What Are The Main Challenges Facing University Careers Services?

Round Table: What Are The Main Challenges Facing University Careers Services?

Careers services departments at universities are facing a host of new challenges as they adapt to new technology, more expensive education and changes in students’ demands.

To find out more about their response to these, James Rice, Head of Marketing at WikiJob, spoke to Laura McKenzie, Head of Careers & Employability at King’s College London; Dave Jarman, Head of Enterprise & Employability at Bath Spa University; James Corbin, Placement Development & Employability Manager at University of Kent; and Martin Edmondson, Chief Executive at Gradcore.

How are students today looking for a different kind of service from university careers departments?

Laura McKenzie: In some ways expectations have not changed dramatically. Students still want accurate intelligence about the labour market; access to employers and job opportunities; impartial support to make informed choices and recognise their skills; and help with all aspects of the application process.

However, the timing and delivery of these support services are shifting as technology and social media change the face of graduate recruitment, and there is a growing awareness of employability as an important outcome from the university experience. Access to information or support 24/7 is now much more of an expectation, with the development of online career information resources and the chance to access advice and even events remotely.

James Corbin: Certainly students are now much more aware of what careers services do and are determined to make use of what we can offer. This is at least partly due to the increased requirements placed on them by recruiters. A degree is no longer enough (and hasn’t been for some time) and as students are gaining more experience, so employers are demanding even more. Students are feeling this pressure and are starting to prepare for their careers much earlier.

Dave Jarman: Students have always thought about their futures but the process has become more skewed towards a degree delivering a 'return on investment' in terms of repaying debt; as such graduate employment and well paid employment has become a bigger element and a more pressing concern.

Careers services are now expected to advertise more jobs and provide more access to employers; lots of services have had to really develop their placement and intern support in ways that were simply not there ten years ago.

Laura McKenzie: Students also want to develop their networks, formal and informal, to gain insight into their chosen career area and develop useful contacts. Consequently most universities have a growing group of alumni who are willing to share their career experiences with current students and even offer their time for mentoring, shadowing or placements.

Also, with rising interest from graduates in entrepreneurship and social enterprise, many careers services are offering extensive support packages for students who want to establish a start-up, develop a social enterprise idea or simply develop their entrepreneurial and creative thinking skills.

Given these changes in expectations from students, how are careers services reacting?

Martin Edmondson: The primary challenge for most university careers services is to understand their cohort: to gather data on the students they have and deeply understand them. They need to look deeply at their own audience rather than worrying about what their competitors are doing.

Careers services need to develop marketing skills including data analysis, personalisation and creation of personas, before deciding on any direct services. And they should look to review their assumptions every five years as a minimum.

Dave Jarman: Most services now routinely survey and consult their students to evolve their services. We are becoming more user-centered and more designed around our customers' experience. We have collectively redeveloped our student-facing spaces, our channels of communication, modified our service 'menu' away from just 1-2-1 advice and diversified our offers to include more support for work experience, enterprise, and so on.

We are also far more engaged with both curricular development and with extra-curricular activities run through the likes of students' unions.

Martin Edmondson: Careers services also need to react by looking to engage the less active student population. It’s dangerous to benchmark against just those students who come through the door of the careers service office. Generally that group takes a more pro-active approach and won’t struggle as much to get jobs as the group that never opts for careers advice at university, which probably accounts for 40% of students or more. So services must consider, as many are doing: how do we target that 40% who never come through the door?

James Corbin: Gone are the days of careers advisers sitting in offices and waiting for a student to turn up. We are out working with students in the lecture theatres, social spaces and online. The whole method for delivering careers information, advice and guidance has changed. There has also been significant growth in work experience, internship and placement support, helping more students gain experience as part of and alongside their degrees.

How is data and technology changing the landscape, both in terms of what universities expect of their careers services, and how careers services engage with employers?

Martin Edmondson: Careers services are good at embracing the technology that recruiters are using - many are now offering coaching for video interviews, for example. However, one key issue is that there is a ton of data in careers services’ systems that is not being used. The data is there: as has often been said, many universities are data-rich but insights-poor.

Universities often employ ‘information professionals’ but their role is often focused on collating info related to different areas, rather than picking data apart. Some of the more forward-thinking careers services teams are now employing data scientists into their teams.

Dave Jarman: Students' expectations of what can be accessed 24/7 through the internet has rocketed up - online resources, out-of-regular-hours e-guidance, webinars, and event bookings have all boomed in the last decade. As the strategic significance of careers services to institutions' league table performance has draw us into focus, we are also being pumped for more data.

Martin Edmondson: Equally, careers services need to pump more data from employers. There needs to be a greater flow of data from employers back to careers services, so that when asked by universities, employers can feed back with something like: “100 of your students applied, and 70 of them failed at this stage - and here’s why they failed.”

Can careers services play a part in reducing the inefficiencies of ‘mass rejection’ of candidates that apply to major graduate schemes?

Martin Edmondson: To reduce mass rejection, careers services need to deepen their understanding of what employers are actually doing. All members of a careers services team should be out there visiting and talking to employers at least some of the time.

It’s necessary to build the understanding between these two groups - one way GradCore does this is by running workshops for careers services teams on employer approaches. We’ve regularly put careers services professionals through mock assessment centres, so they can understand exactly what their graduates have to face.

Laura McKenzie: Actually I think that the first job of careers services is to counteract the myths around ‘mass rejection’. There can be very negative media stories about graduate unemployment but every year we speak to top-flight recruiters who are still trying to fill their graduate vacancies towards the end of the academic year.

The roles are there but applicants need to ensure they are giving themselves the best chance of avoiding rejection by ensuring their applications are tailored, relevant and specific to the role and the company; generic mailshot applications will always be rejected.

Dave Jarman: To follow that point, I'd dispute any suggestion we should take any responsibility for employers reducing their selection costs - that's their business model and shouldn't be offloaded into the education sector.

Personally I work hard to help students see beyond the usual suspects. If a student applies to a big scheme having viewed the wider market then we can help them polish that application; but many simply haven't looked far enough and carefully enough at all the options and have been blinded by marketing.

In your opinion, is the DLHE still fit for purpose in assessing how effectively a university is for graduate employment?

Dave Jarman: It’s never been fit for purpose – and not even for establishing employability, let alone as a measure of degree value. The impact of a degree programme can be life-changing, in dimensions far beyond employment and earnings. Likewise measuring achievement after six months is hardly an indicative measure of career success over the long term.

James Corbin: Agreed – though right now, DLHE is the best measure we have. It is far from perfect. Many career paths require a portfolio of experience and therefore being measured at a set point so soon after you have finished studying is not the best reflection of your ability, or your degree programme.

The statistics do not incorporate significant levels of international students, part-time students or those studying a second degree, and the measure changes slightly every year, making comparison difficult.

Laura McKenzie: Prospective students want to know more about the longer-term ROI for their career prospects and many are aware that there are numerous ways to measure their own ‘career success’ beyond job title and salary. I think that LinkedIn and other ways of analysing data on what graduates are doing throughout their career will supplement and eventually replace the DLHE survey as we now know it.

In the immediate future, however, many careers services are analysing the DLHE data, alongside other information from their alumni and wider labour market intelligence, to help build a broader picture of graduate career prospects.

Dave Jarman: Yes, what we need is more longitudinal data across more dimensions to show what the value-add of a given degree can be. The suggested models coming forward to replace the DLHE are quite worrying – linking achievement to earnings even more deliberately.

Will this account for the natural advantage students from wealthy backgrounds already enjoy in terms of connections, ability to take unpaid internships, etc?

And will more selective institutions do well simply by virtue of recruiting students who start from a better position, rather than adding transformative value to students from less affluent backgrounds?

What would you say are the biggest challenges for careers services in the future?

Martin Edmondson: Probably the biggest challenge for careers services henceforward comes from being in the limelight after the introduction of £9,000 fees, which means that the ability of careers services to get grads good jobs has more impact than ever.

Careers services are now centre-stage strategically in most universities, and need to make the most of their top-table position. They need to see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. Those who don’t embrace the change are likely to find life difficult.

Dave Jarman: I concur. A careers service used to be able to muddle along on the periphery of the institution, much like a chaplaincy, but they've been pushed and dragged into far more strategic significance.

Laura McKenzie: I think the biggest challenge remains staying on top of an increasingly changing global labour market, and helping students to navigate this landscape effectively. On a more concrete level this translates into three specific challenges.

First, student engagement – how to make sure that what we offer and the way we offer it continues to meet the needs of students.

Second, employer engagement – making sure that we continue to be recognised as a key conduit between graduate recruiters of all sizes and our students.

Third, staying agile – balancing solid, data-informed information and activity with a bit of horizon scanning and a lot of innovation.

Dave Jarman: I’d also pick three specific challenges. First, to echo Martin’s comment, is surviving and thriving under ever-increasing scrutiny. Careers services will need to stay sharp to evolving trends, to keep proving our impact, and to keep proving that we are a useful return on investment for our universities.

Second, we need to continue to embrace technology to retain a credible relationship with our students. Finally, in the face of all these changes, we must continue to hold onto our principles about impartial advice and guidance, high professional standards, and moral positions like encouraging paid internships.