The career service is dead, long live the career service? The work of the university career practitioner in an era of graduate employability

I’ve always been interested in career services. Those of us who have enough life mileage 😉 may have visited a career service in high school or university to do a range of aptitude tests, and be matched with an ideal career (mine was ‘lawyer’ – not sure what this says about me??). Others will have visited the career service to talk with a counsellor about changing courses, or how to find a job after they graduate.

The work of the university career practitioner has become increasingly complicated and demanding over the last few years. Not only have careers themselves become more complex and mutable, but the career service’s client base and range of activity has become far more diverse. For instance, I’ve noticed that it is now very common for career staff to be engaged in a massive laundry list of activities at the university, covering: curriculum and learning resource design and teaching; industry brokerage and partner relationship development; staff professional learning; institutional marketing and promotions; and creation of institutional policy and strategy, in addition to ‘traditional’ career counselling activities. Another disruptor is digital technology and social media. The use of digital tools means that the reach of the career service can be far greater than before, but their use is also associated with a range of interesting challenges.

The structural positioning and overall focus of many career services has changed as well. With the rise of the graduate employability agenda and a sector-wide focus on preparing learners for careers (or at least initial career outcomes) (Jackson & Bridgstock, 2018), some career services are suddenly finding themselves in the institutional spotlight, taking on significant responsibility for the university’s approach in this area. Others are capitalising upon burgeoning leadership interest in work integrated learning and employability skills to foreground the possibilities offered by an integrated institutional approach to career development learning. However, in other universities career services continue ‘out in the cold’ as “stand-alone entities, often organisationally aligned with student support services or marketing departments” (McKenzie & Howell, 2005), and are not (yet?) part of university-level conversations about learning and teaching.

University career services: No longer out in the cold?
University career services: No longer out in the cold?

In my keynote address at the Career Development Association of Australasia conference coming up in Hobart in May, I’m going to explore how career services and individual practitioners are responding to the disruptive changes to career development practice I’ve outlined above. I’ll talk about how they’re surmounting challenges, and reinventing themselves and their work to continue to best support the career development of learners.

I’ll share some findings of my Graduate Careers Australia-funded research project with Alan McAlpine and Michelle Grant-Iramu from QUT into the ‘future capability’ of the career service (actually, from a certain perspective one might also think of it as the career adaptability of the careers service!) Through nearly 40 interviews with career service managers, practitioners, institutional leadership, and academic staff across a total of nine universities in Australia, the UK and Canada 2017-2018, this research explored:
– the impact of disruptive influences within and outside the institution on career services and the work of career practitioners
– the big challenges that career services are facing in the current era of ‘career service ultra-super-hyperactivity’ (see also Dey & Real, 2009)
– how career services are transforming themselves in response to, and in anticipation of, ongoing changes
– the different organisational strategies that they using to influence the direction of the university in exciting ways,
– the ways that practitioners are working to integrate career development learning across the institution
– how career services managers and university leaders perceive the future of the career service – what’s coming next, and how can they prepare?

I invite you to join me in discussion on these topics at the conference. I am very aware that delegates will have relevant lived experience in their own contexts and practices, and I’m keen to take the opportunity to learn from you, as well as sharing what I have discovered so far. If the technology is amenable, I’ll lead a structured conversation about your experiences of the disruptors, the approaches you are taking to navigating these, and the ways that we can work together to assure the future capability of career development practice in educational institutions.

Dey, F., & Real, M. (2010). Adaptation of Casella’s Model: Emerging Trends in Career Services. College Student Educators International.

Jackson, D., & Bridgstock, R. (2018). Evidencing student success in the contemporary world-of-work: Renewing our thinking. Higher Education Research and Development. (In Press)

McKenzie, M., & Howell, J. (2005). A snapshot of Australian university career services. Australian Journal of Career Development, 14(2), 6-14.

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Career planning in a disrupted world of work

In a disrupted age where we don’t know which jobs will exist in the future, and young people can expect to have 19 jobs across 5 industries in their lifetimes*, how do you plan your career? How do you know which education / training course to choose? How do you know that the choices you are making are the right ones?

When I present about the future of the world of work and careers, these are by far the most common questions I receive from audiences. There is a great deal of anxiety out there about employability and the future of careers, particularly given that course fees are higher than ever, and it can now take 4-5 years for university graduates in some fields to find career roles.

In this post, I’m going to share a simple process for individual 21st century career development. It is based in design thinking approaches, and also has resonance in lean enterprise methodologies, and anyone can do it.

The starting place is this:
People often approach career development like they are opening a McDonalds franchise.

There are more than 37,000 McDonalds restaurants worldwide. Each new franchisee is pretty certain that they will have many customers and turn a reasonable profit, because within reason there are known outcomes. The whole idea of franchising is that if you pay the money and follow the formula, you’ll be successful**.

McDonalds Wagga Wagga: one of more than 900 in Australia
McDonalds Wagga Wagga, Australia

People can often approach career development in exactly the same way. They think about what career success or a desired role might entail for them, and then they attempt to follow a formula to reach it (‘study hard in school, get into teaching at university, study hard at university, finish my degree, become a registered teacher, apply for a job at x school…’ etc).

This approach doesn’t work for a few reasons. The first is that the desired end will almost definitely change, as we learn more about ourselves and the world of work, as we go through our lives, and as the opportunities out there change. The desired end may not even be what we thought it was in the first place (‘I thought I wanted to be a teacher, but now I realise teaching isn’t anything like what I thought’). In actuality, about 6% of adults end up doing what they thought they were going to do career-wise when they were young (Polavieja & Platt, 2014). The second is that lock-step or formulaic approaches and strategies often don’t work either, and can mean you miss out on opportunities***. Careers are never linear — even very successful people (actually, especially very successful people) stumble across opportunities and end up in unanticipated places.

So how should you approach career development?

My answer, based on research with people who are satisfied with their careers (and happily it turns out that most of us are), is kaizen.
Kaizen - change good
The english translation of kaizen is ‘change good’, and it means continual improvement, in an emergent way. Software people might call it perpetual or continuous beta, and designers might call it ongoing prototyping. Here’s the process:

1. Seek to understand
yourself, and also the world of work.
The process is grounded in self-empathy — that is, gaining an understanding and appreciation of who we are as individuals. What is important to you in career? What are your strengths? Where and how do you want career to fit into your life? What interests you and inspires your curiosity?****
It is also grounded in exploration of the world of work. What are the opportunities out there? What skills and capabilities are required for different roles? Do the opportunities fit with your values and priorities?

Understanding happens through exploration (e.g., talking to employers, career consultants, parents, friends; directly experiencing work and workplaces) and reflection. For those feeling a bit paralysed by indecision, a quick tip: Your understanding doesn’t have to be anywhere near perfect to go on to the next step, and your understanding will increase as you take action.

2. Make a (small)(provisional) decision.

This decision is about what you’d like to try next. The beauty of it is that there is no ‘wrong’ answer – the decision is provisional, and simply guides the action you’ll be taking next. Because the decision is a small and provisional one, it’s relatively easy psychologically to redirect and explore something else. If you discover through subsequent experience that it’s not a great fit, that’s OK; it all adds to your experience and will enrich what comes next.

rightwayrightwayrightway

3. Take action!
Try something. Take the first small step on the basis of your small provisional decision. Enroll in the course, find a business mentor, apply for the role, sign up for the internship.

4. Test – adapt
Once you’ve started to take action, it’s time to test and adapt.
Do you feel as though you could be on the right track? If so, keep going! If not, you might need to revise your small provisional decision and shift course (accountancy doesnt seem like a good fit anymore?), or maybe shift your approach (not the right mentor? Not the right degree program?). In so doing, you might need to increase your understanding through exploring options, making other small provisional decisions, or trying other actions. You could also decide to persevere for the moment to increase your understanding of the current path.

5. Keep going
The most important part of the kaizen career process is that you keep going. Every decision is small and provisional, every action step is small, and testing and adaptation is happening all the time. It’s an ongoing process of enquiry and growth. We’ll never be ‘finished’, and that’s actually really exciting because we all get to keep exploring******.

———–
Footnotes
*according to the Foundation for Young Australians (2016). As one young person put it at an event I attended recently, “they say we’ll have about 200 jobs across 50 careers – I don’t know how they predict the exact number, or if it even matters. However you think about it, it’s a lot of change all of the time”.

**The irony of this is that even opening a McDonalds franchise is no longer like opening a McDonalds franchise — they no longer have the market dominance they once did, and are changing business models and products to accommodate a market that has different needs.

***don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that choosing an appropriate degree and studying hard aren’t good ways to progress your career – I’m saying that thinking about these decisions and being open to additional opportunities and possibilities is also important.

****following curiosity and interest seem to be better predictors of career satisfaction than following ‘passion’. Elements of intrinsic motivation are important for career satisfaction, but passion puts a lot of needless pressure on people, limits their options, and feeds into the ‘McDonalds franchise’ idea by asking us to overcommit. What if you don’t feel passionate about any career options? What if you are passionate about several at once? What if you feel passionate about a career option now, but know from experience that you’ll have another passion next week? What if your passion doesn’t match up with the opportunities on offer?
In actuality, passion for elements of one’s career often happens after quite a lot of career experience.

******checking my privilege here — I am aware that there are many, many people for whom work is acutely about survival, and managing significant financial/food/housing insecurity in their lives.

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