Advising Nontraditionals: Do Age and Life Stage Matter?

Janet R. LongJanet R. Long
Principal, Integrity Search Inc.
Blog: http://inyourownvoice.wordpress.com/
LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/in/janetrlong/
Twitter: @IntegritySearch

What if your Mom walked into your career center, resume in hand, and that deer-in-the-headlights look? As a boomer recruiter and career counselor, I’ve been thinking lately about multiple generations co-existing, not just in the workplace, but in the campus career centers on the front lines of providing advice and counsel. Advising students a generation or two ahead of the traditional 18- to 22-year-old range is becoming more commonplace every year – and not only in community college settings.

With the National Center for Education Statistics projecting that students over aged 35 will top 4.5 million by 2021 at degree-granting institutions, the trend is undeniable.

But when it comes to best practices in career advisement, do age and life stage really matter?

How can a campus career center designed with the traditionally-aged student in mind extend its reach? This is a prickly topic, and as Chaim Shapiro wisely noted in this space, we have to be careful about overgeneralizing based on generational labels.

Consider these ideas for starting off on the right foot:

1. Acknowledge the elephant in the room, especially if the student or alum in front of you really could be your Mom! One of my advisers as a mid-life grad student asked me outright if our age difference (about 20 years) might present a problem for me. It didn’t – but just having someone ask the question spoke volumes about his style and put me at ease.

2. Value past experience. When talking about resume formats, interview preparation, etc., emphasize that while styles may have changed, the student already knows more than she or he may realize.

3. Probe for fears. Don’t assume it’s technology or social media — it might be fear of age discrimination, old-fashioned in-person networking, or feeling rusty about interviewing. Maybe all of these! Before pivoting to tactics, get buy-in on a plan that addresses these concerns to the best of your ability.

4. Manage expectations. You may need to do some educating as well. One four-year institution found through an annual survey that some non-traditionally aged students viewed the career center as a direct placement agency.

5. Create connections. Help your student navigate a targeted alumni database search, keeping life stage in mind. Provide links — and direct contacts, if possible — to local chapters of relevant professional associations. If there is sufficient demand and critical mass, consider forming a student group(s), for peer-to-peer support and job-lead sharing.

NACE blog readers, what practices for advising nontraditionals have worked well in your experience?