On Why We No Longer Provide “Career Services” And What We REALLY Do

By Dave Isbell

(The Short Version, for those who choose to not read anything longer than a Facebook status: We have transitioned away from being direct service providers in a “Career Services” model, to instead be the LENS –Lifelong ENrichment for Spartans- through which Spartans can find experiences, knowledge, and connections to other Spartans that will help them to grow personally and professionally. We did this so we can better accommodate the huge network of Spartans around the world who have diverse backgrounds, interests, and motivations AND so we can stay true to the Spartans Helping Spartans ethos and the mission of Michigan State University. We want to make the world a better place in which to live, work, and play and we want to give YOU the ability to partner with us to do that!)

Now for the longer version, for those people who paid attention and took notes in class and actually read, underlined, and highlighted their textbooks: 

Last week the MSU Alumni Association was featured in the State News. First off, let me say that we love the State News around here and are so thankful for the article. A lot has changed around here since the days when the MSUAA was the “Can you please give us money? entity” on campus and we appreciate the help in getting the word out about that! I want to address something in the article that could be a bit misleading (to nobody’s fault) for State News readers who are not quite yet familiar with us.

In the article, alumna Kristin Burgard mentions “employment searching services.” While it is true that we do a ton of things around here to help people with their job search/career trajectory, I want to make sure Spartans understand that this may not be in the form that you might be used to. Around here, we talk about “Connection” and “Enrichment.” In particular, we think about how these two concepts go together like Hall & Oates (or for our younger readers, like Beyonce & Jay Z; or maybe for the older folks it’s like Ella Fitzgerald & Duke Ellington. Did I leave anyone out?) The State News article did a fine job introducing the topic of connection, and I’ll get to enrichment in a minute. However, before I get into that let me first talk about “Career Services” and why what we offer instead is a bit different from what you may have experienced in the past.

If you remember the days when you could work a part time job and pay for college with cash as you went, you probably remember looking at paper copies of want ads placed on a bulletin board in the “Placement Office.” For current or recent students, you may understand that the Career Services Network offers a more modern way of doing the same thing with their MySpartanCareer job database. Perhaps you may have also attended a career fair or spent time in a resume workshop or met with a Career Adviser in a one-on-one appointment. It’s also possible that you may have been one of the few alumni who met with me for career coaching in the first couple of years that I worked here when the Alumni Association was beginning to transition into what it is now. All of that is good stuff. However, at the risk of sounding insulting to my Career Services comrades (I think the team at MSU does terrific work and are underutilized), I believe that the “Career Services” model in most university systems is outdated, especially when aiming it at alumni. For one thing, the institution of “college” is a huge system that transcends the geography of whatever passes for the “main campus.” Further, the world of work has changed radically in the past decade and forecasting into the near future shows us that not only has the college-to-career-train left the station, but it has grown wings and rocket propulsion will take it light years ahead of where it once was. When we started looking beyond the walls of campus and into the near future it became that A new model for supporting people in their careers was needed.

A few years ago, what used to be “Alumni Career Services” started looking at what we were doing and recognized that we needed a radical overhaul. For one thing we needed to find a way to meet more of the needs of the massive 500,000ish Spartans around the globe who we are proud to call family and to adapt to the ever-changing knowledge economy. On a personal note, I loved meeting individually with Spartans to help them to make career transitions, and I’ve been very honored to hear back from many of them how much my work meant to them. However, meeting with upwards of 800 people in around 1,800 appointments per year didn’t leave me with much room to be able to do much else. (And, frankly, it’s pretty taxing on one person to meet those kinds of demands.) Add in the 500 or so resume reviews my former graduate students helped me to do, and even if you add in the group functions that the illustrious John Hill (my former colleague/boss) was doing, you still don’t even begin to scratch the surface of our network! (True, we also developed an enormous Linkedin group which made Spartans easily accessible to one another, but with our former “hands off” strategy, we have proven that a tool only collects dust for people who don’t understand how to use it! We are now working to use this tool more effectively.)

One of the other issues that limited us in our former model was the limited ability to connect with people who had the power to make decisions or to create change. Most of the Spartans that we were able to engage with meeting were unemployed, or dissatisfied with their current employer or occupation. It was difficult to attract the attention of people who did not see an immediate need for what we were doing. Therefore, our network was really limited and limiting. It wasn’t because these weren’t good or talented people, but because their view of us was as a service provider instead of a partner or because when they wanted to help, their unemployed or crisis status limited their ability to be helpful to others who were in the same circumstances. What we had always desired was a way to be change agents for Spartans through the resources and connections we could help Spartans to leverage (because learning things is important, but everyone knows that it is not “what you know, it’s who you know.”) Instead what we had inadvertently created was a network of people who who held us in esteem as service providers but only viewed us as a transactional relationship (“I need something, you provide for it. When the transaction is done, so is the relationship. Until I need another transaction.”) We simply had so much tied up in being direct service providers that we had no resources left to move toward creating an atmosphere for the transformational relationships that would allow for mutual reciprocity and personal/professional growth of those people in the relationship. (It’s not that transactional relationships are bad. They are necessary. I mean, I don’t need to have a transformational experience with the guy who washes my car. However, if we did have that kind of relationship, you can bet he’d be the only guy washing my car!)

So here we are, back to where we started. We were questioning how our organization might be the most helpful to the largest amount of Spartans, and how we may foster transformational relationships between us and Spartan Nation and to help inspire this kind of relationship between Spartans around the world. How could we create, on a wider scale, the life-changing experiences that I frequently encountered in one-on-one appointments? How could we do justice to this great institution that is literally working toward curing cancer, solving third world problems, educating the next generation, etc? These kinds of questions were the genesis of the Spartans Helping Spartans ethos, which conveniently fit right in with MSU’s “Spartans Will” philosophy.  This is what led us away from “Career Services” and toward “Professional and Personal Enrichment.”

The “Career Services” model gave us the opportunity to have “high touch” with people in their time of need, and that is important to those few who can get in for an appointment. I enjoyed helping individuals immensely and it was really hard for me to give that up as a primary function of my job. It’s also why I feel very strongly about creating connections to Spartans who can offer those kinds of services to people who need them. However, with the “Enrichment” model, we have gone beyond “job search” or “career advise” for individuals and have entered into a whole new world of topics that resonate with diverse groups of people at different times in their lives. Why? Well, if we are going to lead a volunteer “army” toward making the world a better place in which to live, work, and play, we can’t confine our content to “resumes” and career transition only for those few people who are lucky enough to be able to get on my calendar. It’s a big, fast moving, rapidly changing world out there and we need every Spartan to hold his/her shield up in formation with his/her Spartan family. This means that we have stepped aside as the “experts” and instead are the facilitators of the many Spartan experts on a variety of subjects, who have a wealth of experience in areas that we can’t pretend to understand, and on whom we have decided to shine the spotlight to lead the way in helping Spartans to help Spartans.

Why is “Personal and Professional Enrichment” an important distinction from “Career Services?” As I said before, the world changes fast. The college experience is still vital for a multitude of reasons. However, what you learned in the classroom is bound to be outdated by the time you pass the final exam. Gone are the days when you could become a subject matter expert by memorizing the facts. In actuality, A person’s resume, job search, interview strategy, and career path is not about what they have done in the past as much as it is dependent upon what s/he is doing RIGHT NOW and the vision s/he has for the future! Spartans, in the new world of “work” you MUST have the ability to deal with rapid change, you MUST have deep self-awareness, interpersonal skills, the ability to communicate; above all you MUST be a life-long learner and have the ability to synthesize information so that you can transcend the title on your college diploma(s), job titles, job descriptions, occupations, and industries. (Watch for more on this in the coming year as we talk more about the concept of the “T-Shaped Professional.”)

In our new “Enrichment” model, we are constantly creating new resources for Spartans all over the world so that they can learn together, and we are creating new pathways for people to connect with one another so that they can live, work, and play together. We are creating an opportunity for Spartans to join their university in changing the world for EVERY person. Sure this is the institution where you paid (and are likely still paying on) tuition for a degree, and if you did the work you earned it. It may not feel like it sometimes, but your degree gave you the ticket to go out and earn the right to win a job that you may not have otherwise obtained. It also put you in the elite 25% of the world who has completed a Bachelor’s degree. Yet, even more important MSU is the place where Spartans learned things outside of the classroom that will be remembered long after the information that they memorized for the test. If you think about it, while you were on campus you had access to world-class resources, faculty, and a multiplicity of ideas and experiences that are hard to come by for those who have never sat in a classroom as a student. Beyond that, you had the opportunity to form relationships that impacted you even after the names in those relationships have been forgotten.

Even if you have never paid attention to it, as a Spartan (whether a student or alumnus) you are still part of systems, ideas, processes, and designs that are revolutionizing the world! That is the REAL value of a person’s degree, and it lives on long past the turn of a tassel. Spartans, I don’t mean to be dogmatic or overly-zealous here, and I’m probably preaching to the choir, but do you realize that everything the university is doing during and after the degree is earned is meant to help maintain the value of those degrees? What you do with that, as an individual, is purely up to you. What our “enrichment” work here is about is helping you to carry on what you first started as a student. We are not “giving you the fish,” (though we do a little of that) nor are we “teaching you to fish,” (we do some of that too) but mostly, we are giving  you a place to share your “fishing stories” even as you gain wisdom from hearing about the “one that got away” or how using the right bait helped to catch a bigger fish than first imagined!

I wish I could tell you different but we are long past the days when employers beat down the doors of colleges to get at people who hold a piece of paper. Sure, many jobs require the degree as a standard one must meet to be considered for a position. However, if you long to build a life and career that takes you beyond “cube-dwelling office worker,” you MUST be willing to commit to personal and professional growth at every stage in your career. “Professional and Personal Enrichment” is more than “Career Services” (“I learned some job search skills and self-awareness”) or “professional development” (“I learned some skills) or “personal development” (“I improved my awareness and abilities”) and it transcends the desire for fame and fortune (the typical meaning of “enrichment”) and altruism (I feel good because I’m making the world a better place.) Instead, it is a collection of all of these things. (We recognize that there are myriad motivations for individuals to participate in and/or support the work we do and are working hard to ensure that everyone’s interests have been represented in our offerings.)

Our offerings are meant to stimulate thought that leads to conversation that leads to action that leads to change and cycles back again. Our core audience is made up of those Spartans who want to be a part of that mission. To Spartans and others around the globe who have not yet met us I would say that if what you paid for is a degree, and you were awarded the degree, then we are very happy for you because you received what you paid for. Put that thing in a nice frame and brag it up in a prominent place, because it is the symbol of some really hard work and you earned it! We welcome you as brothers and sisters in the MSUAA! However, if you want a partner who will be with you throughout your journey toward a mission that is greater than what you may be able to accomplish on your own, then that is what we are always striving toward. I recognize this goal of ours is ambitious and idealistic, and that we have made mistakes (and will continue to do so,) and still we have so far to go. However, MSU is in the business of setting lofty goals and so it is a proud tradition for us to follow! After all, nothing great was ever accomplished by apathy. Want to be a part of this great work? Every Spartan has an open invitation to join us and paying attention to what we are developing is a good place to start. We’d love to hear your thoughts, ideas, and concerns. Comment here or if you want to keep it private send me an email (see below in my bio.)

P.S.

Megan Cochrane, Kristin Burgard, and Beau Preston, if you have read this, thanks for providing me the inspiration to write it. Please get a hold of me next time you are on campus. I’d like to buy you coffee and ask you how we may help the university to better serve Spartan Nation. Seriously, I’m not just saying that! Get a hold of me!

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Dave Isbell is the Assistant Director of Alumni Professional Enrichment in the MSU Alumni Association and is also the owner, primary writer, and editor of this blog and corresponding twitter account. His primary role in the MSUAA is to develop resources and manage projects that professionally enrich the lives of Spartan alumni. Dave is not able to accept individual appointments, but in developing programs and projects he does draw from his training as a Limited Licensed (Clinical) Social Worker and his background as a professional Career Coach since 1999. He can be reached at isbelld@msu.edu. 

The opinions a views expressed throughout this blog are of the writer(s), and may not be the views and opinions of Michigan State University.

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