Providing career services for virtual times

Though in-person assistance is suspended at Borough of Manhattan Community College's Center for Career Development, programming to help students land jobs has not slowed down. (Photo: BMCC, 2019)

As unemployment rates have climbed in 2020, career services offices at community colleges have become more vital than ever. The pandemic hasn’t only caused these offices to move services online but also to provide updated training for virtual times.

“The New York City area took a huge hit in terms of jobs that were furloughed and jobs lost during the lock-down,” says Christopher Thunberg, director of the Center for Career Development at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC).

The center shifted all services online in March, providing virtual walk-in appointments, as well as virtual career fairs and workshops. The department typically presents about a hundred programs a semester. There was concern that attendance for programming would drop off, but the opposite happened – there was an uptick in attendance for many programs.

Thunberg says there’s a “need and thirst” for career services. At Stark State College in Ohio, the career services office is seeing increased demand not only from students but also community members, says Mandy Hinkel, director of career services and workforce development at the college. That’s good news since job postings have risen in the past few months – there were more than 6,000 job postings in Stark County in the last month.

Getting the word out

Stark State also is doing more to promote its services, through email and social media, and communicating with employers, who can refer laid-off or furloughed employees to the college.

“We want people to know we’re only a phone call or email away,” Hinkel says.

In Indiana, Ivy Tech Community College’s Career Coaching and Employer Connections (CCEC) program launched at several colleges in fall 2019. It’s expanded to more campuses this year and is helping students “pivot to land roles that are more pandemic-proof and sustainable during these uncertain times,” says CCEC Vice President Caroline Dowd-Higgins.

CCEC emphasizes career readiness practices alongside preparation throughout a student’s college experience. Students get one-on-one career coaching and help building a career development portfolio to showcase to employers a resume, cover letter, LinkedIn profile, work-and-learn experiences, and the professional network and connections they have built.

Dowd-Higgins adds that the beauty of the CCEC model “is that the employers are deeply involved in the student journey.”

Employer engagement

Employer partnerships are vital to career services programs. At BMCC, the start of the pandemic saw some employer partners falling away for a bit, but Thunberg says that’s turning around. Employers have participated in some career development activities, such as mock interviews and presentations on building resumes.

“They want to connect with students and support them with their success,” Thunberg says. “It’s very gratifying to see employer partners step up, even as some areas have had to cut back on hiring needs.”

Local employers, such as Citigroup, also are working with BMCC to create sophomore-year experiences, such as mentorships, and other opportunities to allow students to see professionals in action and “give them a vision of their future selves.”

Thunberg says this year also has led to an increased awareness around building pathways for greater diversity, equity and inclusion in employer hiring pipelines. Employers are tuned in to the diverse population BMCC serves.

Stark State’s career services office has collaborated with employers for its virtual career and community engagement series, which allows individuals to hear from people working in their fields and career paths, such as math, science and education.

“It’s not a recruiting opportunity, but it allows employers to be connected to students,” Hinkel says.

The college has partnered with employers on career fairs, too, which have gone virtual this year.

A shift in etiquette and skills

For jobseekers, the shift to virtual career fairs and interviews means there are new considerations in terms of etiquette and preparation. Stark State uses Web platform Handshake to hold sessions like “Succeeding at Virtual Career Fairs” and “Virtual Job Search 101” to teach job seekers how to interact over video with employers. Among other things, people get advice on how to dress for an online meeting, and what to do if there are kids or dogs at home that may disrupt an interview.

BMCC’s career development team has crafted sessions regarding, among other things, mastering the digital interview. A lot of it comes down to preparation. They advise students to test the audio and video on their computers and make sure they have a quiet, tidy space to speak with employers.

“We tell them to treat it as an on-site interview,” Thunberg says.

The Center for Career Development also focuses on preparing students for online jobs by boosting their digital literacy because “virtual may be a huge portion of the workforce for some time,” according to Thunberg. To that end, the college established a partnership with a local Microsoft store through which a specialist provides online training with Microsoft collaboration platforms such as Microsoft Teams.

Some skills never change

There are some necessary skills that never change, though: the ability to communicate, work in a team, etc. Those employability skills are at the core of Ivy Tech’s CCEC.

“Our employers are crystal clear that employability skills are highly sought after and can be a deal-breaker if the candidate does not come to the role with critical thinking, problem-solving, professionalism, communication skills, and a strong work ethic, for example,” Dowd-Higgins says.

Career coaches, faculty and employers all are involved in helping students hone those skills in experiential ways, which allows students to “gain practice with these skills and not only learn about them in an academic setting,” she adds. The college also uses the WIN Career Readiness System, an online portal with college and career readiness courseware, to integrate essential skills into the student experience.

BMCC received a CUNY Career Success Grant to grow student awareness of career readiness competencies from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. Those competencies include critical thinking/problem solving, oral and written communication, teamwork/collaboration, digital technology, leadership and global/intercultural fluency.

“We’re helping them build their own sense of strengths and growth areas for future employment,” Thunberg says.

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.