One of the first things I ever published as a career consultant was this article for the RMIT Vietnam student magazine, Blitz Magazine. The editors had approached the Career Centre asking us to provide an article, and I volunteered.
Around that time I had been sharing a lot of my own experiences with my classes, particularly the times when I have made decisions that seemed a little risky at the time, but which worked out amazingly well:
Dropping out of uni when I realised that I lacked ambition and motivation
Giving up the chance of an important scholarship to go chase a girl in a foreign country
Leaving a job that I enjoyed and was good at to go into an area I didn’t know much about
I had been reading about John Krumboltz’s theory of Planned Happenstance at the time and wanted to share the idea that career planning involves a lot of uncertainty, luck, and randomness, but also that there were several things you could do to orient yourself and make sound decisions.
I decided to write the following article, framing three major turning points in my life as “mistakes” where I made the decision that, on the face of it, was the riskiest. Some of my colleagues were worried that our students wouldn’t get the joke, but I was confident that I could get my point across without too much confusion.
I had a good response from my students, with a few emailing me to make a comment or ask a question. I also got quite a few concerned questions asking me how my wife felt about being labelled a “mistake”. Luckily, in this case, I was wise enough to run it past her first.
Unfortunately I no longer have the text of the article and you can’t copy and paste from the online magazine, so here some screen captures of the article as it appeared in the magazine.
In my previous post, “the Problem with Employability Skills in Career Education”, I explained why I’m dissatisfied with the way students are introduced to the concept of employability skills. In this post, I’ll share an engaging and effective lesson plan that I have used to help students understand the importance of employability skills in the context of their own professional field.
I created this lesson as part of Career Passport, a three-stage career education program that I developed for RMIT Vietnam, and have continued to use the basic idea at La Trobe University. Rather than share the step-by-step lesson plan, I’ll describe the key activities and principles in broad detail, to allow you to adapt the lesson to your own context and the needs of your students. This lesson is easily adapted for face-to-face, blended, or online delivery.
Stage one: warming up and activating key vocabulary
Learning outcome: students activate their prior knowledge of employability skills
Ask the students to form groups and together list as many universal employability skills as possible. This can either be a recall exercise, if they’ve been provided with a list of employability skills already, or a prediction exercise if they haven’t. In a classroom, they can record their answers on paper or on the whiteboard. Online, they can edit wikis or list their answers in a discussion board.
Stage two: the set up
Learning outcome: students recognise the importance of context in employability skills
Display a mock resume which simply lists skills with little or no context.
Ask the students how effectively they think the resume demonstrates the capabilities of the candidate. Give them plenty of time to debate and discuss and perhaps poll their opinions to see if there’s a consensus or if they disagree.
Some students will recognise the weakness of the resume. Others may think it’s fine. That’s good for us as the teacher, because we can capture their attention when we tell them that actually, this resume is awful.
Elicit the reason why from the students by asking about the nature of the communication or teamwork skills and experience of this person. When students can’t answer, they’ll begin to understand the point. But to really drive the point home in a fun way, move on to stage three…
Stage three: the fun bit
Learning outcomes: students can deconstruct specific demonstrations of a skill, identifying key sub-skills and qualities
Tell the students that they’ll see a couple of videos of people using their communication skills in their workplace. Ask the students to take notes as they watch:
what is their job title?
what is their mission or purpose?
what personal characteristics are important?
what sub-skills are they using?
You can include any number of videos: cheesy telesales presenters, 911 operators, sports coaches… the more unique the better. My students especially love the drill sergeant and we have fun discussing how he would perform as a kindergarten teacher.
When the students review and compare their notes, they should be able to see clearly how important context and specificity is when it comes to talking about their employability skill.
Extension activity one: resume writing
Learning outcome: students can write a resume experience description with suitable context and clarity
Get the students to choose one of the videos and then, in groups, write a resume experience description for that person’s role. Help them find ways to quantify, qualify, and contextualise their descriptions and remind them to use a range of expressive action verbs. This would be a great time to teach students Google HR bigwig Laslo Block’s formula for expressing achievements.
Extension activity two: STARL structure for interviews or key selection criteria
Learning outcome: students can deliver an interview response using the STARL structure.
If your students are familiar with the STARL structure for behavioural interview responses, they could have fun practising in the role of the occupations from the video. I’ve had whole classes in stitches as we role play behavioural interviews for drill sergeants, used-car salesmen, or carnival touts.
Tell me how it goes
If you use this lesson, either as I describe it or in some inspired form of your own, I’d love to hear about it. Leave a comment and tell me how it went for you and your students.
“Employability skills” are a bit of a buzzword in career education. They’re typically defined as the skills that are needed in all professions, regardless of industry or specific context. There are dozens of lists of employability skills out there, but they all cite similar skills as being fundamental requirements in all workplaces:
Planning and organising
They’re a very useful concept, as they remind students that employability is more than just their degree and their technical proficiency. The problem is when they’re presented like this, as a list of words without a lot of context. Students then dutifully list them on their resume, not realising that without context they are meaningless.
Take “communication skills” for example. In and of itself, it’s a meaningless phrase. Almost everyone can communicate. Newborn babies can communicate, as can household pets. Bill the postcard vendor from Saigon was an engaging communicator, but I wouldn’t want him writing my research proposals. James Joyce was a genius with creative prose, but I wouldn’t put him in charge of my social media marketing.
Some employability skills resources are better than others, in that they do break down the skills into more specific actions and contexts (see this one from the University of Sydney for example). But when it comes to career education I strongly believe that any discussion of employability skills must come with some serious time given to deconstructing and contextualising employability skills, to ensure that students are attentive to the specific requirements of their professional field.
In my next post, I will share a lesson plan for an employability skills activity that I’ve had great success with, both in class and as a blended or wholly online activity. It’s a lot of fun for students and educators alike and does a great job bringing the idea of contextualising and defining employability skills home.
One of the great challenges of being a career development educator is the pressure you’re under when you apply for a job. You’re applying for a job giving advice to others about their resume and interview skills, so the pressure is on to deliver a very high quality application yourself. I thought it might be fun to share a story of when I screwed it all up.
At the time there were quite a few opportunities popping up and so I was revising and sending my application documents quite often. My resume didn’t require a lot of changes, but each Key Selection Criteria statement had to be written individually. For one application, I spent my weekend preparing my documents and submitted them with confidence the day before the deadline. The next morning I got an email from the line manager for the position:
It looks like you’ve attached your cover letter twice and there is no Key Selection Criteria statement.
My heart sank. How many times had I harangued my students about checking and double checking their applications? Here I was, making such a basic mistake. I replied immediately with the correct documents attached and made a self-deprecating joke about the irony of a career consultant making a mistake like this. I hoped that my frankness and good humour would reflect well. Straight away, there was another email:
Thanks Michael, but it looks like that this KSC statement is for a different job.
My heart sank again, deeper. I checked, and it was true. I had sent the statement for a job I had applied to at a different university a week before, with quite different duties and very different criteria. I was sure that by now they’d drawn a line through my name on their candidate list because of my incompetence. Nonetheless, I sent off the correct documents, double and triple checking them this time.
A week later, I was surprised to receive an email inviting me to have an interview. I thought they must either be very understanding or very desperate, but I wasn’t going to question it. In a strange way it actually boosted my confidence. I accepted their invitation and promised myself that I would ace the interview to make up for my mistakes with the initial application. I started by reviewing the position description, but I was stopped immediately by something at the top of the first page in the “Employment Conditions” section:
Salary: $XX,000, 0.4 FTE
0.4 full time equivalent, meaning 16 hours a week. Two days a week. The job was part-time, making it totally unsuitable for me. I had seen the salary dollar amount, of course, but somehow I had never registered the other part. I would never have applied had I realised this. So, the day before my interview I had to email the manager who had forgiven my two previous errors and cancel my interview. This time I was too self-conscious to admit to my error and just said that my circumstances have changed.
My subsequent applications were much better, of course, and not long after this I was employed by La Trobe University in Melbourne. I’m still a little embarrassed by my mistakes but I do enjoy telling the story now.
In my role as careers consultant at La Trobe university, I enjoy the diversity of students that I work with. It was a challenge after working at relatively homogeneous RMIT Vietnam, but a refreshing one. I enjoy being amongst a wide range of nationalities, backgrounds, perspectives, goals, languages and cultures.
I feel uncomfortable when asking the question “what is your visa status?” I dislike the idea that I am signalling to the student that I see them as a foreigner and expect others to as well. They may have a “foreign” name, a “foreign” accent, “foreign” schools or jobs on their resumes… yet they could be a citizen of Australia, which is more than I can say. Some of my students were born here, yet because of their name, religion, or accent, may be viewed as foreign by employers and thus placed at a disadvantage. I have also noticed that I tend to assume that students with Greek or Italian names are true blue Aussies, due to the way these nationalities have become part of the social fabric of Melbourne, whereas an Asian or Indian name will raise the question of nationality and foreignness in my mind.
More than once I have asked lazily “are you an international student?”, and felt sheepish when I’m told “I’m a citizen”. More than once I have had Australian born students ask me if they should use their actual name or an English nickname on their resume. Several times I have coached students on how to achieve “culture fit”, often a convenient proxy for discrimination. Far too often I have been totally unable to suggest any useful advise to a highly employable student who has received zero interest from employers. In these cases, even my expressions of sympathy feel hollow and condescending.
My solution for some students is to address the hidden work rights question up front, by listing their citizenship or visa status at the very top of the resume, near the contact details. It is contrary to the recommendation of “no personal information” on Australian resumes, but I see it as a necessary compromise in the face of discrimination.
I’m not sure what the answer to my discomfort is. I do believe that it’s an important matter and that my advice can help students achieve their goals, but how can I address it without inadvertently perpetuating an othering experience for these students?
My resume-checking consultations with students often begin with the student telling me “I’ve been sending my resume out to heaps of jobs but have had no replies”. This sentence is loaded with all sorts of danger signals, so before looking at the resume I always take some time to explore what the students’ job search strategies are like.
99% of the time, they’re awful.
It’s telling that the word resume is singular in that sentence. Students are sending out the exact same resume for a wide range of jobs. Leaving aside the fact that job search sites are a poor source of career opportunities, it’s obvious that none of these applications have a well targeted resume. Unfortunately, job search websites such as seek.com encourage this self-defeating behaviour by including an “apply now” button which instantly sends off a stored resume.
To try and combat this I put together this short blog post for La Trobe’s Career Ready website: Beware the job application self-destruct button. I enjoy producing career education nuggets like this, because although they focus on one quite specific message, you can load them up with a lot of incidental learning. For example, this post’s message is “don’t use the apply now button”, but the reader is also exposed to important ideas such as targeting resumes, reaching out to employers, and following application instructions.
I’m very interested in microlearning and using social media for career education. Workplace and social learning expert Jane Hart‘s idea of learning flow neatly summarises this approach:
A Learning Flow is a continuous steady stream of social micro-learning activities – accessible from the web and mobile devices
I’m looking forward to exploring and learning more about how I can use learning flow and social learning to improve the career education outcomes of my students. What this space: further study and research ahead.
The image is my own, created in PowerPoint from a free stock photo from Unsplash.com, a public domain mushroom cloud, and a tutorial on creating a comic book format from elearning design guru Tom Kuhlmann. It took longer than it needed to because there was a learning curve involved in getting the odd frame shapes right, but I learned a couple of new functions. It’s a quick and dirty effort, but I think it does the trick.
One of the great challenges I’ve faced in my new job as a career consultant in Melbourne is working with international students. While many of them have a lot to do to improve their employability skills, not to mention their resumes, they seem to be at a real disadvantage when it comes to finding and securing opportunities. At the Big Meet job fair, I was quite shocked to numerous employers had signs on their booths stating: “Australian Citizens and Permanent Residents Only”, despite the fact that international students have the legal right to work in Australia and a lot to offer employers. I struggled to think of what I could do to help my international students in the face of these barriers.
For this reason I joined a couple of hundred of fellow education professionals at the International Education Association of Australia’s International Employability Symposium, here in Melbourne. The goal of the symposium was to look at the barriers international students face when seeking employment in Australia, such as a lack of employability skills and experience; a shortage of opportunities; and general reluctance to employ international graduates.
At the heart of the symposium were drafts of three “good practice guides” – one for students, one for employers, and one for institutions – aimed at improving employability outcomes for international students. The attendees were asked for their feedback, much of which pointed out that booklets would be less effective than more dynamic digital or social media resources.
A highlight of the symposium was hearing from Rob Lawrence, CEO of Prospect Research and expert in international education market research, on the miss-alignment between what employers are looking for and what international students have to offer. Part of this is a lack of employability skills on the part of the students’, but it also involves a lack of awareness of the value of international students on the part of the employers. The findings offered some concrete areas where international students need to improve to be competitive: communication and problem solving, workplace experience, and fitting into the Australian workplace culture.
It was nice to be involved in this discussion and I found myself feeling motivated that I have something I can contribute to this mission. But I couldn’t help but feel that two important stakeholders were missing from the conversation: the employers and the top rungs of university leadership. The symposium participants were all very motivated and had immense expertise that they could bring to bear on the problem, if only they had the resources to do so.
Aside from the symposium proceedings, I also enjoyed my first experience of live-tweeting an event, which to my surprise and slight embarrassment saw my Twitter avatar broadcast on the projector for half the day. As a result of that I got to meet some people working on really interesting projects aligned with my interests, such as Meld Magazine for international students, Refraction Media, which publishes really nice careers guides for STEM fields, and Ready Grad, which produces online and blended career development resources.
A week or two ago I published “Three Easy Ways to Target Your Resume” on the La Trobe Career Ready website. One of the methods, the “Resume Golden Zone” got a particularly good response from my colleagues, both in my office and further afield via social media.
The idea for this came from an eye-tracking study done to see how recruiters read resumes. It showed that resume readers focused more on the left margin and paid less and less attention as they moved down the page. When talking to students about this, I found myself drawing a line on their resume, from the top right corner down to about two-thirds the way down the left margin. The visual impact of the triangle this formed on the page screamed out to me for a quick little e-learning nugget.
For such a short slideshow, the Resume Golden Zone is loaded with several great learning outcomes. The main one is that it helps students understand why the cliche’d objective statement is a waste of prime resume real estate. It illustrates the value of a plain English professional summary, which itself demands that the writer make an effort to prioritise their skills and experience to match the requirements of the job.
The slideshow itself was a very straightforward PowerPoint job, using one of the fantastic free patterns from the Pattern Library project for the background. I’m happy with the result and I’m looking forward to making more nuggets like this.
I really enjoyed this video that wandered across my social media vision the other day.
It captures the precise moment that the singer, Patrick Bruel, realises how much he has made an impact on people.
He’s clearly had plenty of success in his career by this point, to be playing on such a stage. But even so, he’s surprised and overwhelmed to see thousands of people singing his song. It’s an experience that I would imagine few people get to experience. So much of people’s work these days in anonymous and transactional, which is a shame.
Making a impact as teachers
Educators are fortunate in that they get to see the true impact of their work, something that Taylor Mali powerfully captured in his poem “What Teachers Make”. One of the greatest rewards in a teacher’s career comes when they see a student achieve something and know that they played a part – sometimes incidental, sometimes instrumental – in that person’s success. Often, teachers never actually see the results of their influence, as their contribution is realised many years later or in totally different contexts and environments. As an English teacher, for example, my help in learning to write clearly could one day contribute to a student’s workplace promotion, a publication, or a viral blog post. The link may not be immediate or explicit, but there is one.
Making an impact as a career development educator
For me, one of the great things about being a careers educator is the immediacy of this feedback on my work. I may help a student revise a terrible resume into a good one, and later hear from them that they had been invited to a job interview. Or I may help a student articulate their career goals, and later get a Linkedin invitation from them in the role they dreamed of. I’m proud to know that I made a positive difference in their lives and motivated to keep doing what I can to educate and empower my students.
I had never considered career development education as a possible pathway. I barely even knew it existed. But when I took an opportunity to become a career development educator, I immediately knew it was the right decision.
Making the jump to career development education
My discovery happened a couple of years ago at RMIT in Vietnam. I used my experience as an English teacher to land a job as a career development educator in the RMIT career centre. This was mostly out of a desire to get out of English language teaching, which was getting stale for me.
I wasn’t certain that taking the job was the right decision. I’d never been interested in the corporate world. I assumed I had to have a degree of business experience and a corporate mindset to do the job well. I was unsure what I had to offer students who were studying to become accountants, analysts, managers, or marketers.
Like a fish to water
But as soon as I started working with students, I knew that I’d be a great career development educator. I discovered that the job entailed teaching some fundamental skills. I taught students the value of concise writing, by helping them edit their resumes down to one or two powerful pages. I gave them confidence, by showing them how to drive the conversation in a job interview. I helped them articulate their goals and their values and make sound decisions, by asking them a few key questions. My experience as an English teacher was invaluable as I distilled complex ideas into engaging lessons and resources.