Career Services needs to upskill. Here’s how.

I originally wrote this as a guest post on Switchboard, an alumni platform that connects students and alumni. Switchboard is one of the few ed-tech companies who understand the nuances of higher education transformation. Their higher education innovation fellowship and upcoming conference ListenUpEDU are models for professional development in higher education. And they kill it with good advice for the future of alumni relations

By now we’ve all seen the headlines about the future of work. Beyond headlines about job-stealing robots, the reality is that machine learning and artificial intelligence technology are disrupting career paths. According to the World Economic Forum’s latest report, The Future of Jobs 2018, AI will create 58 million new jobs within the next five years. In a 2017 Deloitte report, Catch the Wave: The 21st Century Career, the authors note that only 19 percent of companies even have traditional career pathways. The future of work is filled with ambiguity and non-linear career paths.

With so much change ahead, career centers need to rethink outdated career training models. Career centers’ primary focus should not be to prepare students for linear careers anymore. Instead, they should prepare students for a lifetime of career changes. Navigating these ambiguous career paths requires students and alumni to embrace upskilling and lifelong learning. This same advice applies to careers services staff too.

Higher education has always been slower to change than industry. That makes it hard to notice when skills fall behind. Traditionally, the skills that make a good career coach are coaching, curriculum development, event planning, and relationship development. All of these skills are still relevant. But career center staff need a new set of skills. They need to become multidisciplinary—as comfortable with data analytics and SAAS platforms as they are helping students identify career paths. Career staff need to commit to lifelong learning with a relentless curiosity about new industries and non-traditional roles. Thankfully we’re swimming in resources to do it. With online courses and bootcamps, we don’t have to return to school to get new skills and keep learning.

Commit to data fluency

Career centers are slowly but surely becoming more outcome-oriented. They’re tracking student and alumni employment outcomes. That means career staff must be comfortable working with data. Data fluency isn’t just knowing how to work Excel. Data fluency means asking the right questions about your center’s data, identifying data collection methods, and cleaning raw data. It also means transforming your analysis into stories that your audience understands. Analytics can’t help your center if people don’t understand them. It takes a village to source and transform data so that it creates a meaningful impact.

There are loads of online courses that teach the basics of data analytics. If online courses aren’t your style, find your outcome or alumni data and start playing with it. Watch a few Tableau videos on YouTube. Then plug your center’s data into Tableau and see what trends you can uncover.

Upgrade your digital communication skills

Next, career centers need to upgrade their digital communication skills. This goes beyond having a Facebook page. Career services is competing in the attention economy like everyone else. Career centers can’t rely on the old model of waiting for students to show up at the office. Today’s students are the YouTube generation—they expect you to reach them where they are.

Capturing a student’s attention and getting them the right resources at the right time requires a specific skill set. It’s not enough to direct a student to the career center’s website, the majority of which are difficult to navigate. Instead, career coaches must think like digital marketers. They must be fluent in both social media engagement and email marketing. A/B subject line testing, tracking open rates, content calendars, and Instagram influencers should be part of a career center’s communication toolkit.

Career staff must also learn how to build simple personal websites. Resumes are becoming less powerful in the hiring process; instead, algorithms are scouring the web for candidates’ websites and social data as part of the evaluation process. Teaching a student how to build a LinkedIn profile isn’t enough—students need to learn how to build an integrated online presence. Teaching students how to produce online content that shows their knowledge and skills is an essential piece of a future-oriented career curriculum.

There are several ways to improve your digital communication skills. There are online programs to teach you how to build websites in WordPress or learn digital marketing. There are free courses on email marketing and even online specializations in digital marketing that count towards a masters degree.

Get beyond the robots. Learn about the future of work. 

Be curious about artificial intelligence

Next, career staff need to understand the basics of machine learning and artificial intelligence. You don’t need a computer science degree to learn about it. Watch a few YouTube explainer videos about machine learning and AI. Then learn what the impact of this technology will be on jobs. Jobs in artificial intelligence aren’t limited to computer science majors. They’re open to liberal arts grads too. Next, examine how AI is changing the hiring process. From algorithms that review resumes to interview chatbots, machine learning is changing how students get hired. Learn how to ask the right questions about AI bias in the hiring process. Career staff must provide creative solutions to prepare students for this new hiring landscape.

Embrace interdisciplinary leadership

For career center staff to successfully upskill, they need leadership that creates space to apply new skills. Higher education leadership likes to say they’re innovating; judging from higher education conference themes, you’d think that’s all we do. However, candid discussions with career staff will reveal that’s not the case. Like many departments in higher education, career services is experiencing a tension between staff who are eager to adapt to the changes ahead and leadership that’s content to keep things the same. Career center directors need to upskill, too.

Career centers face many barriers to innovation: siloed departments, funding, rankings. Directors can learn new skills to overcome barriers to innovation. A course from IDEO on design thinking could help uncover new ways of managing the department. A course on data-driven decision making, could teach you how to make a data-backed case for new initiatives or funding. Participating in an intensive UX bootcamp could help directors learn tools that uncover student needs.

Examine new industries and ways of work

Lastly, career staff must be curious about new industries and work experiences. In the last five years, we’ve seen new industries like fintech, cannabis, and virtual reality open up opportunities. Not only are they viable industries, new degree programs exist to train students to work in them. And students are curious about them. Searches for remote work are up 6x over the last 12 months, according to Handshake’s Campus to Career Report. Traditional corporate experiences are competing against Insta feeds showing off the digital nomad life. Work is becoming more flexible, less 9-5. Your department’s job boards for students should reflect that.

Career staff who are open to exploring new industries and roles must model the curiosity we expect from students. So sign up to industry newsletters or listen to podcasts from industry insiders to keep current. Interview alumni working in new industries to understand what jobs might be a fit for your students. Always be learning.

Start thinking like a mini-futurist

To remain relevant in the future of work, career staff must start thinking more like futurists. As career training professionals, we are in a unique position to shape the future of work by bringing diverse perspectives to the debate. To do so, we need to embrace a relentless curiosity about the future. We must consistently upgrade our skills. We must ask smart questions about what we learn. So let’s look toward the future and embrace new skills and possibilities in a world of career ambiguity.

Prepare your alumni for the future of work. Hire me to talk with your alumni. 

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