Universities have a key role to play in career counselling

John Stuart Mill, the rector of St Andrews University in 1867, wrote on his inaugural address that the object of universities was “not to make skilful lawyers, or physicians, or engineers, but cultivated human beings”.

From its earliest origins, higher education was not about acquiring work skills but graduating students who would take up their role in society and make a contribution.

In today’s fragile and volatile political and economic times, college students and their parents are asking admission counsellors about the likely return on their college investment.

This is code for how many of your graduates get jobs, what kind of jobs they get and what does your school do to help students get jobs.

The questions are not relegated to one specific country. Parents in Cleveland in Ohio, Bath in the UK, Bangalore in India and Chongqing in China all share the same concerns.

Global unemployment rates

According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, in 2011 the global unemployment rate was 5% for college graduates and 13% for non-college graduates.

In 2013, the US unemployment rate for people without a college degree was 16.2%, compared with 6.3% for college-educated Americans.

According to information published by the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, 3 million or 50% of 2013 Chinese college graduates were unemployed.

In Saudi Arabia the published general unemployment rate is 10%, although other reports put the figure as high as 25%. South Korea’s general unemployment rate in 2013 was 30%.

The general unemployment rate in the UK is 6%. In Germany the rate in 2014 was 4.9%, while Spain’s rate was as high as 24.1% in September.

Despite these sobering statistics, it is puzzling to read that many employers worldwide have difficulty filling available employment positions. According to a 2013 report conducted by ManpowerGroup, a US multinational human resources company, employers reported problems in filling vacant employment spots, particularly in Japan and India.

More than one in three employers in Asia reported difficulty in filling positions because the candidates’ credentials did not match the needs of the company.

Is there a worldwide unemployment problem, or are many students graduating with degrees and credentials but without the skills necessary to succeed in a global workforce?

What makes a graduate employable?

International human resource specialists agree that to be hired candidates must have: good written and oral communication skills, must be adaptable and able to manage multiple priorities and have the ability to solve problems and collaborate.

In addition they must be flexible, be a team player, have good interpersonal skills and have the ability to process information.

Laszlo Bock, hiring director for Google, prefers candidates with liberal arts degrees who have good cognitive ability, have the ability to learn new things and solve problems and are able to understand and apply information.

Questions to ask

This article is making the assumption that while not solely responsible, colleges and universities do bear some responsibility for helping students find meaningful employment after graduation.

Before implementing a four-year career counselling programme, colleges and universities should answer the following questions:
  • • When should career counselling begin?
  • • What is the role of faculty in career counselling?
  • • What should career counselling include?
  • • What percentage of students get internships through faculty connections?
  • • What percentage of students with internships are offered jobs?
  • • What is the role of alumni and the alumni office in helping graduates find jobs?
  • • What is the percentage of graduates who are employed at graduation? After six months?
  • • How is employment information included in admission marketing and branding plans?
Four-year career counselling programme

The following suggestions, though they are not meant to be exhaustive, set out what US universities should offer students by way of career counselling over the four years of their degree. They can be adapted to other countries:

Year 1
  • • Students are assigned career counsellors as well as academic advisors.
  • • Students take career assessment tests, identify skills and interests and, in the US, begin investigating potential majors.
Year 2
  • • Students continue to meet with academic and career counsellors and join clubs and organisations of interest.
  • • Students participate in a ‘shadow’ programme (spend a day at a potential future job site).
  • • Students participate in summer internship programmes.
  • • Students, by the end of the second year, declare a major.
Year 3
  • • Students participate in year-long internship programmes in a selected major.
  • • Students, with assistance from the career counselling staff, attend school-sponsored job fairs.
  • • Students, with assistance from career counsellors, participate in mock interview sessions and learn the techniques for interviewing over the phone and in person.
  • • Students, with assistance from career counsellors, draft CVs and cover letters.
  • • Students join professional associations and attend networking events, including alumni events.
  • • Students learn how to incorporate social media into job search, including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and consider the use of videos in applying for jobs.
  • • Students finalise letters of recommendation.
Year 4
  • • Students, in collaboration with career counsellors, develop an action plan for the final year.
  • • Students conduct research on all prospective employers as well as their competitors.
  • • Students continue to attend school-sponsored interviewing workshops and networking events.
  • • Students apply for jobs through school-sponsored career fairs.
Contributing to society

In his book, Beyond Reason and Tolerance: The Purpose and Practice of Higher Education, author Robert J Thompson Jr makes a compelling case for higher education’s primary purpose as one of educating the whole person.

There can be no argument with this premise. A college education is more than getting a job after a specific period of time has passed or a number of credits have been accumulated.

Higher education is more about learning and less about gaining credentials. However, few would argue that college-educated, unemployed people consider themselves either happy or making a contribution to society.

The higher education tent, in my opinion, is large enough to both educate critical thinkers and graduate people who have the skills necessary to engage in meaningful employment, allowing graduates to contribute to society and fulfil the noble purpose of being educated.

*Marguerite J Dennis has been a higher education administrator for more than 40 years, at St John’s University in New York, Georgetown University in Washington DC and Suffolk University in Boston. She is the author of five books on higher education administration and financing. Her latest book The New College Guide: How to get in, get out, and get a job, was published in March 2014. On 7 January she spoke at the Regent's University London Affiliates’ meeting on international employment.