Calling for a Return to Relationships

Irene Hillman

Irene Hillman, Manager of Career Development, College of Business, Decosimo Success Center, The University of Tennessee Chattanooga
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/irenehillman

When I was first introduced to the world of student services as an educational psychology student, what intrigued me was the coaching aspect. I was taught that the key to successful coaching was to recognize your student as resourceful and whole, and to “meet them where they are.” That phrase, a decade and a half later, still floats into my brain when I talk with a client.

It takes a good deal of curiosity to really find out where a student is in her path of life and where she wants that journey to lead. Probing questions are called for, along with the ability to offer real encouragement and very often a sense of humor plus a sympathetic ear. In short, challenging a student to head toward his or her individual goals requires an authentic connection—an honest-to-goodness old fashioned relationship where you know the other person and where she’s been, where she is, and where she is going.

But I see this art of coaching frequently dwindling in career development departments. As colleges and parents focus on the ROI of the ever-increasing tuition payment, the focus has tipped, in my opinion, towards “checking the box” of offering services.

As we struggle to serve a large population, automating processes has become the norm. Resumes are dropped off by students, checked for typos by career services associates, and picked up the next morning again with rarely a discussion of what type of job the resume is trying to target or transferable skills a student might have left uncovered. Students are given access to a myriad of career assessment tests but may never have a conversation with an adviser about how results should be interpreted or how the results might affect their college experience. Pamphlets about the importance of job shadows, professional associations, networking—you name it—are developed and distributed without follow up to see if students understood the advice, are ready to get their feet wet, or have the support they need to make real progress.

In this stunted model, the responsibility is placed on the student to build their own career development program using the bits and pieces we provide. Have you ever heard of a baseball coach putting bats, gloves, and balls on the field and then sitting in the dugout? Our intentions are good and the resources are solid, but our efforts are in danger of falling flat in terms of providing support that actually moves a student toward career success.

I propose that the way to help a student is to know a student. Have all these resources and tools ready to use and share, but at the right moment—when your client is ready to take that particular step in her journey.

And, I should mention, only in a real relationship can you expect accountability from a student. In any other scenario, all you can do is cross your fingers and hope students are listening to the advice out there—on your department’s website, in the pamphlets, in your class visit—but they are more likely listening to whatever is streaming through their headphones. I have heard many career services professionals complain that students are unresponsive and lackadaisical. I am positive that those same students would be attentive and engaged if a relationship was in place with their career adviser.

Another thing to consider is the impact not having relationships with your students will have on employers. How would I identify which job opportunity or company I would recommend to a student without understanding his/her objectives and strengths? I would be failing my employers as a result of not knowing my students.
If I’m worth my salt as a career development professional, I want to be able to push a student toward progress—and progress is a highly subjective term. I need to be keenly aware of what progress would mean to the individual in front of me. There is no standard or bulk option. Does this stretch me thin? Heck yeah. Is it worth it? Heck yeah. Relationships are what make me love being a career development professional. Seeing my students transform into flourishing professionals is the best feeling in the world. And if I was busy checking the box, I would miss it.

2 thoughts on “Calling for a Return to Relationships

  1. Thank you for your valuable insight and advice. This is what makes our jobs worth doing. I like to think of it as a puzzle, and I am a puzzler. Make the advice applicable and truly listen to what the student is saying. It is much easier to constantly be pushing resources, but without understanding what the student needs, it is wasting time and effort for both parties involved. We must keep the personal touch as a part of the service that we provide. Without it, we are missing out on an opportunity to contribute, to enhance, and to learn from the situation. Thank you for adding another piece to my puzzle. ~ Debbie Boles, University of Oklahoma Career Services

  2. This is as valid in universities/colleges settings where funds are insufficient to cover for career developers’ time and dedication as in job-search agencies…so many times we are forced to make choices about “quantity” of clients we serve as opposed to quality of time…how many times funds are also insufficient to cover for our own professional development or to hire a qualified, experienced career development practitioner…and how many times our own well-being and career struggles is in between our ability to create and sustain those relationships with clients.
    I find what your post says it is true also for case managers, employment counsellors and job developers. The constrains coming from funders, boxed programs and lack of PD are a reality. We still can choose how we work around all that and provide a real and honest service, remembering that what we have in front of us are human beings and not just a statistic…

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