaser, advises to build trust by including advice that doesn’t come from the career services department: career development blogs like The Muse or JobTeaser Advice can make easily shareable content, for instance. Try writing a newsletter with advice on how to make a resume stand out or how to ace an HR interview around the time when the internship search usually starts.

Same goes for specific events: before a career fair, send a newsletter with advice on how to prepare for it and how to approach targeted companies. This way, not only will students be better prepared, but they will also remember to attend the fair!

Finally, make your content as practical as possible. A wall of text is still better than nothing, but you can be so much more engaging with formats like:

  • a checklist (“The 8 things you should bring to next week’s career fair”);
  • quick calls-to-action (“The 5-minute networking initiative you can take this month”);
  • videos, if you have more budget and more time.

Build your emailing schedule around a calendar of the main events in the school year. Try to send one welcome email at the beginning of the year, for example, or preparation emails to career fairs and around the time when students start looking for an internship.

Choosing where to be

You can use various communication channels you can use to reach out to students.

It doesn’t have to all be online: your school may have billboards or screens in high-traffic areas such as the cafeteria or entrance halls.

Make the most of these spaces and always make sure you are always there, with quick snippets of advice (“Don’t forget to send a thank you note the day after an interview”), service reminders (“Bankers and researchers don’t write the same resumes. We can help you with both: book a career counseling appointment!”) or event announcements.

One big issue of career services department is that finding their lair can be an epic quest of questionably marked corridors and hidden stairwells. Make this easier for everyone and see them in person once in a while! You can take a table and two chairs, call them a booth, and go to these high-traffic areas so students can talk to you directly. The career services department at Université Libre de Bruxelles, in Belgium, chose to implement such an initiative.

On the other hand, digital channels start with your career center website, where you usually post job and internship offers. Do you have the means to add an “advice” section? What about an appointment booking system? Remember, letting students book appointments is more efficient than telling them they can come by at any time (which usually means “never”): give them both options by including open hours listing on your website. Make sure your website pages are easily found where the students log in every day.

We were talking about a newsletter above: more generally, email is a tried-and-true way to contact students. However, engagement may be hindered by the sheer number of emails students receive. If you can invest in a mobile app, do so, and put your newsletters on it. Instead of sending emails, send push notifications leading to these pages: your engagement number will soar.

Social media is also a great way to go. Students often have their own Facebook group: they generally accept a few school staff members into it, so try to get a spot in there and post regularly in the places they are used to visiting. Don’t push too much, though, at the risk of breaking the student-centrism of the group. A safe alternative to posting yourself is going through student ambassadors, to whom you can award extra credit, as schools like the Polytech network do, or small prizes (we found out that free headphones were a good option). Students generally trust their peers more than administration, which is why building a personal link with students is so important.

Create a personal link with students

You are not service providers

When introducing the career services department, make sure to position yourselves as people with a mission, rather than providers. There shouldn’t be a “customer service” idea, but a trusting and close relationship. Ending up with students who don’t know the difference between the career services department and the career centre website is a common pitfall, which can be avoided by building and nurturing this relationship.

One thing to do that can save you much ongoing effort is to invest time in a one-off introduction video, going through what services you offer, where students can find you, and who is part of your team. You can point students to this video often enough that they don’t get lost, for example on your intranet homepage.

Anne highly praises one of her partner schools that shares data on their career centre performance once a month, as part of their general newsletter. Each month, students know how many job offers their career services representatives uploaded to the website, and how many of their peers went on their career centre; they also know what percentage of the appointment slots with career counsellors were taken, showing them that they can also request meetings. Lower figures encourage people to be more active, while high figures show peer validation and push students to follow the lead.

A high number of the most successful career services departments choose to nurture their relationships through students themselves, which is a great way of showing how relevant and useful they are. For example, one institution created administrative tasks that allow students to get extra credit. This included maintaining the cafeteria booth themselves, or creating a referral programme where they could talk about their career counselling experience to their classmates for a minute at the beginning of a class. Other career services departments chose to get an ambassador student to post on social media groups, or to speak at the career services department yearly presentation and give first-hand information on the help they received.

Work with student organisations

Working alongside student organisations is a must, wherever you are. However, we do know that depending on where you are in Europe, your student organisations can be either completely different from your career services department or offer more similar, sometimes competing, services. Here are some tips for both cases.

If your institution’s student organisations focus on employability

In some countries and institutions, student organisations have a long tradition of providing career services to their members. They work on a corporate partnership model and can see you as competition, trying to disrupt the way they evolve. If this is the case for you, then you will generally want to avoid the politics and work more on the way you position your services to keep clear of conflict.

Claudia and Valentijn, two Netherlands university partnership developers at JobTeaser, say they usually advise career services departments to position themselves as a support for student organisations, as well as provide an alternative to services that are not yet offered by using your specific expertise. In fact, you have a massive advantage over organisations: you can offer a one-stop shop for everyone in your institution, rather than having private resources closed off by faculty. You can leverage this both ways.

Your first opportunity is as a support department: for example, instead of having every organisation maintain their own separate calendar, let them have one single place where you put all of their events. This way, you will have a centralised platform that everyone will benefit from visiting because it is the most exhaustive, but won’t compete with anyone. However, having a strong career services department is often more useful: it gives a better image of the institution to companies because it looks more professional, and students who aren’t (yet) part of an organisation know who they should reach out to.

The other way you can shine for students is by focusing on career counselling rather than job opportunities. You have a long experience of counselling, while student organisations are managed by different people every year, and you know more about changing majors and following infrequent study paths than anyone representing a single faculty. Make the most of it by offering counselling appointments to students who don’t know what they want to do, while leaving the following “how to get there” process to organisations who already have much experience in this field.

All in all, your focus should be on facilitating every organisation’s work without making them feel like you are stealing their activities. Build trust and credibility before you start competing with them!

If your institution’s student organisations are not work-oriented

On the other hand, if your student organisations are interest-oriented but not work-oriented, you may not see how you can work with them as a career services department. They still often work with companies to get some of their budgets, and these companies may have some links to them. They also host events, which can turn your event agenda into the most important place to log in, if you play it right.

One school that Anne works with has created “restricted administrator” logins for each organisation president, so they can enter job and internship offers from their partner companies and advertise their public events on the institutional event calendar. In exchange, they will promote your services and get people to visit your calendar and your offers. There is a lot to gain from working with student organisations!

Giving more responsibility to student organisations means giving more responsibility to individual students inside these associations. We’re back to this mission of building trust and good faith among your potential audience: show them you trust them, and they will start to rely on you in return.

All in all, turning your career services department into the must-go student hub is mostly a matter of being in the right place (ie. wherever students can see you) at the right time (ie. all the time). For better results, rely on engaged students and student organisations.

Posted by
Lexane Sirac
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