Education & Workforce: Getting Schooled on Work

Jeff Bell
Career counselor Holly McFarland of Franklin University

It's no easy task to help college students find a plausible career path given the challenges in matching a person's skills, personality, interests and values with the right job in a rapidly changing workplace.

That's why Holly McFarland is in a hurry to get first-year students into Franklin University's Center for Career Development, where she serves as director.

“My hope,” she says, “is to introduce them to the career center the moment they hit campus. Then by the time they're ready to graduate, they can hit the ground running instead of just starting out in their job search.”

In between, Franklin counselors help students—many of whom are adult learners juggling classes and employment—to find careers that best fit their needs, hopes and dreams. It's a process that involves online career assessment tools, selection of a major, and help with writing resumes, developing interview skills and searching for a job in a student's chosen field.

“A lot of times, it's about helping them package themselves so they understand what kind of value they bring to an employer and can stand out from other job candidates,” McFarland says. “That can be a tough thing for students to do.”

At the same time, college career counselors are operating in an environment in which high tuition costs make it imperative that a student quickly get on the track toward completing a degree and moving on to a job or graduate school. Nationally, the average cost of tuition and fees at four-year, in-state public universities for the 2016-17 academic year is $9,650 according to the College Board, a New York City-based not-for-profit organization focused on expanding student access to higher education. It is $33,480 for four-year, nonprofit private colleges.

“College is expensive,” says Chris Rideout, director of career counseling and support services at Ohio State University. “Parents say to their children, ‘We'd like you to find (a career) you like and can find work in, and for you to do it in a reasonable amount of time.' I think that's a reasonable outlook and request.”

Ohio State's career counselors work with students in a process that includes self-assessments of their prior work, volunteer and educational experiences, their skills and personalities, and what they like to do. It also includes career exploration, personality testing, goal-setting and implementation of a career plan.

“But we don't match them (with a career),” Rideout says. “That's not our call or job. It's really about helping students understand all the things that make them tick and what that looks like in different areas.”

The journey to the right career path does not always follow a straight line, says Eric Anderson, director of career development at Capital University in Bexley. For example, the fact that a student is good in a particular field of study such as science or mathematics doesn't mean he or she will be satisfied working in that area. The same goes for pursuing a degree in a high-demand field where great-paying jobs are plentiful.

“We want to make sure they choose things for the right reasons,” Anderson says.

Part of the process involves testing the waters in a career field by doing an internship, shadowing someone already working in that field or participating in a service learning project.

“Engagement is really primary for truly understanding what it's going to be like and if the work will be satisfying,” Anderson says.

McFarland says career advisers at Franklin often work with students locked into jobs that make them miserable. To help them find a better fit, the university uses a multifaceted online tool called CareerBeam that assesses a person's interests, personality and strengths, suggests possible careers, and provides help with resumes, cover letters and interviewing skills.

“Sometimes they want to go a whole new direction. That's where the assessment comes in handy. … And a lot of times, they know what they want to be doing and (enroll) in a program to build a new skill set for whatever job they're seeking.”

At Ohio Dominican University, first-year students trying to decide on a career can connect with an adviser at the Office of Student Success. The office works in partnership with ODU's Career Development Center, where Jessica Hall is the director.

“We really try to make students aware of the full range of careers in any one major,” Hall says, noting many students arrive at ODU with only a narrow understanding of what they can do with a degree in a particular field.

Part of the process includes gaining a sense for what students want from a career. Ohio Dominican students often say they want a flexible work environment, to be happy in a job and have a sense they are making a difference in their community. At the same time, they talk about financial security.

“That's certainly increased since the recession, which they lived through with their families,” Hall says. “It's about helping students find a balance between what they want to do and how much money they need to be financially stable.”

Other college career counselors hear much the same thing.

“Students at Capital are primarily looking for job satisfaction,” Anderson says. “It's fairly rare for a student here to say, ‘My primary objective is high earnings potential.'”

Derek Thatcher sees students at both ends of the age and experience spectrum—ones fresh out of high school and adults looking for a new career—in his position as manager of the Office of Career Development at the Newark campus of Central Ohio Technical College and Ohio State University.

“Regardless of that, you need to meet them where they are in their lives,” he says. “I encourage students to consider their interests, skills and values as they relate to the world of work. I also want them to develop a sense of ownership. I help them understand their potential blind spots and fill in the gaps of information in the careers they have in mind.”

To do that, Thatcher steers COTC and OSU-Newark students to the schools' Focus 2 career assessment and research tool, along with career and job information from online resources such as the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Department of Labor'sOccupational Information Network, O*NET, and Ohio Means Jobs.

“What's most important is that I'm pointing out important qualities needed in a career field and then asking, ‘Does this sound like you?'” he says.

Thatcher and other college career counselors in central Ohio stay in tune with workforce trends and needs in a number of ways. They include talking with human resources practitioners and getting involved in professional groups such as the National Association of Colleges and Employers and the Ohio Career Development Association.

Such engagement provides insight into the most promising career fields for incoming students. Among the hot fields right now are healthcare, data analytics and information technology. There is also a pressing need to replace retiring workers in Ohio's insurance industry. Jobs are plentiful in accounting, finance and teaching as well.

It's a lot for students to consider, and making a decision on a career path can sometimes be overwhelming.

“I'm here to help them along the way,” Thatcher says. “I want to arm them with information, talk them through the process and help them narrow down the options.”

Jeff Bell is a freelance writer.