From Transaction to Engagement in Career Services
With more than 25 years in higher education administration, James Chang, the University of Oregon Alumni Association’s Director of the Duck Career Network, has been an active contributor to the evolution of Career Services and Alumni Relations. Now, James believes, it’s time for universities to take another step forward in the way they engage with students and alumni. It’s time to move from transactional exchanges to relational engagement in Career Services.
In a presentation on the shift from a career networking focus to a career services focus at the Portland Research Institution Summit in July 2018, James shared several tactical programs and strategies his team at the University of Oregon is deploying to better serve their student and alumni populations.
The “Before”: Transaction in Career Services
The “Before” model of Career Services was highly translational. A student goes to the Career Center for a resume review. Once they finalize their resume (or satisfied whatever other need would bring them to the Career Center), the transaction is complete. The end. Or, an alum was recently laid off and is requesting urgent career advising. Once that person lands the next job, they job interacting with the university.
It was a transactional exchange from the schools’ perspective, too. A college might organize a tailgate or other “spirit” event with the expectation that alums show up (and with the promise of free food and beverage!). The challenge with this approach is twofold:
- There is no one size fits all solution to alumni or career events. Different populations have different needs. You won’t be able to engage all of your alums with a tailgate. That shouldn’t mean there’s no place for alums who don’t care for sports to engage with you.
- Transactional exchanges are difficult to scale because of limited staff time and budget resources.
The “After”: Engagement in Career Services
James’ goal in transforming the Duck Career Network was to make his office a hub: by activating the entire University of Oregon network, group can support each other with far better coaching, connections, and advice than his office ever could. This perspective shift was the impetus behind “Ducks Helping Ducks”, a campaign, slogan, and also general perspective towards Career Services.
When first launching the campaign, James’ team wanted to distinguish between stakeholders who wanted to help vs. stakeholders who wanted help. The UO Alumni Association established two primary goals: Diversify programming and engage alumni irrespective of location. To do so, he partnered closely with UO’s Career Center to introduce several new initiatives:
- Ducks Helping Ducks Spring Break Trip
Seattle and San Francisco are home to the greatest number of Oregon alums outside of the state, so James’ team now leads a spring break excursion to these hubs to give students a chance to visit and connect with alumni at their place of work. The three-day trips are short enough for students to be willing to invest their time, and they also provide an opportunity for students to visit many different types of companies and industries in a no-commitment capacity. As the University begins to think about how they can demonstrate what an engaged alum looks like to current students, this program has become a highlight for the Alumni Association.
- LinkedIn Webinar
While the UO Career Center hosts workshops to teach students how to create their LinkedIn profiles, James noticed a gap in how they were serving both students and alumni: They weren’t teaching them what to do once they were actually on the network. Now, James hosts a quarterly LinkedIn webinar that covers topics such as search tips, how to understand someone’s career path based on their LinkedIn, and other navigation strategies. The virtual format allowed both on-campus students and alums across the world to participate.
- #Adulting Video Learning Series
The #Adulting series is James’ most creative new program. In the Alumni Association’s words, “#Adulting brings a lot of new challenges for new grads. From interview prep to paying back student loans, it seems like there are a million things you need to learn to make it out in the post-college world. The UOAA is here to help you learn all the skills you need to #adult with this monthly online series, with advice on all your career prep and life needs from experts and Duck alumni.” Aimed at recent grads, the UOAA asked alumni of the last decade to film a ~6 minute video, so the alums are actually creating the presentation content. Topics include retirement planning, personal branding, interview prep, and starting in a new city, to name a few. James’ team sends emails 12 months before and after graduation promoting this series. It’s one way they provide value before requesting value ($$$). While it’s early, initial engagement results from the learning series have been positive.
Measuring Success of Engagement Initiatives
One of the biggest challenges in Career Services and Alumni Relations is measuring the success of your programming. In the old model, where interactions were transactional, it was simple to say, “Success for our team means meeting with X number of students per week” or some other hard data point. In the relational engagement model, the question becomes, “How do we measure not just the quantity of interactions, but also the quality of the engagement?” After all, relationships are much harder to quantify and evaluate.
James’ team continues to track standard metrics such as % of emails opened / clicked out of total emails sent and % of event attendees out of total registered. Like many other schools in attendance at the Portland Research Institution Summit, low feedback survey response rates continue to be a struggle. Boise State University’s Lisa Gardner noted that when her team started printing feedback surveys and requesting alums complete them before leaving an event, they received significantly more responses than when they sent a survey link via follow-up email, giving the team much more comprehensive data to use when planning future events.
For many schools, the code on alumni engagement scoring hasn’t quite been cracked yet. As with any disruption, the perspective switch is demanding a change in the way Career Services and Alumni Relations teams look to measure the impact of their work on engagement and even financial giving. James’ biggest takeaway? Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.