Tackling the highest 10 Challenges in Career Services

In this challenging climate for career services professionals and job seekers alike, I offer ideas to handle some common and not-so-common hurdles. The strategies I recommend stem from the lessons I learned while recruiting undergraduates and MBAs in industry, in my former role as director of Stanford’s MBA Career Management Center, and from research for the career management book I recently coauthored with Karen O. Dowd, The Ultimate Guide to Getting the Career You Want . . . And What to Do Once You Have It (McGraw-Hill, 2003).

Here are the top 10 most common challenges and some thoughts on how to tackle them.

1. Student anxiety about not being able to find a job
We are in one of the toughest job markets in memory for new graduates. As a colleague of mine once said, “Let’s all hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” Letting students know that you understand how they feel and that their anxiety is normal are important to gaining their trust. Encourage students to turn their anxiety into positive energy by preparing thoughtfully and acting purposefully in their job searches and career management.

Allay students’ fears by letting them know what you have planned for the year on their behalf. Regularly give students positive news and reports of “key wins,” so they can see progress. For example, you might tell students that your outreach efforts have resulted in an increase in job postings on campus, brought coveted new recruiters to campus, or yielded new workshops or networking events. Continually reiterate the services you offer and remind students of how you can help, focusing them on how to take full advantage of all you have to offer. Try to give students the benefit of your experience and wisdom. Build perspective and context by sending the message that careers evolve over a lifetime. What students do or don’t do after graduation is just one stop along a path they’ll create for themselves; they shouldn’t feel pressure to reach the pinnacle of success right away.

Some of the specific initiatives we tried at Stanford were enlisting student “buddies,” second-year students who mentored first-year students in their job searches. We also facilitated weekly career action groups for those who wanted to drop in for support and to share news of job leads and successes. For those who were feeling discouraged, Friday afternoon milk-and-cookie breaks lifted spirits.

2. Some students’ unrealistic expectations that you should do most of the work and place them in jobs
Convey early on that you are not a placement service and consistently reinforce this message through your words and actions. Communicate that you offer career management services, expertise, and support and are there to help students but that, ultimately, students own their careers and are responsible for managing them.

Make your services known, empowering, and accessible so that students can put in the work their job searches and career management require. For example, you might offer job postings online and send a link to students via email for easy access. The students have to follow up on the leads, but you have made this easier for them.

One way to engage students in their job searches is to agree to fund and oversee a career fair targeted to a specific sector the students are interested in, on the condition that the students organize and run the fair. After the fair, you can let other students know what students at the fair did and which of your services they utilized to land interviews and get job offers.

3. Students who don’t take advantage of what you have to offer
One way to get students to use your services is to market to them. Another is to enlist students who have benefited from your services as “career services ambassadors” who share their positive experiences with other students.

To market your services to students and generate interest, provide a master calendar of everything planned for the year at the beginning of the year and then give quarterly updates. Offer weekly newsletters online or in print that include such important information as which companies are recruiting on campus; a schedule of upcoming workshops, events, and programs; details about on-campus interviewing; various deadlines; career-related student initiatives and how to get involved; and a sampling of new job postings.

4. Not enough recruiters or jobs
Tackling this challenge requires a dual approach to potential employers. Attracting new employers as a source of new jobs is very important, but so is deepening your relationships with current recruiters to ensure retention and to cultivate more job offers, perhaps from groups within the companies that had not previously recruited your studenthiring an outreach person or dedicating current staff to more outreach to develop new relationships with potential employer; appealing to alumni to offer summer or full-time job opportunities; andcreating summer jobs within the school or hiring graduates for full-time jobs at the school.

Two more ways to attract new employers are hosting on-site career fairs and taking students on the road to meet possible employers in high job-growth cities (some schools call these trips “treks”). You might also introduce new career fairs targeted to specific industries. For instance, at Stanford, with the help of two student organizations, a high-tech club and an entrepreneurs club, we mounted two career fairs that featured companies of interest to the members of the respective clubs: a “growth company” fair and a high-tech fair. For our treks, which we embarked on during breaks from classes, we took our students to such places as Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Los Angeles; Seattle; Sydney; and Brussels to meet with alumni and employers.

Other approaches to matchmaking between employers and students are producing books of student résumés for potential employers, introducing suitable candidates to companies with hard-to-fill jobs, and spending time coaching first-time recruiters to help them develop effective recruiting strategies. (One result of the weak economy is that many companies are cutting costs by using managers, rather than professional recruiters, to recruit graduating MBAs; these managers often appreciate advice from the career services office about how best to recruit at a particular school.) 

5. Late offers, rescinded offers, delayed start dates
Put simply, the best way to handle these problems is on a case-by-case basis, working with the employer and the student to help resolve the situation for the most positive outcome possible for all parties. If you believe offers will come late in the year, let the students know that; if you are privy to which industries or companies are likely to make offers late, inform the students. Armed with this kind of information, students can adjust their expectations accordingly and can even work on contingency plans.

When a company rescinds an offer, it can be valuable for career services directors to intervene, to find out why the company needed to renege and possibly to problem solve with the hiring manager or human resources to see whether there are creative ways to help the students whose offers were rescinded. Sometimes, human resources can help find other positions for the students. One of the best results I’ve ever seen was when a company that had to renege on offers because of declining business helped all the students to whom they’d made offers find jobs with competing companies.

Delayed start dates are a fact of life these days, but often the career services professional can negotiate for the student to get project work, obtain a small “retention” bonus to help tide students over financially until they start work, or arrange for students to begin working elsewhere in the company to start getting up to speed.

On the “up” side, many students actually appreciate having some time off before starting their new jobs, if they can afford it. Career services offices may be able to influence financial aid offices to delay the payback of loans to accommodate the realities of the current job market and take the pressure off students with late start dates.

6. Difficulty keeping staff skills and knowledge up-to-date
With so many competing demands in a rapidly changing economy, it can be hard to find time for professional development. Getting everyone on your team to participate in the learning can lessen the burden and make professional development more appealing. For example, you might add a professional development element to your team meetings by having a different team member teach everyone something new each time you meet. The lessons could introduce a self-assessment tool, provide a summary of a new career management book that would be helpful to students and alumni, or give key points learned from a seminar or conference. You might also task someone with finding and sharing relevant new information to keep your team abreast of industry and company trends, upcoming events, and news stories.

Although outside professional development courses can be valuable, some of the best professional development opportunities exist within your office. Cross training—that is, having team members learn each others’ roles—can be good not only because it enables team members to cover for each other when they are out of the office but also because it is an opportunity for growth. Involving your colleagues in each other’s projects can be a good start to cross training. For example, if you are developing a new workshop for students, you might invite some of your colleagues to play the role of students and give you feedback. Taking on new responsibilities and serving on a cross-department project are also great career-broadening opportunities. 

7. A handful of students who may be alienating recruiters or hurting the school’s reputation
Although this particular issue tends to be less of a problem now than in booming job markets, many schools face this challenge. Dealing with the issue constructively requires skillful management. You are not the police or your students’ parents, so don’t try to put yourself in either of those roles. Your best approach is to treat students as adults and encourage them to take responsibility for their relationships with the school and recruiters and work to strengthen, not damage, their personal networks.

To curb or prevent potentially damaging behavior, you might institute a student-elected and governed committee to establish and uphold a “code of conduct” for student behavior toward each other, recruiters, and the career services staff. When we formed such a committee at Stanford, students monitored and dealt with violations; for example, missing an interview, being a no-show to a recruiting function, or reneging on an offer might be penalized with a loss of recruiting privileges. Some schools have tried a rather extreme tactic, public “outing”; they list the names of students and the specific infraction on a bulletin board for all to see.

Another way to handle this sticky wicket is by being straight with students in your various town hall meetings, newsletters, one-on-ones, and other communications. Without naming names or blaming, you could point out how specific student behavior, such as being unprepared for interviews, being arrogant to a recruiter, or being a no-show to an event, has led to negative feedback from a recruiter, recruiter dissatisfaction, or even the loss of a recruiting relationship. Reinforce the message that one person’s behavior can and does impact the whole school community.

8. Staff burnout or lowered morale
You and your staff have tough jobs. If you are a manager, one of the most vital roles you can play is to keep your staff and yourself developing and inspired. Figure out what you need to remain a motivated, happy, and energized leader. Only when you are in good form can you be a champion and mentor for your team.

Take the time to give your staff the appreciation, learning, growth opportunities, and kudos they deserve. Let them know you appreciate their hard work. A raise is nice, but little things can make a difference too: a public “thank you” for a job well done, a fun outing outside the office (perhaps a “tailgate” party before a sporting event or a breakfast at a restaurant before work), or an extra day off as a reward for a job well done. Make time to celebrate wins, both personal and professional. You could emphasize individuals’ roles and responsibilities by instituting new titles, such as group leader or manager.

Never miss an opportunity to highlight your staff members’ achievements; excellence may be expected, but it should not be taken for granted. Even small gestures and recognition can be powerful motivators and keep hardworking staff members from feeling burned out or underappreciated.

9. Not enough time, money, or resources
One of the common refrains I hear from colleagues is that they don’t have enough time or money to do what they want to do. To address this problem, you could try some creative options, such as outsourcing some of their work overflow by tapping into the pool of competent, experienced people who would be willing to volunteer their time. Alumni, out-of-work but highly competent recruiters, HR professionals, and industry executives could assist you by, for example, critiquing résumés, offering career advice, performing outreach or marketing for your office, refining your communications or feedback surveys, redesigning your website, or mock-interviewing your students. Volunteers can be insightful teachers for some of your workshops and can organize panels of experts. Current students, as busy as they are with their own job searches, are often willing to augment your staff and resources, too.

At Stanford, we had second-year students offer mock interviews to the first-years before the first-years went through summer internship recruiting. Recruiters or industry experts taught workshops or served on panels about compensation negotiation, networking, informational interviewing, and international job searches. These wonderful people who gave their time and insights were like adjunct team members. They made the small staff and budget we had at the time go much further, allowing us to offer broader and deeper services and resources to our students.

10. Lack of support for you or your team
On a pragmatic level, to gain support for yourself and your team, you need to produce results, keep building trust and respect, and continuously improve. Part of a leader’s role is to influence 360 degrees around, so others in the school community know what you’re doing, understand how you can help them, and understand what they can do to support you. Look inside and outside your school to build a supportive community. Active cooperation and reciprocation with groups you are interdependent with—such as the faculty and deans, admissions, corporate and alumni relations, your IT group, and student organizations—can make a big difference in helping you work toward common objectives and priorities.

Outside your school, make time to share challenges and bright ideas with colleagues at “sister” schools. This sharing can take place in informal settings; for instance, you might have coffee with colleagues in your area. Or, it can be more formal. You might participate in the Graduate Management Admission Council , National Association of Colleges and Employers, or MBA Career Services Council professional development conferences.

Having spent seven years in career services at Stanford University before moving to London for my husband’s job, I know the huge rewards and personal fulfillment that can come with the challenges of doing our kind of work. I hope the ideas in this article give you some food for thought and provide inspiration for making this school year your best yet!

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