At the recent AGCAS Conference in Chester, one powerful statement by Bob Gilworth (Director of the Careers Group) stuck in my mind. I am paraphrasing but the general thrust was:
'Careers services do not need to do more, they need to do less but do it better and measure impact'
This to me could be the perfect mantra for the modern day careers service. There are always hundreds of potential initiatives that could be launched that would be broadly positive for the student experience and have a marginal impact on employability outcomes, the trick is identifying those that will have the most impact.
Resources will always be limited and caseloads in theory are huge but think of the paradox that exists around student engagement. We all want more students to engage in career development activities but in the vast majority of cases resources are already stretched to breaking point supporting those that do. There are no easy answers, which is a bit of a bugger but also one of the reasons it is such a dynamic field to operate in. From my own recent experience running EC Futures at Coventry University, we applied almost laser-focussed prioritisation of resources to initiatives that would grow placement numbers. We, of course, were not always working with perfect data but the question we asked ourselves repeatedly was:
‘Is this initiative going to act as a catalyst to get more students out on placement and will it deliver more impact than piling more resources into our X,Y, Z initiative?’
I strongly believe that students only truly develop their employability through real world experience, we therefore worked on the basis that the best way for us to add value was by taking a very target driven approach to growing placement outcomes. It worked, we raised placement numbers by 241% within three cycles, resulting in over 300 STEM students completing 12 month placements at over 170 different employers in my last year there.
To deliver this type of growth, you sometimes have to take tough decisions. I believe in mentoring and the value it can add to students’ professional development but I also recognised it was resource intensive and required significant administrative processes to deliver a quality experience for all stakeholders. We already had the huge fixed administrative burden of managing the extensive, although aggressively streamlined, processes associated with our sandwich placement scheme. We calculated that we could add more value with less resource through embedded employer led course activities, we therefore avoided launching large scale mentoring schemes.
Now of course there must be space for innovation and to trial initiatives. Critically, when there are positive signs that an initiative can deliver impact, it must be resourced realistically so it can be scaled. In too many instances, this resource implication has not been thought through in advance and arbitrary decisions are made without consulting those on the ground who understand the minutiae of the processes and resources involved. It is also important that decisions are taken objectively, too often the survival of an initiative depends on who had the idea and their position in the food chain, did someone say vanity project?
One thing that is considered a badge of honour in high performing cultures such as Silicon Valley but still relatively alien in university careers land is celebrating failure or more specifically failing fast. The faster you fail, the faster you can channel your resources elsewhere. There is an awesome podcast on the upside of quitting here .
That being said, don’t be the mood hoover that always says ‘we tried that before and it didn’t work’ the market evolves and students' mindsets change, timing can be everything. There are no one-size-fits-all silver bullets and it might just be a case of targeting the initiative at the right student cohort or employer audience. Did I mention there are no easy answers?
Through my work with a wide range of universities on employer engagement strategy, I am very much seeing a shift in thinking. Employers have always had target lists of institutions and prioritised their campus attraction resources on engaging with those universities, universities are now adopting a similar approach.
If you can identify key employer relationships with the most scope for growth, often not the obvious and heavily targeted Time Top 100 employers, and channel your limited resources towards building those partnerships by creating action plans and tracking results; you can start to demonstrate measurable impact and model what works in your unique university ecosystem.
The irrelevance of celebrating a mass growth of vacancies being advertised on a portal is hitting home, is this growth leading to improved outcomes or are there simply more employers having a poor experience of your institution? This shift is being mirrored in AGR circles, employers are moving away from the vanity metric of application numbers being a key indicator of success.
Ultimately, I think it is very easy to fall into the trap of trying to prioritise everything, particularly when there are so many layers of management wedded to specific, and often conflicting, ideas. In reality:
‘If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority’
There have been many books and even a film based on the power of saying yes, perhaps it is about time careers services started learning how to say no more.
I would be very interested in your thoughts and comments.
All the best
Mike Grey (Senior Consultant)