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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Courtney Flynn spends a lot of time in a bright, bustling office suite that looks like something out of the Fortune 500, gleaming with floor-to-ceiling frosted glass, conference rooms, and shiny contemporary furniture.

She doesn’t work here. She’s what she calls a “serial visitor,” popping in to get advice she hopes will help her land a good job someday, someplace else.

Flynn is a junior majoring in classical studies and German at Wake Forest University, where this high-tech place in which she finds herself so often is as popular with students as it is incongruous behind the Georgian arches of a campus building.

Wake Forest career services
The Wake Forest career office. (Photo courtesy Wake Forest University)

It’s Wake Forest’s Office of Personal and Career Development, which has been moved upstairs from the basement into 7,000 prominent square feet and whose staff has grown from seven to 30 with the help of $8.5 million raised from parents and alumni.

The staff work with students starting the week they arrive as nervous freshmen, administering self-assessments to help them choose a major and showing them where Wake Forest alumni in that major have gone on to work—and how much they make. They offer for-credit job-hunting classes, and send out instant custom emails to upperclassmen about job openings in their areas of interest. They even have a photo booth for students to take professional headshots to post on the career site LinkedIn.

This rocket-fueled approach to what was previously called “career counseling” is a response to demands from students and parents that increasingly pricey universities do more to help graduating students and alumni find jobs than pass out brochures and run occasional career fairs.

“If we can’t get a job with what we learn in college,” asks Flynn, who hopes to work in international relations, “what’s the point of going to college in the first place?”

Yet what’s happening at Wake Forest and a handful of other schools is more of an exception than the rule, despite intensifying pressure on universities, in a tough employment market, to do more for students who go deep into debt to pay tuition. Nationally, only 42 percent of the Class of 2010, the last for which the figure is available, had jobs at graduation. Fewer than two-thirds were employed six months later.

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“If we’re going to justify the value of a higher education, we’re going to have to provide students with the skills they need to compete in the economy,” says Andy Chan, Wake Forest’s head of career services, who previously ran the career office of his alma mater, Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, and was CEO of an online recruiting company.

Most universities are not spending more on their career centers, however—they’re spending less. Last year, the budget of the average college career office dropped by nearly 16 percent, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The number of job-hunting workshops and internship placements that universities provide has also fallen. The average college career counselor today serves 1,645 students, and on campuses with enrollments of more than 20,000, the ratio is one to an unwieldy 5,876.

“It’s a huge under-investment,” says Beth Throne, associate vice president for student and postgraduate development at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa. “If you look at how much colleges spend on admissions and advancement, they usually have deans over both and huge teams of people and resources. This middle part, which is supposed to connect students to opportunities, usually gets very little, and that’s ironic”—especially, she says, when, students “are paying the price of a small luxury vehicle to attend this school, and they’re expecting, their families are expecting, a return on their investment.”

Wake Forest career services
The LinkedIn photo booth in the Wake Forest career office. (Photo courtesy Wake Forest University)

Franklin & Marshall offers drop-in hours for students to meet with career counselors and noncredit workshops to provide job-searching tips. It has recruited 690 mentors from among parents and alumni, reinforcing the traditional networking process.

The University at Buffalo School of Management arranges Skype interviews with employers—who are less likely these days to come to campus—for its students. It tracks down students who haven’t shown up to career events, requires undergraduates to take a career course, and records mock interviews on iPads so students can review their performance.

“The more competitive the student needs to be, the more competitive the career office needs to be,” says Gwen Appelbaum, head of the school’s Career Resource Center.

The career office at Westminster College, in Salt Lake City, is unusually centrally located—not across the street from campus, as is often the case, but next to the bookstore in the heart of the busy student union. Just outside of it is a flat-screen TV that constantly displays new job postings with quick-response, or QR, codes that students can scan with their smart-phones for more information. Westminster makes such listings omnipresent; it also has a print version called Career News in the Loo, which is hung on the walls of restrooms.

“Career centers used to have the jobs-in-the-binder approach,” says Mike Caldwell, the office’s director. “You would wait for someone to wander in. But now you’ll have an employer who gets permission to hire someone this afternoon, and we have to get that information out as quickly as possible. The pressure has increased.”

The college is also part of a consortium of public and private universities in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming that share a centralized job-posting system.

Just as with Skype interviews, Caldwell says, “We have to meet the needs of employers. It doesn’t serve them to post the same jobs with 20 different schools.”

The innovations also serve the universities behind them, which are increasingly judged on their job-placement rates. Two years after beefing up its career office, for example, Wake Forest can tell prospective applicants that barely 5 percent of its students are unemployed six months after graduation, which is well below the national average.

“At new-student days,it’s not just, ‘Tell me about the faculty.’ It’s, ‘Tell me about the internship process. Tell me about the employment rate at graduation,’ ” says Matthew Randall, director of the Center for Professional Excellence at York College of Pennsylvania.

Marika Dillard, a Wake Forest senior majoring in philosophy, is more concerned with the career help she’s gotten than with her alma mater’s motivation for providing it.

“If the university helps itself while benefitting me,” she says, “that’s great.”

This story also appeared in USA Today as part of an exclusive collaboration. Reproduction is not permitted.

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  1. This is an interesting phenomenon. I’ve been doing research over the past year on how to best use technology to help employers communicate their needs to jobseekers. In that time, I’ve spoken with quite a few talent acquisition, recruiting and HR professionals as well as Career Services Office professionals. We’ve come to some interesting conclusions which led to the development of ‘Ecruit.’

    Another interesting aspect of this is the meteoric rise of MOOC’s. While still predominantly academic, it won’t be long (if I can help it) before workforce preparation and more vocational skills are offered online at low-no cost. I wonder what implications that will have for colleges. How do employers’ recruiting efforts change when an online course is proven to be equal to an offline one ?

    My hope is to increase communication (both in quantity and quality) and in so doing help students to better prepare themselves for the job market.

  2. Less than half of Class of 2010 had jobs at graduation? Tough beans! Reap what you sow! YOU are partially responsible for the electing and reelecting the bumbler in chief with idiotic economic policies that have prolonged this near recession. Having more than a little trouble mustering up sympathy for these naive children who helped do this to themselves. Meh.

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