Susan Sandler Brennan: The rotary that leads to career success

  The library of Bentley University, in Waltham, Mass.

The library of Bentley University, in Waltham, Mass.

Via the New England Board of Higher Education (nebhe.org)

Working in college career services, I see companies recognizing that the path from college to career has shifted from a one-way to a two-way street where employers and students can connect. Truth be told, it’s more of a rotary—with many exits—because it takes a committed community to successfully transition students to their first jobs and beyond. The career-development ecosystem includes not only employers, but also career services, peers, faculty members and alumni. Each “exit” connects students to important voices and learning opportunities.

Part of what will give students the confidence to explore these exits is learning how to build trust with the people who will guide them on their path. It’s my job in career services at Bentley University to present opportunities to students, starting from their first year on campus, that open doors to these career relationships. Here’s how we help students build a career community:

Student career colleagues

Juniors and seniors who are motivated, successful and well-rounded can be positive influences on their peers. Acting as "career colleagues," these juniors and seniors provide a comfortable and welcoming environment for new Bentley students to engage with Career Services in drop-in hours and in the classroom. Students trust their peers because they have more common experiences and believe they will give good advice, since they’ve recently been through the same process. And with this model, professional staff members are able to have more in-depth transformational advising appointments as students advance in their major. During her sophomore year, Caroline Gervais of the Class of 2019, used career colleagues for résumé review and advice about internship searches. She found that talking with her peers about their past career experiences and how they handled situations similar to her own to be incredibly valuable.

Faculty

Higher education institutions have to build curriculum around market demand and faculty need to be aware of the skills that employers are demanding. Bentley’s own market research shows companies want multifaceted employees who have the essential hard and technical skills, but they want those coupled with traditional soft skills like communication and collaboration. It’s no longer enough for a data analytics expert to know the numbers. They also have to be able to communicate the story those numbers tell. Our faculty focus on blending business with the liberal arts to prepare students. For example, we offer a liberal studies major—which allows business majors to add a second major with a liberal arts concentration. Students might combine a major in economics and finance with a liberal arts major in earth environment and global sustainability, leaving them well prepared to develop a business plan for a growing solar power company. Other institutions are following suit.

Scott Latham, vice provost for innovation and workforce development at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, made this point during a recent event hosted by Bentley about the future of work: “Having discussions where you have faculty and industry in the room is incredibly important … If that doesn’t happen and you don’t have buy-in [from faculty], then you’re not going to be able to align your workforce needs with our curriculum.”

Employers

Open and ongoing communication with recruiters is a key part of what we do in career services. To prepare our students for the workforce, we need to stay on top of market demand and the kinds of skills employers want. Internships that have purpose—with opportunities to contribute to a project and be taken seriously—are good ways to connect students and employers. I also see more recruiters leveraging their best storytellers (employees or student interns) to come to our career fairs and share what it’s really like to work there: culture, growth and what they will be doing day to day. When Gervais heard about a 2018 summer merchandising internship opportunity at TJX, she talked to recruiters at a career fair and applied that same day. She also reached out to two Bentley students who had completed a TJX internship; they counseled her throughout the interview process.

Alumni

Many companies are sending alumni back to their respective campuses to recruit students. In addition to the obvious—instant commonality on each side—this greatly expands an employer’s outreach. Bentley alumni also serve as mentors to our students; examples include participation in the classroom through corporate partnerships, informational interviews as part of our career development seminar, or hosting job shadows, site visits and internships. Prior to applying for the TJX internship, Gervais attended a networking night at Bentley,where she was able to discuss merchandising career opportunities with alumni who work at the company. She was particularly interested in their insights on how their Bentley experience helped them prepare for the positions they now hold, as well as post-internship opportunities in the company’s merchandising track. Now that Gervais has secured the position with TJX, she has found several other alumni connections and mentors who she can refer to for guidance and advice in the future.

What’s important to note about the rotary is that while it presents opportunity at each exit, many students will experience a roadblock if they don’t build the confidence to take new routes that are outside their comfort zone. As educators, mentors and employers, it’s up to us to serve as a personalized GPS system that will help guide them along their journey.

Author and clinical psychologist Meg Jay talks about the fact that successful people have often had to overcome challenges and adversity, which in turn helps build resilience. This demonstrates that we have the power to prepare students for lifelong success regardless of their circumstances. Resilience is also important in the context of the job market. Millennials, for example, change jobs every few years. As rapid technological change affects all generations, we will need the resilience to prove our value and work alongside technology.

When my son first learned how to drive, he told me that when he got to a rotary, he put the music on full blast and pretended he was in the Gladiator movie. His philosophy: “I’m going in and I’m going to get around this thing.” We need to help students build their confidence and build a supportive community so they know they can deal with difficult choices and situations. They learn how to become resilient. They go boldly into the rotary.

Susan Sandler Brennan is associate vice president for university career services at Bentley University. She is a co-chair of NEBHE’s Commission on Higher Education & Employability.