Career Ready at La Trobe

I hate those blog posts where the author apologises for not updating their blog in a while. So I’m not going to do one.

I’ve been working. Reading, writing. Riding my bike. Work got intense for a time which means my doctoral studies were sidelined and my exercise habit got disrupted somewhat.

CAreer REady

It’s exciting times for the La Trobe University Careers and Employability service. We’re now called Career Ready, which is the brand of a large initiative on the part of the university, which has included:

  • a major expansion of our team, from around five to more than 15 staff.
  • the development of the Career Ready Capability Framework, which represents the language we’ll use around employability.
  • The Career Ready Advantage scheme which rewards students for learning or life activities that improve their employability
  • An app which gamifies the Career Ready framework and constitutes a kind of reflective portfolio.
  • A curricular framework which we will use in our work with academic course.
  • The renovation of a student consulting space, at the heart of the campus.
  • A lot more besides, the topics of other posts

It’s a little weird to be honest, because we’re the belles of the ball at the moment, which is not normal for university careers practitioners. It is offering up a lot of great opportunities for research related to my doctoral studies (or not so related, but still interesting and purposeful). Again, the topics of other posts.

 

 

Resume professional summaries have more impact than objective statements

Summaries

 

Any time that I see the heading “objective” on a student’s resume, I know that what follows is going to be dull, clichéd generic, overwritten, and totally without substance. Something like this:

OBJECTIVE: Obtain a challenging leadership position applying creative problem solving and lean management skills with a growing company to achieve optimum utilization of its resources and maximum profits.

The word utilization alone, instead of use, is enough to make me stop reading.

When I started working as a careers consultant, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to write a strong objective statement.couldn’t find anything that helped clarify it for me, let alone my students, so I started improving students’ resumes by telling them to ditch the objective statement. It worked, to a point. But there was something lacking: a concise introduction which could highlight the students’ key strengths. 

I had seen a few articles that declared that the objective statement dead, killed by cliché. In its place, they recommended a professional summary, which has become a cornerstone of my resume advice.

I tell students this:

In your professional summary, state in plain English how you meet the most important selection criteria for the job. Write the summary as if it were the only information you could give the employer.

That’s it. They’re often skeptical about the plain English part, having been conditioned to prioritise over-blown business writing. But it works. Someone who is reviewing resumes needs to be able to treat the resume like a check-list of selection criteria. Listing the key ones at the top of the first page of the resume, in the “golden zone”, makes it as easy as possible for them to do.

Here’s an example from my own resume:

  • Three years of experience as a university career consultant and more than 10 years of experience in tertiary education and support services
  • Graduate Certificate in Career Education and Development, Post Graduate Certificate in Education, and Bachelor with Honours in History, all to a high standard
  • Skilled in the development and delivery of innovative career education programs and resources, particularly using online, blended, and social learning approaches

Here’s another good example of how a summary has more impact than an objective, and here’s a strong and simple lesson that compares different kinds of introduction statements. And

Lesson plan: helping students contextualise employability skills

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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.

Introduction and resume prepAsk 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.

The problem with employability skills in career education

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Designed by Freepik

If you agree that students need to take a closer look at employability skills, try out my lesson plan for teaching students to contextualise their skills on resumes and in interviews. 

“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:

Communication
Teamwork
Problem solving
Self management
Initiative
Time management
Planning and organising
Technology

 

 

 

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.

 

The tricky question of ethnicity and nationality on resumes

Australia_Entry_Stamp_HensleyIn 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.

But one thing I’m struggling with is how I talk about ethnicity and nationality with my students, particularly when it comes to their resumes. I know that Australian employers can be reluctant to hire international students and that prejudicial hiring practices are a significant barrier for non-Anglo job seekers. I feel that I need to address it in my consultations, but I fear that in doing so I contribute to the marginalisation of these students.

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?

 

IEAA International Employability Symposium

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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.