Hamilton College Leverages Career Communities to Increase Engagement

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Four examples of how career communities will help you create a career-centered college campus

Hamilton College logo Anyone involved in career services has had to be flexible and resourceful, especially in the past 5 years.  Not only is the career center tasked with preparing an ever-increasing number of graduates, but it also deals with satisfying an existing alumni base.

On top of that, career centers have to figure out how to cram a whole new set of skills, knowledge, and job search techniques into their graduates’ heads while absorbing and adjusting to budget cuts and freezes.

However, now that the economy is recovering and there is an increased demand by legislative bodies, the federal government, media, parents, students, and alumni for campuses to focus more on careers, your career center has an opportunity to implement strategic changes that have failed in the past to catch management’s attention.

Change on a college campus doesn’t happen overnight, so you are wise take advantage of this emerging trend and start a conversation at the highest levels that will lead to the implementation of strategies to increase the number of grads who have jobs immediately after graduating.

Hamilton College did just that!

The Hamilton College Board of Trustees started a conversation around career success in 2011 and asked management to study what the Career Center was doing then, and what they could do better.  The Board of Trustees recognized they had a better chance of justifying the cost of tuition if their graduates and alumni were able to launch and lead successful careers.  To get things started, a task force was assembled to evaluate current processes, best practices, and provide recommendations. Nearly a year later, the task force presented the board with a series of recommendations in a report titled, A New Vision for Best in Class Career Services.

Patrick D. Mullane, Interim Executive Director of the Horowitch Career and Life Outcomes Center, shared with me a number of changes that were implemented from this process including increases in staffing, funding and resources.

Hamilton boasts a beautiful campus in upstate New York that has 1,800 students.   One change that will make most career center professionals green with envy is Hamilton’s career counselor to student ratio of 1 counselor to 180 students. (This is in contrast to the national average of 1 counselor to 1,645 students!)  Then, of course, there is their enlarged, enhanced career center!

Another win was the development of a non-required, but encouraged Career Workshop 101 where students learn how to find mentors, build career plans, and take ownership of their careers.

About the same time the task force presented their recommendations, Farouk Dey, AVP for Student Affairs & Dean of Career Education at Stanford, and Christine Y. Cruzvergara, Assistant Dean & Executive Director of University Career Services at George Mason University, posted a LinkedIn blog article titled 10 Future Trends in College Career Services.

One trend that caught Pat’s attention was trend number 5:

Customized Connections and Communities

Farouk and Christine suggested that the primary purpose of career services in this next era is to build connections and communities for a stronger network that promotes students’ success.

Pat immediately recognized that career communities can:

  • Be self-sustaining career training channels
  • Enable career center professionals to “train the trainer”  and get out of the way

…so he could leverage their curriculums, programming and influence.  He also recognized that at the same time career communities will provide:

  • An opportunity to connect students with alumni
  • Encouragement for students to take ownership of their careers

While there was no blueprint to follow at Hamilton College, Pat and David Bell, Directors of Career Development, were able to visualize a couple ways they could build a sustainable strategy, and  once it was in place, they could step away and let it “self-manage” so their staff could focus on the core competency of providing career guidance counseling.

Four examples

Pat zeroed in on the idea that faculty, clubs and organizations, and alumni could take ownership of the processes and create events and activities that build career knowledge, and skills.  It complimented a culture that was already deeply engrained in Hamilton College where Hamiltonians help Hamiltonians.

1) Clubs

One of the first successful implementations of this strategy was with Hamilton’s finance club.  Pat’s strategy was to build a bridge between the club and alumni who were either past members, involved in finance in their careers, or had a personal interest in finance, and could help outline a sustainable engagement strategy.   The program instantly took off and Pat immediately had a group of alumni that were messaging students about the importance of keeping their eyes on their careers and getting prepared for them.

2) Fraternities

Next, Pat found success by building a relationship with Phi Epsilon fraternity and building engagement between Phi Epsilon alumni and current students.  The program has been so successful that there is talk of the national headquarters repeating it on member campuses.   Pat and his team are not stopping there.   They are already starting the process with an emerging actuarial club, as well as opening discussions with academic departments and even athletic teams, specifically, the women’s soccer team that has already shown an interest in the program.

3) Peer Networking

A third, powerful strategy being spearheaded by David involves taking a more holistic approach by allowing participants more control of information.  David is launching HPN (Hamilton Peer Network) that enables students and alumni to manage contacts and information related to Internships.

Here’s the concept.

David wants students who have had internships with companies to be contacts and resources for other students who are looking for internships with the firms. The idea is to have Hamiltonians help Hamiltonians by encouraging students/alumni to be the intermediaries, instead of the career center staff.  So, let’s say you are interested in working for IBM.  You would simply search a database for IBM and see a list of alumni who have interned at IBM, as well as their contact information, so that you can find out who you should  talk to at the company to gain some background information about the internship.  Simple, elegant, and it doesn’t require the Career Center to own the data, relationship, or information!

4) Social Media Groups

A fourth way the Hamilton career department is building communities of interest and gaining the benefit of getting to let go is with niche communities that are organically developing on LinkedIn.   For example, a very active subgroup of Hamilton alumni interested in real-estate and advertising has developed on LinkedIn and has been holding meetings in New York City.  Recognizing the opportunity at hand, Pat has organized a program to take interested students to these events where they can mingle with and network with alumni.  According to Pat, it’s a win-win situation.  Alumni gain an opportunity to engage with students and students begin to understand not only what the business world is going to expect of them, but they very likely will find mentors along the way.

Building career communities around the clubs, organizations, academic departments, and teams represents an exciting, self-sustaining way for career centers to develop a culture on campus that is focused on careers.  One of the issues Pat recognizes his team is going to have to overcome is how to make this process frictionless and effortless. In order to win the hearts, minds, and commitment of faculty, he and his team will have to show the benefits and let potential participants knowhow easy participation can be.

The road that they have traveled since the Board of Trustees asked administrators to build the best of class Career Center strategy has been rewarding and exhausting.  Not only are students coming alive and taking ownership of their careers through the career community concept, but they are gaining an understanding of how to work with others, a soft skill that is in high demand with hiring authorities.

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Don Philabaum
Love to find ways to use technology help more grads and alumni develop successful career strategies.
Don Philabaum
Don Philabaum
Don Philabaum

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