Virtual Career Service Best Practices: You Can No Longer Wait for Students to Come to You

By Jenna Sage posted 10-20-2020 07:11

October 20, 2020

Jenna Sage is dean of career readiness and workforce solutions at Ultimate Medical Academy

While parts of the nation begin to reopen, many higher education institutions are still functioning with significantly reduced operations. Across the nation, faculty, staff, and student service teams are working remotely and will likely continue to work in a remote or flexible work scenario moving forward. The impact of COVID-19 required a rapid response from educational institutions to maintain student support while also protecting employees. As a result, career services departments have had to quickly transition to provide virtual support for students who are beginning their career journey during unpredictable and tumultuous times.

The economic impacts, remote work, and overall increased stressors of COVID-19 have added to an uncertain or unknown way of work for traditional career services departments. In many traditional and four-year institutions, career services are a supplementary support service, available to provide students job-search, resume, and interview supports post-graduation. Many career services departments previously hosted onsite career fairs and supported ongoing campus-based engagement. But during a pandemic, those traditional models have had to change.

Lynn Chisholm, director of internships and career readiness at the University of South Florida (USF) commented that, “everything went virtual overnight.” Not only did USF’s team of employees have to make a transition in where they worked, they also had to change the way they worked to transition to meet the virtual needs of students and employers.

The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has been steadfast in monitoring the impacts of the pandemic on the career navigation needs of students, employers, universities and colleges. Much of the focus has been on the increased loss of internship opportunities, reduced employment options in some sectors and increased opportunities in other sectors, and how career services departments can continue to support students while meeting CDC requirements for social distancing.

While navigating their own new work environments and social protocols, career services employees have also had to address increasing anxiety and job market uncertainty for students. In a recent survey by HR Dive, “90% of students polled were at least moderately concerned about the pandemic's impact on the U.S. job market and economy. Many (71%) were concerned about job and internship opportunities, while some (65%) were concerned about their personal financial situation.”

Ultimate Medical Academy (UMA) delivers quality career services support to both online and ground campus students. As a national nonprofit healthcare educational institution, UMA’s career services process is cross-departmental, collaborative, and comprehensive. Career services advisers are available remotely to support students, graduates, and alumni. With nearly 14,000 fully online students annually and more than 55,000 alumni across the country, the UMA team is there to develop resumes, assist with practice interviews and the job search, as well as matching employment opportunities with established corporate partners, giving unique insight into the opportunities and challenges of remote career support.

Brandi Yates, director of career services training at Ultimate Medical Academy (UMA) has helped teams of career services advisers provide seamless and ongoing support to UMA’s students and graduates. Yates emphasized that “helping students navigate these new employer interactions, like virtual interviews and online training, has become increasingly important for career service providers.” A recent poll in Handshake suggested that 69% of students want help from their career services teams to connect with new employers virtually. Yates has led efforts within the UMA career services department on training and support efforts that build sustainable relationships and partnerships with students, staff and employers, even while working remotely.

As other higher education institutions transition to supporting remote learners, the following best practices can be adopted to help maintain service delivery during these challenging times and to help sustain operations in the inevitably altered future. Yates noted that now is a great time for continued investment in career services delivery models.

Communication Is Key

  • Ensure students and graduates know that you are still available to help. Consider reaching out through multiple modes of communication—phone, email, chat, social media, text, etc.
  • Given the abundant reporting on unemployment numbers, students may assume no one is hiring. Proactively reach out to them with information about available job opportunities.
  • Help students navigate technology by practicing with them and helping them learn the online tools that employers are using like virtual meeting conferencing, virtual interview software and applicant tracking systems.
  • Take time to celebrate small wins in a virtual environment. This can help to foster continued engagement and focus among staff and students.

Diversify Your Employer Pool

  • If you rely only on large corporate employers or smaller local/regional companies, cast a wider net. Evaluate where gaps in your employer pool may exist and work to fill them.
  • Follow current events and news releases from employers, as in a time of constant change, this can help to refocus efforts in specific areas of need, forge partnerships and fill gaps.
  • Companies are still hiring; you may just need to develop a new relationship with them. This can often be accomplished through campaigns, sharing resources and tools that employer partners will find valuable, or partnering on upskilling or job training opportunities. Now is a good time to build new mutually beneficial partnerships.

Let Employers Know You, Your Programs and the Students You Support

  • Work with partners to be more than a recruitment resource. Are there resources or material you can provide or produce together? You can also leverage interview-to-hire data to share your return on investment to employers.
  • Tell your story to employers – and be specific. Why do your students best meet their current and ongoing hiring and employment needs? You are a source for qualified and ready employees who have the hard and soft skills employers are seeking.

Go Virtual

  • Consider what you can take onlinejob fairs, interviews, webinars, career coaching, office hoursto continue to support and provide value to your students and graduates. It may take a little creativity but many of the activities or materials that you have can be transitioned to virtual and digital.
  • Use video! Let students and career services staff see potential employers and vice versa.
  • Provide opportunities for students to practice virtual interviews and hone their on-camera skills and presence.

Expand your Horizons and Change your Expectations

  • Maybe a student’s dream job or internship is out of the question right now due to COVID-19. Help them think outside the box for opportunities that can help them gain relevant experience that they might not have considered before.
  • Customer service is a highly coveted transferable skill that will make a student more marketable for virtually any position in the future.
  • Help students focus on a temporary stepping-stone, a new opportunity to gain experience during these unprecedented times, which will help them get closer to their end goal.

While so many traditional institutions are making a transition of thought and action to provide students ongoing career services support, it is vital to consider how departments will stay nimble in order to meet ongoing changes in the economy, the workforce and the needs of students. Growing your virtual presence for career services will not only benefit you now but will help build toward a technology-centric future.

Career services providers at schools like USF and UMA recognize the lasting changes that are occurring within the career development industry, particularly the opportunity to create active connections between students and support.

“This environment has fueled [our] plans to move toward a career advocacy approach which better uses technology in order to scale our services in an intentional, student-centered manner,” said Chisholm. For traditional onsite career service, “It's a shift in philosophy from waiting for students to come to us, to reaching out to them where they are.”

* This article was produced in collaboration and partnership between Ultimate Medical Academy and the University of South Florida.