Reimagining, Rebranding and Reintroducing Career Connections at Community College of Philadelphia

by Ayanna Washington, Director, Career Connections

“Begin with the end in mind.” Stephen Covey identified this principle in his book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” The ability to be “highly effective” can be applied to a myriad of activities and processes throughout a student’s collegiate experience.

As the role of the Community College evolves and as employer expectations of a skilled workforce constantly adjusts, higher education institutions must ensure that its offerings remain labor market responsive and in tune with the needs of employers. The College must play an integral role to connect students to career opportunities tied to the regional, state and national labor markets.

This is especially true within the community college environment. Under a guided pathways model centered around student success, the role of career services must be elevated and reorganized to ensure that the College is focused on career and employment outcomes for the students we serve, in addition to the traditional career services activities such as résumé and cover letter assistance, and interview techniques and strategies. Many career services departments around the country are disrupting the traditional role of career services, seeking to add value and impact on the institution’s overall goals and vision by contributing directly to retention and employment outcomes. Recent research conducted by Day and Cruzvergara in 2014 labeled the paradigm shifts and evolution in career services over the past 70 years as:

  • 1940-1970: Placement = Reactive
  • 1970-1990: Counseling = Proactive
  • 1990-2010: Networking = Interactive
  • 2010-2030: Connections = Hyperactive

For the College to transform itself into a model institution reflecting the best practices outlined by the Aspen Institute and the Guided Pathways model and to serve actively as “The City’s College”, the College sought to more boldly connect workforce supply and demand through the creation of the Workforce and Economic Innovation (WEI) Division. As the business facing arm of the College, WEI is keeping pace with the pulse on employer needs, seeking to connect the college’s academic assets to the business community, and serving as a training or workforce resource for the business community. A logical next step was made to move Career Services within WEI, rename it Career Connections, and transform its offerings to help WEI achieve its goal as the primary internal and external resource for employers and businesses.

With new vitality and innovation, Career Connections’ mission is to have an uncompromising focus on our students’ career and professional development skills and deliver services and programs that inspire employers to partner with the College and recruit our students to impact their workforce needs. In addition, Career Connections must inspire, engage and collaborate with the academic assets at the College to produce employer-driven experiential learning opportunities that prepare, empower and connect our students for employment throughout the City of Philadelphia and region.

With employer-inspired experiential learning opportunities being a key component of Career Connections’ mission, it is important to understand the needs and skills that employers value relative to the Guided Pathway’s research conducted and the College’s mission. An Association of American Colleges and Universities recent report found that the majority of the surveyed employers continue to state that field-specific knowledge and a broad range of knowledge and skills are important for long-term career success. They also noted that today’s college graduates are not prepared to achieve learning outcomes that they deem as important when acclimating into the workplace. The top five skills that employers identified as the biggest deficiency for college graduates were:

  • Written communication
  • Oral communication
  • Teamwork skills
  • Ethical decision-making
  • Critical thinking and the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings

The survey noted while employers believe that skills acquired through a student’s college degree is just as important as field specific skills and knowledge, employers still prioritized key skills obtained through field experience and experiential learning opportunities over a candidate’s degree attainment.

Various research in this field shows that initiating career development with incoming freshmen has a direct correlation to increased student satisfaction and retention, improved academic focus and clearly connects students to a career path, which can help to reduce attrition. To that end, Career Connections is in a unique position to play an instrumental role in the College’s ability to retain students and positively impact our enrollment efforts.

Career Connections has already begun collaboration with various departments at the College to ensure that we can motivate students about their career prospects. In particular, Career Connections is seeking programs at the College to establish internship opportunities. A 2017 report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) shows that conversion from internship to full-time employment nationally is at 51.3%. Thus identifying a formula that Career Connections can utilize to intentionally grow and rebrand the department’s impact on our students, their retention and the College’s enrollment efforts. NACE also discovered that the five-year retention rates for interns is at 51.8%, which further cements the impact that experiential learning opportunities can have on a student’s job prospects, and opportunities during and after college.

Building on several successful models internally, Career Connections is seeking to transform the department to work with academic programs to create high quality co-curricular work experiences to support student engagement and student success. To support our students at the College, Career Connections will launch a Career Peer Connector Leadership Program in Spring 2018 which is designed in part to:

  • Support our capacity to expand our services at the main and regional campuses over the next one to three years.
  • Develop a student leadership program for students to develop marketable skills that will prepare them to meet the needs of employers.
  • Develop co-exploration opportunities between Career Peer Connectors and our students to promote teamwork, problem solving skills and help students develop or enhance their critical thinking skills.
  • Support the growth and increased student, faculty and staff usage that we anticipate in the Career Connections department.

Career Connections’ goal to continue to evaluate and improve on our mission has led to exploring new innovative career planning tools for our students. We have added Virtual Job Shadow software which provides interactive career exploration resources that give students insight into workplace realities and learn first-hand from employed professionals about the critical skills and competencies required to be successful. Big Interview software will give students mock interview tools and provide endless virtual interview practice, which can be accessed on a student’s cell phone, tablet or desktop. This will provide students with the option to access interview questions, suggestions and immediate feedback from the Career Connections team. We are also researching new job portal software that provides a more student and employer friendly user experience. We are actively recruiting a new Employer Engagement Specialist who will be tasked with forging relationships with employers aligned with our academic and noncredit certificate programs to establish a variety of experiential learning and job opportunities.

Career Connections has embraced the new direction of the College and is ready to inspire our students, employers and internal stakeholders to explore the endless pathways to career preparation and employment.