Higher education institutions are under increasing pressure to deliver on graduate employability outcomes. While many hurdles can stand in the way of students’ career development, one major challenge is that students do not understand the full range of opportunities available to them upon graduation. Consequently, students may end up searching in the wrong places or applying to the wrong jobs, with one in three mismatched to their current position, according to recent reporting by the Guardian.
University alumni organisations are a critical—if often under-leveraged—asset in elevating solutions to this student employability challenge. Alumni can help spotlight the variety of career options available to students, based on their own career trajectories. Read below for snapshots of three strategies that UK, US, and Canadian institutions have deployed to integrate alumni into student career exploration.
1. “This Could Be You!” career showcases
While institutions try to share alumni stories and career trajectories, these efforts can struggle to engage the right audience. Students often find traditional career panels stale and uninformative, as alumni strive to keep their advice ‘by the books.’ In response, institutions have explored ways to share alumni advice and career paths in more interesting ways, from creating innovative digital content, to revamping the traditional career panel.
For example, the University of Glasgow capitalised on student engagement with social media and digital content in developing content that could go beyond a one-time touchpoint: a podcast. “Soundtracks: Sound Advice to Keep Your Career on Track” is hosted by two staff members, one each from alumni relations and career services. The hosts interview well-known alumni and those with interesting career journeys. Take, for example, the country music-loving law student who wrote for magazines and presented a new country music programme on the radio. She has now left her job in Glasgow to pursue her interests working for BBC Radio 1.
The podcast has proven successful, with over 2,000 downloads of podcast episodes across two series, and a ‘live podcast’ event that brought in over 90 student attendees (albeit with help from a co-hosted event with a local distillery). Overall, students have responded favourably to engagement that doesn’t require physical presence at a career event.
Other institutions have sought to breathe new life into the passive career panel experience. The University of Sussex organises an eight-day event that features a new industry each day. The condensed format allows students to ‘shop’ different careers, learning about the range of different careers available within and across each industry, allowing for easy comparison. The University of Westminster organises their career panels through a series that focuses on themes and topics with Gen-Z appeal. Topics range from developing online brands to being a female leader. The format of each event changes, from TED-style talks to interactive workshops, keeping the series exciting.
2. Developing impactful networking engagements
In developing their understanding of possible career paths, students also value the opportunity to network with alumni to gain deeper insight into various industries. Consider this a ‘step two’ for students who have been alerted to the multitude of career options and are now seeking more in-depth information about specific careers.
While many institutions develop networking engagements for students to meet alumni in industry- or career-focused events, most of these opportunities are general open-to-all events. Instead, institutions should make these engagements more impactful by segmenting offerings, which can also help to ensure students least likely to access university resources can participate in career-related activities.
For example, the University of Edinburgh offers an Insights Programme exclusively targeting widening participation students. Two variations of the programme (Local Insights and Global Insights) allow students to visit with alumni in key sectors either within Scotland, or in cities across the world. These are multi-day events so students can tour workplaces, but also practice networking with alumni, and complete short assignments or projects.
The alumni office partners with the widening participation team, international office, and career services to ensure a cost-free experience, giving students the opportunity to build soft skills like networking, confidence, time-management, communication, and professionalism. The programme has been successful both in boosting student confidence and in engaging new alumni.
3. Revamping mentoring schemes
Finally, while most institutions offer mentoring schemes as a way for students to learn about the job search directly from alumni, most are one-on-one schemes. This one-size-fits-all approach ignores different students needs for short-term engagements, answers to quick questions, or students who are less outgoing in professional settings and prefer small group mentoring relationships. Mentoring schemes come in three main flavours, often most impactful when used in combination:
The University of Glasgow has put a spin on traditional mentoring by coupling their e-mentoring platform with quick-impact speed mentoring events throughout the year. During annual career fairs, for example, they set up a portable ‘alumni mentor bar,’ where students book 15-minute appointments with alumni staffing the bar. Due to the highly trafficked nature of career fairs, the appointments always have a 100% fill-rate. The short engagement fulfils students’ desire for personalised one-on-one support, while avoiding time-consuming engagements that alumni and students find off-putting and difficult to manage.
In addition, the University of Glasgow has brought students and alumni together for short-term mentoring engagements with its ‘Human Book’ project. Eight alumni experts are available during a one-day event at the university library. Students can ‘check-out’ these ‘human books’ for 15-minute, one-on-one conversations, and they assess the event by completing a ‘book review’ at the end of the event. The alumni are all from creative, hard-to-penetrate industries (e.g., curation, journalism), providing students with sought-after advice about breaking into these fields. Students appreciate they do not need to prepare or go out of their way to participate, and the project’s success is reflected in high levels of student participation and positive feedback.
By using the three strategies outlined above, institutions can leverage alumni to offset students’ lack of knowledge about the types of careers available to them upon graduation. Career showcases highlight the versatility of a university degree, and creating more impactful networking engagements allows overlooked student populations to explore previously unknown career options. Finally, reworking the mix of mentoring schemes on your campus can engage a variety of students to raise awareness about different career paths.
Ready to explore more strategies to drive student employability by tapping into alumni networks? Read part two of this blog series, or download the full report, highlighting ideas from around the world and featuring data from EAB’s survey of alumni and careers offices in the UK.
Sources: 1) Sarah Steed, recent reporting by The Guardian