August 27, 2014

Career Services and Academic Libraries: A Good Fit | From the Bell Tower

The campus library isn’t the only academic unit figuring out how to rethink itself for the next generation of students. Career services is also trying to adapt to a changing higher education environment. Tackling our mutual issues together may be wise.

At this time each year, the media produces the “job outlook” story for mass consumption. The past several years the forecast was much the same—dismal. This year, the national economy is showing signs of recovery, and employment rates are creeping up. Still, I’m uncertain what to make of this year’s crop of stories. These folks think it looks promising, while this outlook is less optimistic.

No matter the state of the job market, the better prepared a student is for job interviews, the more he or she knows about the potential employer and the industry, the better equipped that student is to compete for the opening. The types of information required for such preparation are numerous and may include everything from knowing how to give a firm handshake to knowing the latest market trends. Given the mix, it suggests that career services and academic libraries both have something valuable to offer students heading into the crowded job market. Another thing we have in common is the need to adapt to those external societal shifts that will enable us to position our services better to give students every advantage they’ll need.

Success Stories

Past experience in a business library convinced me that academic librarians can make a difference for job-hunting students. Although they had more jobs to apply for than liberal arts majors, business students, particularly MBAs, faced tough competition. They were bright, had the experience, and many had diplomas from the top programs.

So how does a student get an edge over the other applicants? Simple: information. But more is less if the information is the same as what everyone else can access, such as free web news or annual reports. To excel, students must gain an advantage via the competitive intelligence and industry analysis found in the library’s marketing and financial databases. For many students, just knowing whether their potential employer is a public or private firm can make a difference, and many—even business students—are sometimes unaware. Connecting with a librarian who is able to help students develop a research strategy—much more than a haphazard gathering of web material—allows the students to go into their interview with confidence and the ability to know as much, if not more, about their preferred potential employer as anyone else does. Sometimes, even more than the interviewer.

Connecting With Career Services

While they have something great to offer students as they prepare for interviews, academic librarians may be less effective in actually getting students to ask for help. Students are often oblivious to both the resources and services available at the library. That’s where a relationship with colleagues at career services can make a difference. When career counselors know their library colleagues, are aware of what the library has to offer, and can personally refer students to librarians, the students are more likely to get the help they need. It’s a true win-win, because the career counselors are advancing their mission of getting students into jobs, the academic librarians get connected with students, and the students are better prepared to compete. The one barrier we face is failure to communicate. Collaboration fails if we are unable to get together to help each other to help our students. The good news is that career services, just like our academic libraries, needs to reinvent itself for a changing higher education and employment landscape—and the academic library may fit well into a new vision.

Transforming Career Services

Right now there’s a great opportunity for academic librarians to engage with career services, because a new report titled “A Roadmap for Transforming the College-to-Career Experience” is calling for career services offices radically to change the nature of their work and to move from a more isolated model to one in which career services is integrated into all phases of the student’s college experience—right from the start. What the report authors are suggesting, to put it into better perspective, is an idea no less radical than an academic librarian advocating that the library should change its name to “Lifelong Learning Center.” Career services, the report claims, is a misleading name, because the process must help students learn about themselves and the working world and refuse to settle for merely assisting students to find their postgraduation job. In commenting on the document at a conference, as reported by Inside Higher Ed, Andy Chan, vice president for personal and career development at Wake Forest University and a coeditor of the report, said that  “career services is not working” and that the current model must be transformed. Our colleagues in career services are taking a serious look at how to position their services for a new generation of students with drastically different needs and expectations.

Parallels With the Library

Consider the following Chan quote from that same article: “There are a lot of issues around trying to manage costs, which I completely understand, but the flip side of that question is, how do we continue to create and justify value that matters to our students?” That sounds like it could come right out of an article about academic libraries. Both career services and academic libraries are challenged to adapt to change in higher education in ways that will help them do more than just stay relevant to students. What is needed is no less than a transformation in ways students receive services—shifting from a “help them once” model to one that establishes more of a life cycle approach. Given the nature of careers and how they change over time, this might seem a more natural shift for career services than academic libraries. Yet the delivery of lifelong library services that support students’ research needs into the postgraduation workplace is a fertile area for discovery. Given the shared interests and challenges of both academic units—and how past collaborations have benefited students—this is a good time for career services and academic library professionals to explore jointly how they might work together to improve the value proposition.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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