by Mike Grey
It was an honour, pleasure and privilege to attend and present at the NACE22 Conference in Portland on the pacific coast of the USA this month. Having presented at NAGCAS Australia this year from my wife’s art studio at 5am one wet and windy morning, it was a joy to actually attend an international conference in person after such a long hiatus.
For those that aren’t acquainted with NACE, it is the National Association of Colleges and Employers – think AGCAS and ISE combined and in a much bigger country. As you might expect therefore, the conference is a beast. There were 1,800 present (marginally down on pre-Covid years), the exhibitor’s hall was a similar size and scale to a trade show at the NEC and some of the breakout rooms held 650 people! But beyond the dizzying scale here are some of the things I learnt and have been reflecting upon.
Diversity in all its forms
One of the instantly striking things was the diversity of attendees compared to equivalent UK conferences. This was broadly to be expected with c58% of Americans being white compared to 87% in the UK. However, this also played out in the keynotes, the topics of sessions and the insights shared openly in sessions. This added real depth and insight to the discussions. There was less quoting of statistics from the latest sector report, resulting in abstract discussions about how that could be translated into real-world improvements, and more hearing about professionals’ genuine lived experience and what had actually worked for them or their institutions.
They also had various means to celebrate and create spaces for other minority groups such as LGBTQ+ affinity groups. Every session I attended had a professional sign language interpreter alongside the presenter, they clearly take inclusivity seriously.
Overall it felt progressive, it felt open and generally it seemed people were more comfortable sharing things that might feel uncomfortable for some people to hear but need saying, I really valued this.
Having employers, colleges and suppliers all under one roof and nobody feeling like interlopers was also a real positive for me personally. Some conferences achieve this in the UK, but it is far from the norm. I would suggest we are even going backwards in some cases with the lack of employer involvement (or content) in many careers related conferences becoming even more stark than five or ten years ago. There can be some situations where it can be appropriate to provide spaces for colleagues to discuss challenges with their immediate peers within the sector. However, talking in the safety (and silos) of our own bubbles is not generally a good thing and we can all learn from different perspectives to challenge our thinking and assumptions. It was refreshing to see all sides of the sector well represented in every room.
The other aspect was the diversity of institutions. We tend to make a big thing of Russell Group and Post 92 and the different mission groups that exist in the UK, but the range is much more significant in the USA from the Ivy League institutions and private universities to community colleges, religious colleges and HCBUs (Historically Black College or University). The divide between the haves and have nots is acute and is getting worse due to reductions in enrolments.
*Anyone interested in learning more about how the American system is structured and the challenges it faces, I strongly recommend this Freakonomics series of podcasts which I listened to on my flight over, never let it be said I don’t know how to enjoy myself…
Careers Services in the USA tend to be much smaller in terms of headcount as this data from NACE from May 2022 demonstrates:
In the UK it is not uncommon to have a service of 50-80 in larger institutions with a few outliers significantly larger. A service of 20, double the mean of American careers service, would be considered at the very low end of resourcing here in the U.K.
As a result, they invest heavily in technology, peer to peer models are much more established (through necessity of scale as well as impact) and partnerships with alumni services are much more influential.
Relationships with suppliers
In the American careers service resourcing context, there is no feasible way that careers services can operate without established relationships with various types of suppliers. Inevitably, there is much less perceived conflict or overlap and more of an obvious symbiotic relationship.
This feeling of genuine partnership between universities and suppliers has grown in the UK market but as a company we are still always careful to be clear where we think we can add value and areas where we feel provision is much better to be owned fully by the careers service. I would suggest the model, for better or worse, is more commercial in the USA.
There aren’t set-piece conference dinners or evening events at NACE in the same way we have at UK conferences, so events hosted by suppliers were where the party was at! But then maybe I have got it all wrong, and delegates were just being extra friendly to suppliers to secure an invite to the best rooftop party…
*Thanks to Handshake, GTI, Cappfinity, The Global Careers Summit, Symplicity and Dave Ong’s Presidents Drinks Reception for making me feel so welcome and suitably fed and watered over the duration of the conference!
A shift to academic services
One of the hot topics was the trend for careers services to move to be within academic services, from pretty much a standing start a few years back to now around a quarter of careers services in the NACE Membership now existing in that realm.
The discussion reflected themes here around embedding employability, being a 'structurally unavoidable’ part of the student journey and having a seat at the table. Student engagement was a hot topic, as it has been at every UK careers conference since the dawn of time, generally there seems to be an over reliance on opt-in models which results in all the challenges we know too well of too often not providing support to those that would benefit the most or who face the most barriers to career success.
Interestingly, about five years ago, one question I would often get asked by a PVC or senior leader in many a university is whether careers should sit in student services or business services but now it is becoming much more common for them to come under teaching and learning strands.
*There is a great discussion which covers this theme between two leading lights in the American careers services sector here.
At UK conferences when the time comes to ask a question, you can almost predict the handful of super keen delegates whose arm will shoot up. I won’t name names - you/they know who they are…
In the USA at an 8:45am session a speaker asked for any thoughts. I braced for a lack lustre response so early in the morning but instead experienced a lively discussion that ensued instantaneously. The levels of engagement, enthusiasm and energy (at all times of day) were almost disconcerting as a U.K. attendee.
Presenters didn’t waste time seeking to clarify and caveat each point to within an inch of its life, they made a statement and invited a debate. A debate that participants were keen and eager to step into. Interested, curious, keen to learn and engage – the audiences were the same in every room. As a presenter it is dream. I absolutely adored presenting to this audience, it felt like a wedding speech where everyone is rooting for you and keen for it to go well. ‘My wife and I’ (*Whooping and cheering*).
I think perhaps there was a novelty factor at play and if this was my norm then I would yearn for the cynicism of a UK audience and really start to miss the delegate who sheepishly puts their hand up to ask a question (that is really a comment). I think there are always things to learn from our international colleagues and I look forward to building on the relationships I developed and the knowledge I gained to inform my work with UK universities.
I would be really interested in your thoughts and reflections of differences in the global sector.