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  • Addressing the Career Readiness of Nontraditional Students

    February 24, 2016 | By NACE Staff

    Best Practices
    A nontraditional student meets with a young professor.

    TAGS: career readiness, spotlight

    Spotlight for Career Services Professionals

    When it comes to the career readiness of nontraditional students, there are several challenges career services offices face, and considerations and steps they can take to overcome these obstacles.

    The needs of nontraditional students vary based on their experience level, socio-economic status, and other factors, says Melody Kruzic, senior career counselor at Capella University's career center.

    "Some of our students have extensive work experience and have had multiple professional role models, while others are first-generation college students," Kruzic notes. "The latter may have few, if any, professional role models and, in some cases, limited or no experience working in career-oriented jobs. If a student has never seen career readiness skills demonstrated, they may not know what those 'look like' and are therefore unable to emulate them."

    In addition, they may have limited knowledge about career management, having seen few others manage their careers or provide mentorship.

    "On the other hand," Kruzic continues, "many nontraditional students may have life experiences that have helped them build career readiness skills. Equipping them with the tools and strategies to identify the skills they possess and articulate them to employers is important as well."

    Challenges for working with this group, she explains, include finding a standardized assessment that is valid, reliable, and appropriate for students of all ages, socioeconomic status, race, and more, and then convincing the students who need the most assistance to work toward developing their career readiness skills.

    "Many of these students are juggling full-time jobs, family, and community responsibilities, so tackling anything beyond the required program coursework is very challenging," Kruzic says. "Since we have students with a variety of experience levels, accurate assessment is extremely important to ensure we can customize skill development and resources to meet individual needs."

    One way Capella University is working to develop the career readiness of its students is by developing a tool that educates students on the importance of connecting what they are learning in their programs to their career.

    "Career readiness competencies are a key component of this," Kruzic says. "Teaching students how to engage in this process hopefully will help them recognize the advantage of demonstrating their learning to employers and the value of soft skills in the workplace."

    Still, she maintains that in higher education institutions, career readiness development needs to be an institution-wide goal.

    "Students may not understand what career readiness is, recognize the need to develop these skills, or realize the benefit of them well enough to add these tasks to an already full schedule," she says. "It is therefore crucial that career services offices show the value of career readiness skill acquisition, and integrate specific skill development and awareness into the curriculum. Collaborating with faculty and administrative leadership is vital because this can't be the job of career services alone."

    Including career readiness competencies within course objectives requires that faculty and administrative leadership understand the value of these skills and incorporating career-specific—instead of solely field-specific—competencies into the curriculum.

    Another area of concern with nontraditional students is managing their expectations. For example, Kruzic says they commonly expect that a degree alone will guarantee them a professional job without understanding that other professional development efforts may be needed, such as gaining hands-on experience outside of school.

    "Perhaps unique to nontraditional students is the number of responsibilities they have outside of school," she says. "Having multiple outside obligations reduces the students' ability to attend extra workshops or engage in supplemental activities meant to help them develop career readiness. As a result, it is imperative to integrate career competency development into the curriculum."

    Kruzic says career centers need to meet students' needs where they are and when it is convenient for them. The effort to boost the career readiness of nontraditional students can include steps such as:

    • Leveraging technology to better scale resources and provide a "self-service" career center environment—Providing resources and services online through self-service web content extends access and allows counselors to share their expertise and guidance with a greater number of people in an efficient format. Encouraging use of self-service resources that cover the basics prior to meeting with a counselor allows for a deeper conversation. Encouraging self-service more efficiently uses the time of the career services staff and the student.
    • Breaking content into smaller modules—Another necessity when working with busy nontraditional students is modularizing content so students can access "chunks of information" that they need when they need it. Transitioning from hour-long webinars to shorter tutorials and YouTube videos is a demonstration of this concept.
    • Applying an educational approach to career counseling—This can be done, for example, by teaching concepts such as effective job search strategies that empower students to manage their careers throughout their lives.
    • Partnering with other members of the institution so they are all invested in the career success of the students—It isn't a job that can be done alone by the career center and everyone has a vested interest. This includes focusing on career readiness throughout the entire student experience, which will increase student career success.

    Kruzic stresses that because of the unique needs of nontraditional students, it is important to make their career readiness a key focus across the institution to maximize the effectiveness of the effort.

    "Partnering with other members of the institution so they are all invested in the career success of the students is crucial," she says. "It isn't a job that can be done alone by the career center and everyone has a vested interest. This includes focusing on career readiness throughout the entire student experience, which will increase student career success."