Building Bridges Over the College-to-Career Gap
Posted March 10, 2021 by HannahD
For many of today’s prospective business students, a business degree is the ticket to landing better jobs and earning higher salaries after graduation. But just how prepared are today’s college graduates to take on post-graduation careers?
By some accounts, not as well as they could be. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, only 15 percent of Americans thought college graduates had the skills they needed for the workplace.
It’s not that colleges and universities don’t provide a wide range of technical courses and professional development opportunities to prepare students for the workplace, says Jamie Belinne, assistant dean for career and industry engagement at C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston in Texas. Instead, she says, “many students might not choose to take the electives we offer.”
The reason? Belinne says that many students are concerned that more difficult technical courses might negatively affect their GPAs; others might want to ensure they have time to pursue extracurricular activities.
Even so, says Belinne, students should realize that the best time to prepare themselves for the job market is while they’re still in school. That’s why Bauer College has made career readiness a No. 1 objective in its program. The college offers a mandatory, large-scale experiential learning professional development course for all undergraduates, as well as career development workshops.
If students still need a skill-building boost at graduation, they can apply for positions with a local recruiter that hires individuals to receive “last-mile” training as technical consultants before placing them in full-time positions with its client companies.
“It’s often not until the end of their academic careers that students realize, ‘Wow, I probably should have taken more courses,’” says Belinne. For that reason, the school creates multiple opportunities for students to build their technical skills, refine their professionalism, and expand their résumés—long before graduation.
Many of Bauer’s 2,000 students are first-generation, which means that most are working their way through school and have less time for professional development or network building. To make up for this gap, for the past 15 years, Bauer College has offered a required undergraduate course called Connecting Bauer to Business that focuses solely on preparing students for internships and future full-time employment.
Each semester, approximately 1,000 students take the course, which is divided into three course sections. Students complete career assessments, record mock interviews, set up LinkedIn profiles, and hear panel discussions in which professionals discuss various career paths applicable to different business majors. Students can earn additional points toward their grades by participating in extracurricular activities such as career fairs, informational interviews, and employer résumés reviews.
As their main project in the course, students form teams to complete either two real-world consulting projects for companies or a case competition. Teams that choose to take on consultancy projects for client companies provide deliverables such as research reports, surveys, or market analyses. Teams that take part in the case competition each analyze a business ethics issue of interest to their teams, before presenting their findings to a team of judges at the end of the semester. Winning teams win cash awards from the company sponsoring the competition.
During the pandemic, During the pandemic, Paul Pavlou, dean of the Bauer College, made it a priority to continue the college’s experiential curriculum in a virtual environment. As part of this, the college partnered with EduSourced, an online experiential learning platform. Through the platform, faculty were able to convert team projects and the case competition into virtual formats; place students into teams according to their interests; manage online interactions between students, mentors, and clients; and monitor project progression.
“Students use the self-assessment and career panel information to narrow down their career choices and select a major, which is why completion of the course is a requirement for declaring a major at the college,” says Belinne. “The lessons learned in the sponsored projects and case competitions create a foundation for their upper-level capstone courses and case competitions.”
In addition to the Connecting Bauer to Business course, the college offers a series of workshops to reach freshmen and sophomores, while they still have time to take more specialized courses. For example, a recent workshop introduced students to the courses they should take to develop skills that are most in demand by employers. Another offered basic training in skill sets such as emotional intelligence, career management, and basic analytics skills.
In July 2020, Bauer College held its Emerging Leaders Academic Success Program, an orientation for transfer students. During that virtual event, participants attended a panel discussion where recruiters explained how to build their networks, write effective résumés, and improve their technological skills. “We want students to receive a broad overview of what they need to start thinking about now in order to be strong candidates later,” says Belinne.
Bauer College offers a master’s degree in business analytics, but its faculty plan to encourage more undergraduate students to take technical courses as early as possible during their college careers. Currently, the school brings in consultants to deliver intensive and short training workshops on data visualization tools such as Tableau, Power BI, R, and Python.
Such workshops are designed “to get students excited to take our analytics classes,” says Belinne. “There’s such a demand for people with these skills, if we can get them interested in the idea of these careers, everybody wins.”
Post-Graduation Career Prep
If students get to graduation without taking such courses, however, they still have an opportunity to boost their technical skills without spending more time out of the workforce. The Bauer College works with the recruiter Talent Path, a Houston-based technology accelerator that launched in 2018. Talent Path hires new graduates as consultants and trains them in skills they might not have acquired in college.
“We can teach students to think critically and use technological tools effectively, and we can provide students with an overview of which tools are best,” Belinne says. But historically, young professionals have developed deep knowledge of many software programs either in company training programs or master’s-level education. Students who are hired by Talent Path as consultants receive full-time pay and benefits while completing 90 days of “last-mile” technical and professional training.
During that time, consultants learn to use specific software programs and coding languages, acquire knowledge about different work functions within companies, and gain exposure to various company cultures. Once they complete their training, they are assigned three- to 12-month real-world consulting projects, which serve as stepping stones to full-time placement with companies.
Since 2018, Talent Path has hired 42 graduates from the University of Houston—including 17 graduates from the Bauer College. “Many of these students are great candidates but lack specific technical skills for the roles companies have to fill,” says Belinne. “This experience bridges the gap between making them strong critical thinkers who understand how to apply tools and turning them into experts at using the specific tools a company needs.”
Reaching the Finish Line
Since its launch, the Connecting Bauer to Business course has significantly improved the way employers rate students’ career readiness, says Belinne. “The number of employers rating our students’ soft skills highly has doubled or tripled in areas such as oral communication, teamwork, professionalism, and interpersonal skills, based on Likert scale surveys.”
The course also empowers students to take ownership over their own career readiness preparation throughout their college careers. Forty-six percent of students have reported that they joined student organizations, and 10 percent to 15 percent say that they found internships, all as a direct result of being in the class. More thana quarter say they received interviews as a result of interactions they had with employers during the class.
“More than 50 percent say they grew their networks, and more than 70 percent say the class gave them experience to add to their résumés,” says Belinne. “More important, the college’s placement rate has grown from 38 percent at the course’s inception to more than 95 percent now.”
One transfer student who worked on a project for Cameron International, a Houston-based control system manufacturer, appreciated the real-world experience and professional connections the course provided. “I stayed in touch with the employees of Cameron,” the student noted, “and after five months, was actually hired on, before graduation.”
Another student worked on a course project for the multinational oil company Halliburton as a freshman and received a full-time job offer from the company by senior year. “Every student who doesn’t take advantage of [these opportunities] is missing out on an opportunity to get their foot in the door,” the student said.
Even if a business school does not offer a mandatory professional development course, students should take advantage of other career preparation opportunities, says Belinne. These can include career-oriented workshops, networking events, online and in-person resources provided by campus career centers, and technical courses in in-demand fields.
With the right early planning and ongoing preparation, students can push their career-readiness “over the finish line,” Belinne adds. In the process, they can be sure that their résumés rise straight to the top when recruiters are ready to hire.