Are Career Services Offices a Failure?
By Dr. James Thrasher
Only 16 percent of recent college graduates state that their career services office was very helpful. What a devastating statistic! Brandon Busteed, the executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup, stated, “We are stunned to see the perceptions about career services. There are as many graduates saying career services were not at all helpful as graduates saying it was very helpful. There is obviously a lot of room for improvement.” Yet, an article at Forbes.com, titled “5 Reasons Why Career Services is the Most Important Office On Campus,” makes these bold statements, “The overall purpose of college is to help students to find a career path that will lead to a successful, happy future. In other words, a job. It follows, then, that career services is the most important office on campus.”
Busteed may be stunned, but I am not. The disparity between the opportunity afforded to career services professionals and the level of service that apparently is being provided is striking. Most career services offices have a major missing link, without which the career-center experience fails to capture the student’s personal commitment to engage the lengthy career-development process. That missing link is vocational calling.
These troubling statistics are cited in a study just released in the Gallup-Purdue Index Report 2016. Over 11,000 adults who graduated with a bachelor’s degree between 2010 and 2016 were interviewed. These interviews were a part of a three-year, 70,000-participant comprehensive study which sought to obtain their assessment of their higher-education experience. Sixty-one percent of these recent graduates indicated that they had visited their career services office at least once while in college. In responding to the question “How helpful was the career services office to you?” the graduates assessed their office as follows:
- Don’t Know - Cannot Recall: 6%
- Not At All Helpful: 16%
- Somewhat Helpful: 36%
- Helpful: 27%
- Very Helpful: 16%
These statistics confirm previous Gallop reports that have consistently shown that, on average, only 40% of graduates (between 1980 and 2016) have said that the career services office was “helpful” or “very helpful.” These confirmed statistics are very troubling. Why are so many career services offices unable to capture the attention of the students they are called to serve?
The implications section of the study provides some insight into the core issue, stating, “getting students in the door of their schools' career services office is only half the battle colleges face. The other half is making sure the experience is as meaningful as possible” (italics mine). Students will not engage and be committed to the career-development process unless it is personally, intimately, and particularly meaningful to them.
As an undergraduate, I had very little involvement with my “placement office.” As a student personnel services grad student, I studied career-development philosophy, processes, and tools with a national authority in the field. After a practicum in the career services office serving undergrads, I vowed I would never work in a career services office. The discipline and its material was mechanistic, boring, and non-inspiring, and the process was cumbersome. It lacked true intrinsic meaning not only for me, but also for the undergrads I was trying to serve.
Years later in my career, I was asked by Grove City College to become the director of Career Services and to re-invent the department. Based on my previous vow, I reluctantly agreed to set a new vision in place and planned to move on after one year. As I once again studied the building blocks of the discipline, I found the missing link: the concept of “calling.” Calling is the true inspirational motivator for students! Vocational calling has to be the starting point for career services professionals. As Monster.com has so aptly and compellingly communicated, “Your calling is calling — find your own path.”
After 23 years as director of the office, I can confidently confirm that calling is the answer. This truth is borne out in the fact that our nationally recognized career services office has outstanding placement numbers and, more importantly, graduates who are pursuing excellence in the marketplace through fulfilling careers. Students get passionate about their calling and their special, God-given design. They have been created with unique transferable skills, passions, characteristics, aptitudes, and talents. This beautiful individual set of attributes each student possesses relates to very specific career field fits. Students with a calling perspective also have confidence that the One who created them has a place for them and a purpose for their lives. The investment of time and continued effort the calling approach requires is worth it for them, because of their heartfelt desire to find their fit in the post-college world. They recognize that fit will be rewarding and meaningful.
Author Fredrick Buechner, in his book “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC’s,” sums up this calling link beautifully, stating that this is “where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep needs.” Students are inspired when they let their design and their lives speak through serving in satisfying work. The concept of vocational calling seems so simple, but it is truly profound. Vocational calling must be the starting point for career services professionals who want to successfully serve their college students.
Dr. Jim Thrasher is the Senior Fellow of Grove City College’s career services office and the coordinator of the Center for Vision & Values working group on calling.