We sat down with two career development professionals to talk about how students can start developing a meaningful career while in college. Andrea Chartier is a career counselor at The College of St. Scholastica and Tina Wagner is the director of career development at St. Catherine University. Both spoke at the spring Student Success Forum, which is held for interested staff at member institutions.
Q: What are some of the ways career development offices help students find their way after college?
Wagner: It is important that students come into their career center as early as possible. Career staff can start working with students during their first and second years to help them pick a major, explore career options and consider experiences to engage in outside the classroom that will help them become career ready. Students want to develop core competencies that employers and graduate schools are looking for.
Chartier: We work with students on career exploration, developing their professional profile and connecting to the professional world. We want to help students find a major that they are interested in, help them determine their career options and connect them with the skills and resources to successfully enter the workforce.
Q: How is the workforce changing? What do “gig economy” and hybrid jobs mean for students and colleges?
Chartier: At a four-year liberal arts college, a student can become a better person, a better problem solver and a better decision maker, but they are also looking for better job prospects. Our role is to help students build lifelong career skills. This includes the broader life concepts learned in the liberal arts. We know students are going in and out of the workforce more often and changing careers multiple times. We want to help students identify themes of their lives and how those themes relate to the working world. Many of the jobs our students will be doing in 10 years do not currently exist and we need be sure they are prepared for these jobs.
Wagner: It’s a challenge to stay on top of the changing workforce and we help students to understand what is happening in different industries. There are some majors that are very professionally focused, like nursing and accounting where students go directly into a specific career area. Students with majors that are broader may need more time to try different career tracks before focusing on one. Being flexible and engaging in ongoing learning are key in the new marketplace.
Q: What are the strengths that come from a private college education and how do these strengths change with the student’s major?
Wagner: Liberal arts courses and a student’s major are key in developing competencies in communication, critical thinking, leadership, ethics and others that are important to employers and graduate programs. Career staff encourage students to major in a field of interest, work closely with faculty and take courses that will help them to develop specific competencies. For example, if a student is a communications major, taking courses on social media or graphic design can help round out their skill set. Pairing these skills with outside-of-the-classroom experiences like internships, jobs and volunteering make a student a very attractive candidate.
Chartier: The liberal arts framework is especially important with the pace the workforce is changing. The skills learned in the liberal arts are very human skills and are going to be hard to automate — empathy, problem solving and ethical decision making. These are skills that can be applied across fields and across contexts. The private college education is designed to enhance one's core subject area by adding breadth and depth to the student experience — not only learning the subject but learning how to apply it with reason, how to work as part of a team and how to communicate clearly and effectively in doing so.
Q: How important is hands-on skill building while the students are in college and how do students get these opportunities?
Chartier: It is imperative that all students have access to opportunities to practice and apply the knowledge they are gaining in the classroom. We would like to see students get multiple internships before graduation as these experiences help individuals to solidify their areas of interest and develop skills needed in the working world. Looking at these opportunities through an equity lens is very important. Many students are putting themselves through school and unpaid internships are not an option. We want to connect students with work experiences that are meaningful and also help them learn how to articulate the experiences they are gaining — be it through an internship or another job held while in school.
Wagner: Career-related skills are important and nearly all students are developing them in some way. Career coaching and counseling help students to recognize the skills they are learning in diverse settings. That off-campus job isn’t “just working at a fast food restaurant;” students are learning very important skills that transfer across fields. I have seen many students who have worked in the fast food industry or retail early in their college careers and when they are able to articulate what they’ve learned, they become very attractive candidates for higher level opportunities and internships that are related to their major and/or career interests.
Q: What role does networking and building social capital play in finding a career?
Wagner: Students with strong social networks have an advantage when entering the job market and it is very important for all students to have support in building and developing professional connections. Networking is extremely important because students gain information and meet helpful contacts within organizations and that can lead to great opportunities. This process is also helpful for them to develop skills in writing professional emails, speaking with people face-to-face and over the phone.
Chartier: Building social capital is vital to not only getting a job but advancing in your career. It’s important for students to see that networking is reciprocal. What value can I add to others careers or lives? We have to look at our networks as a pipeline, not an end goal. Networking creates forced happenstance; you never know when a person will end up being the right connection.
Q: How do you see students seeking out meaning in their post-college lives?
Chartier: Often the first question is about money — how do I pay my bills? Once they get into the workforce they often start asking questions about their field or the type of work they want. Students need to remember that their first job most likely won’t be their last and getting a job isn’t about an end goal; it’s a journey through a career.
Wagner: Finding meaning post-college can be complicated and has a lot to do with the student’s values, goals and family and cultural backgrounds. For example, for students whose culture puts a large emphasis on the importance of community, this often impacts how they think about their work and their post-college lives. These and salary concerns are some of the considerations we often see at St. Kates.