Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
The University of South Carolina (UofSC) recently issued a “return to work” memo, which begins to outline guidelines for future operations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Helen Powers says that while the university will be “back” this fall, she cautions it does not mean that things will be “back to normal.”
“I seriously doubt that we will ever get back to our pre-COVID-19 world,” notes Powers, director of the UofSC career center.
Will you be returning to the office for the fall semester?
Share your information with your professional community through Spotlight. Contact Kevin Gray.
“Moving forward, we will be creating a new modus operandi to include physical distancing, space sanitizing, avid handwashing, wearing face coverings, and more.”
The planning for fall includes a return to virtual. The modeling that the university is using projects a potential spike in cases of COVID-19 at the beginning of December. To account for this, UofSC has cancelled its fall break and will shift to all online classes following the Thanksgiving break.
Thus far, the career center has not made many concrete decisions about the fall.
“Largely, we have been spending a lot of time collecting information, which will ultimately assist us in making decisions down the road,” Powers explains.
“We have leanings about some of our fall decisions, but do not have finalized plans at this point. We are going to continue to evaluate the circumstances to determine what is best.”
The work toward planning includes reading reports and projections, and participating in professional webinars to stay abreast of the ever-changing landscape, latest guidelines, and future predictions.
The UofSC career center has also been:
- Conducting demos and evaluating product features on various virtual event platforms;
- Developing and launching a survey to evaluate its recruiter’s needs;
- Connecting with campus partners that also engage in varying degrees of career-related work to create greater consistency in its practices for fall; and
- Assessing potential future budgetary implications.
After receiving the university’s “return to work” memo, Powers surveyed her staff to identify issues that the university had not addressed yet and/or questions that need to be answered based on the guidelines.
“As one might imagine, a university planning document has to remain at the 30,000-foot-level; my team is on the ground, so I’ve asked them to help me identify topics we need to address as an office and questions that we may need to push back up to upper administration for consideration,” she notes.
“This is the time when we all need to be active participants and work to create solutions to complicated problems.”
The UofSC career center is in the early stages of discussing fall plans around student services, office staffing, recruiting, and recruiting events.
“With our recruiting events, we are going to have to determine whether there are any events that could happen in person with all the restrictions around physical distancing and group sizes,” Powers says.
“We are being asked to determine needs around [personal protective equipment] and trying to determine needs for things like Plexiglas barriers at places such as our front desk.”
She explains that supervisors across the institution are encouraged to consider the needs of their team.
“As a result,” Powers says, “I fully anticipate I will continue to have some staff working remotely throughout the fall semester. I also expect that we will continue to offer many of our services in the virtual space. We still have operational decisions that need to be made for fall, but regardless of how services are delivered, I’m confident in my team’s ability to execute our mission.”
Powers started in her current role on May 1, 2019. Ironically, she and her team spent much of their year together thinking about how they needed to evolve their work to better scale services and create access for all students.
“We have known for quite a while that technology and virtual capabilities would be necessary components to our evolution,” Powers says.
“As a result, I invested in mobile technology for my employees and we created an ad hoc group to develop expertise around Office 365 and the various apps it offered, including Teams. My group had also been playing with various alternative work schedules because we knew this could allow for more flexible work hours, leading to better availability to our students. While COVID-19 has been a tragic, life-altering phenomenon, it ironically has propelled my group forward even faster in their skill development and adoption of new work practices.”
The UofSC career center team was intending to use summer as a time to reflect on the previous year and then use that reflection to assist it in planning for the fall semester.
“Fortunately, I have a pretty nimble group and we have been able to pivot quickly in these more complicated times,” Powers says.
“Given that our university is making decisions about the fall in May, and not in July, we should be able to adjust and adapt relatively easily. Don’t get me wrong, we have a lot of work to do; but with time to plan, we’ll be ready for fall.”
She notes that the UofSC career center staff are evaluating everything they do. Staff are constantly determining what will remain the same and what will have to change, a process that career center staff members were already undertaking before COVID-19 because the center is seeking to evolve its services and create greater access for its students. This work includes investigating accommodations it might need to offer as it changes the way it operates.
“Fortunately,” Powers says, “things like Teams will allow for recording material and using closed captioning, but, for example, we realized that those who have hearing loss and depend on lip reading may need us to wear clear face coverings.”
Career center staff have reached out to the university’s Student Disability Resource Center to learn more about other potential accommodations it should consider moving forward.
“The goal is to create more access for our students and clients, not less, so the better educated we are as an office, the more thoughtful we can be in serving others,” Powers notes. “In the post-COVID-19 world, however, we’re not just thinking about how to help our students achieve their goals and dreams, we are now having to think about the literal physical health and safety of everyone, including our students, our recruiters, our faculty, our staff, and ourselves,” Powers says.
“That’s a pretty hefty responsibility.”
She says that, given all the health and safety precautions that will be necessary, it may not be possible to offer some services, such as the office’s career studio space, which is intended to offer group coaching and peer support.
“With guidelines around physical distancing and the number of people who can be allowed within a certain square footage area, I do not think we will be able to offer any in-person, drop-in services,” she continues.
“I feel confident that kind of support will have to remain virtual. I fully expect that our virtual services will continue to expand and evolve, though. Virtual services make a lot of sense for so many reasons.”
For example, Powers says that, in the past, a student may have had 15 minutes between classes, but that time was lost because there was not enough time to walk from the classroom building to the career center for help.
“With virtual services,” Powers says, “that student can access us remotely and take advantage of those 15 minutes. In addition, if we offer more of our recruiting events virtually, the single-parent student is now more likely to be able to attend, the student who commutes to campus has fewer barriers, and more. Indeed, the virtual world may begin to create greater access to all of our services. The one caveat is that we will need to be sensitive to students who may not have internet access or technology at home.”
Student engagement in the virtual space is also a key concern. Powers says that the career center has many valuable partnerships to leverage across campus. Organizationally, the career center is actively working on embedding career services throughout the institution.
“Prior to COVID-19, our office was very aware that we do not ‘own’ career development or career services at UofSC,” she explains.
“Thus, we were very aware and already seeking avenues to strategically embed our work throughout the academic career of a student. We know that the way to accomplish this will be through campus collaboration and partnership. We are going to continue pursuing that goal.”
The UofSC career center hired a new position that will focus on student employment and will be seeking ways to involve campus supervisors in meaningful learning and self-reflection with students. Staff are also working with the University 101 program and academic advising team to introduce the SuperStrong assessment to students early on in their academic experience and continuing to expand the career center’s Career Champion program.
While much of its training has been converted to virtual learning platforms, Powers says one key element of the office is missing.
“The longer we have worked remotely, the more I realized how valuable in-person interactions were in terms of helping me make sure I had a pulse check on the health of my organization and the people who are in it,” she explains.
“Since you miss those ‘water cooler’ moments with staff, I now offer 15-minute coffee chats with all of my team members. These conversations are not work focused; they are focused on the relationships and rapport that is so critical in leadership.”
Powers also realized that those pop-ins at her office door asking, “Do you have a minute?” were also missing.
“You can learn a lot in those quick chats, so I also started offering standing ‘office hours’ every day,” she says.
“This is time when staff know I am always available to them. Not too many people have used the office hours yet, but just offering them has made me more accessible as a leader.”
As the UofSC career center begins planning for the fall—and considering and implementing all of the changes that will be necessary amid the coronavirus pandemic—some aspects of the center’s operations persist.
“I knew this before COVID-19, but I think with all that has happened, this has really become more concrete for me,” Powers says.
“Many of our organizational goals are not changing—greater access to students, scalable services, career ecosystem, organizational health, and more—but the tactics and strategies to accomplish our goals must evolve or we will cease to be effective or worthwhile.”