PRISM Magazine On-Line  - November 1999
teaching toolbox
Career Services with a Smile

by J.J. Thompson

No doubt engineering courses arm students with most of the basics they'll need to succeed, but how to write a humdinger of a resume is not usually part of the curriculum. Nor is how to make a dynamite impression on that first job interview.

As Sue Marshall of the University of Oklahoma so delicately puts it, "In some curricula, you find more emphasis on writing and interpersonal skills than in other curricula." What Marshall, director of O.U.'s Career Services, leaves unsaid is that one does not pursue an engineering degree to develop a knack for sparkling prose and scintillating conversation.

Filling in those gaps is the job of the office of career services at many schools. Like it or not, most engineering students eventually become job seekers, so such life skills will someday prove as useful as knowing how to calculate electrical resistivity or heat transfer. If an engineering program is lucky, its campus boasts a dynamic career services office that offers a wide range of career development and job-search opportunities. Even if no such service exists, engineering departments can team with other departments and organizations on campus to provide similar advantages for their students.

One example of an engineering school and placement office teaming up to provide engineering students optimal chances for post-graduation employment is at Texas A&M University, where the Career Center plans to have an engineering specialist on staff who will know specifically about engineering careers, companies, and job openings. Other activities placement offices and engineering schools coordinate on are job fairs specific to engineering.

"Placement used to refer only to on-campus interviews and getting placed with employers," explains Leigh Turner, director of the Career Center at TAMU, where half of the 30,000-plus job interviews are for engineering or other technical majors. "What a lot of us have been doing in the last 10 to 15 years is expanding services so we're now much more comprehensive," she says.

Students using her office, for instance, can sign up for resume-writing workshops as well as for interviews with potential employers. They can learn how to devise a job-search strategy and study the backgrounds of companies for whom they might like to work. What's more, they can take advantage of cooperative learning experiences, where they work for both pay and college credit, and summer internships in fields related to their coursework.

The broader emphasis in career services, Turner says, developed in order "to make sure students gave more thought about what they want to do long before they actually get into a field."

According to Turner and other career services professionals, a successful career services office focuses on three main components: customer service, with both students and employers considered customers; experiential education; and outreach and marketing. "I like to say that we work with two clienteles who are never in sync," says Carol L. Barrett, who is interim director for the Center for Career Opportunities at Purdue University. "When the job market dips, you have to be ready to deal with students who are disillusioned and upset because the jobs just aren't there," she says. And when the job market is hot, she adds, you have to be ready to deal with employers who are just as discouraged by their lack of prospects.

Because convenience is an all-important factor for both groups, schools are increasingly using the Internet to provide around-the-clock access to databases of employers and job openings as well as opportunities to sign up for workshops and interviews.

"I think it will be very popular with employers," Turner says of the new Web site TAMU rolled out this fall. She also keeps in frequent contact with employers regarding their recruiting experiences at the university through day-of-visit evaluations, annual surveys, and employer representation on an advisory council that also includes faculty and students.

"For students, we want to have correct information about employers out there, which is often a challenge." Barrett says. Students start scanning the database of employers as soon as they arrive on campus each fall, she says, when a lot of companies haven't yet completed their profiles. So students get an incomplete picture of job opportunities and companies miss the most aggressive job hunters.

In addition to teaching job-search skills in their office, Marshall says her staff at O.U. encourages engineering students to join in campus activities and organizations that will nurture leadership skills. "Through clubs and organizations, they learn how to interact effectively and how to get jobs done. Some of them learn leadership, and some of them learn teamwork," Marshall says, all of which are valuable skills in the workforce.

Several such events sponsored by the College of Engineering at O.U. provide opportunities for student involvement, she says, such as an open house for high school students and an engineering job fair. Barrett, for one, is a champion of job fairs for engineering students. "They really are good arenas for both employers and candidates to at least make that initial contact," she says. "Even in this age of electronic communication, nothing is better than a face-to-face meeting and a handshake."

Another benefit many career services offices provide students is to hook them up with professionals in their chosen field. At Purdue, for example, Barrett's office works to pair students with alumni who can offer job-related advice and contacts.

Between internships and cooperative learning experiences, graduates should not have to find out on their first jobs that they hate being engineers. "It's a heartbreak for all of us in the profession when a student gets a degree, works in the field and says, 'Yikes, I can't do this,'" Turner says. That's why career services professionals work so hard to guarantee that such experiences are abundantly available. In addition to internships—which often occur during the summer and without pay—many engineering students can participate in co-op positions, which usually involve taking a semester of school to work for pay in a participating company.

At the University of Oklahoma, which started its engineering cooperative education program in 1993 and now has more than 300 students signed up for co-op positions, Marshall sees a number of advantages to this type of experiential education.

For students, it provides an opportunity to explore a job and an organization to see if they might have some interest in it for professional employment, she says. The work situation also allows students to develop skills and contacts that will make them more marketable when they graduate. In addition, "students who see how their engineering knowledge applies to work then have a greater commitment to learning. It gives an advantage to the university, too," Marshall says. "Students who have been out on a co-op assignment can come back and bring new knowledge from the organizations to campus. It facilitates that exchange of information."

Because the co-op program at O.U. is relatively new, Marshall says, her office engaged in a heavy-duty marketing campaign to sell the idea to employers and students alike.

Marketing is a skill that is more than familiar to most career services officers. Turner recently listened as a fellow presenter at a professional workshop told his audience, "You know, don't let it get to you, but you're going to meet students who say they've never heard of the career services center."

So creative efforts to reach both sets of customers is a must, Turner says. On campus, the offices often work with other campus groups to offer specialized programs and workshops. Externally, they must woo employers through site visits and through contacts via professional organizations, conferences and seminars.

Barrett loves the roller-coaster thrill of her job, made so by the fact that the ups and downs are so "dependent on two things over which you have very little control," she says. "Students change over the years. Their values change, if not every year at least every couple of years. And the job market certainly changes."


J.J. Thompson is a freelance writer in Little Rock, Arkansas.

more Teaching Toolbox articles - Teaching , Research, Marketplace, On Campus