Nearly twenty-five years ago, I walked into the Southern Methodist University Career Center with pencil and calendar in hand, ready to make note of all the opportunities to interface with representatives of companies eager to court business school graduates. Over the years, the pencil and calendar have shifted to electronic scheduling systems, but the idea of students interfacing with potential employers at in-person career fairs has largely remained unchanged.
But with the potential for in-person and on-campus recruiting diminished, the importance of digital alternatives is on the rise. And according to a recent conversation with one business school dean, the pandemic may be accelerating a long overdue shift in the ways colleges and employers interact.
It has, after all, never been easy for students — or institutions — to translate the skills and experiences that result in a language that employers can use. Transcripts and resumes just don’t cut it. What’s worse, they may actually exacerbate already systemic inequities in hiring. Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce predicts 35 percent of new jobs will require a bachelor’s degree or higher by the year 2027, but students of color complete college at a rate of just 42 percent—more than 20 percentage points behind their white peers.
That communication gap can make return-on-education difficult to decipher for both recent graduates and employers. A survey of college students conducted by Gallup and Strada Education Network, shows that only a third of U.S. college students expect to graduate with the knowledge and skills to be successful in the job market. Seemingly paradoxical research suggests that while underemployment is on the rise for students who lack technical skills, we know that even a “useless” liberal arts education has long term labor market value.
In response, we have seen an increase in the development of micro-internships, co-op programs, and startups like Riipen making work-based learning available at unprecedented scale. Taken together, each of these approaches allows higher education to be more responsive to the diverse needs of students graduating into an increasingly complex and challenging labor market.
I wanted to understand first-hand how higher education leaders are responding and how they are reimagining career services in light of the global pandemic. I talked with Dr. John T. Delaney, Dean of the Kogod School of Business at American University in Washington, D.C. about ways in which the university ‘s efforts to prepare students for careers and the workforce have evolved since the start of the pandemic – and how what they’re learning today might inform their strategy over time.
Alison Griffin: How will the COVID-19 pandemic change the way students access career and experiential learning opportunities?
Dr. John T. Delaney: Although the past few months have been difficult for all colleges and universities, the pandemic accelerated many advances that have been years in the making and have promised to improve students’ educational options and experiences.
Higher education has started to show the world that we can move at an anxiety-inducing pace when necessary and this will usher in a new era of innovation and creativity in our programs. These innovations absolutely apply to career outcomes and experiential learning opportunities. At American University, we learned the hard way that, yes, it is absolutely possible to have an exceptional and top-quality experience, even virtually. All of our programming moved online, including our experiential components. And, even though our students may not have had the in-person experiences we were all expecting, they absolutely did get meaningful and worthwhile connections with local business leaders that will serve them for a lifetime.
Griffin: Can you highlight a few ways that American University and the Kogod School of Business have historically prepared students for careers?
Delaney: At Kogod, every student has a dedicated team of career coaches who prepare them to translate skills and interests into a successful career. Services are not unlike many that students would find at other institutions, and include resume and cover letter preparation, interview practice, networking programming, and company visits. However, the centerpiece of our approach is called Kogod in Practice which offers students access to exclusive internships, full-time jobs, co-op programs, and opportunities for pro-bono consulting on real company projects.
Activities from many of our courses also fit in the umbrella of Kogod in Practice, including capstone practicum projects in most of our disciplines, global consulting practicum requirements for students in MBA and sustainability business programs, and industry certifications built into our programs and the Financial Services and Information Technology (FSIT) Laboratory. Kogod in Practice is especially valuable at a time when the COVID-19 crisis threatens job outcomes for all schools. Through this initiative, we partnered with a startup to create a custom AI platform to match student skills to those exclusive opportunities.
Griffin: How have higher education leaders’ attitudes about preparation for work changed during your time as a campus leader?
Delaney: I have observed this at American University, but also elsewhere—the dedication to give our students practical and hands-on experiences to complement their academic studies. I have embraced this approach to business education for years and am incredibly grateful to see the support behind the vision at American and Kogod. I am also encouraged to see a clear emphasis on developing the whole student, including a focused effort on providing critical soft skills, such as communication, self-awareness, and emotional intelligence. Employers have demanded these teachable skills for years and I am excited to see all higher education step up.
Griffin: American University is well-known for its focus on career development, in part because of its success connecting students to the large pool of internships in the Washington, D.C. area. Can you give me an example of the type of partnerships that exist—or are in development—between the Kogod School of Business and industry that ultimately help students connect with employers?
Delaney: Our location is central to our ability to succeed in providing our students with career outcomes —Washington, DC, is one of those cities that has immense potential to change the world. Our thriving business community, combined with many NGO, non-profit, and governmental organizations with local headquarters and global reach create the perfect climate for innovation and impact. We have a dedicated Center for Business in the Capital, which connects our students with this thriving economy. The Center Director, Jim Dinegar, served as President and CEO of the Greater Washington Board of Trade for over a decade.
In addition, Kogod is a leading partner for the Capital CoLAB, an action-oriented partnership that brings together the leaders of the region’s top academic institutions and businesses to make the Capital Region a leading global hub for innovation. Some of the participating businesses include household names such as Capital One, Amazon, EY, MedStar Health, and Under Armour.
Lastly, we spearheaded a ground-breaking agreement with WeWork, where Kogod provides interns to all of its member companies in the region and beyond. We are incredibly excited for this initiative, which is just now in its second year. The partnership with WeWork is what inspired us to find a technological solution to intelligently match talent with business needs and then offer a targeted pool of candidates to a business, rather than providing them with an overwhelming number of applicants.
Griffin: In addition to in-person career support, how is the Kogod School of Business leveraging new technologies to support students?
Delaney: At the end of March 2020, we launched a new AI-powered matching platform created by AstrumU. Coincidentally, this was also when the pandemic really started to hit the US. So, the timing of the matching platform launch was both a positive and a struggle. It was a positive because it gave a pilot group of over 200 students a new and very quick and easy way to connect to full-time jobs openings and internships. It was a struggle because it was at the start of COVID-19, which hampered our ability to engage employers given so many companies were laying off or furloughing employees, or on hiring freeze. However, these challenges haven’t stopped us and we’ve continued to sharpen our focus on providing opportunities for students to prepare for in-demand job roles and pathways. To grow this program further, we are currently developing a “Trusted Partners” group of organizations and employers to participate on the matching platform for all components of experiential learning beyond internships and full-time jobs to include pro-bono projects and co-ops.
Griffin: If you had one piece of advice for fellow higher education leaders about supporting career navigation and alignment for students in the current climate, what advice would you offer?
Delaney: COVID-19 has accelerated a job recruitment environment that combines aspects of the Hunger Games and online dating. There are too many applicants for recruiters to screen using traditional means and job seekers increasingly claim any advantage over their competitors. In this environment, we help our students succeed by knowing them. More than ever, we must know our students individually – their skills, personality, grit, and readiness, as well as their future aspirations. The pandemic is crushing the value of traditional signals to employers, such as elite college attendance or exclusive certifications as such measures may not include the mix of talent sought by employers – across racial, gender, ethnic, disciplinary background, and other categories – and electronic job boards make it possible for millions of job seekers to apply for any opening. Organizations need verified shortcuts to screen applicants and colleges can provide much help to students by steering them to opportunities that best fit their interests. When the pandemic ends, I hope hiring will be more democratic and meritocratic than ever. In turn, I believe these changes will be good for students in schools that leverage all technological tools and provide proper guidance based on understanding each individual.