Power Skills Aren’t Just for Students

April 18, 2024 | By Michael K. Smullen

Career Development
A career services counselor talking to a student.

TAGS: best practices, career development, member voices, personal devlopment,

Before diving in, I want to offer some background. Trust me, it will make sense.

In my role as director of the undergraduate engineering co-op program at New Jersey Institute of Technology, I conduct dozens of mini-interviews with students each month. Instead of starting by asking about their position of interest, I start with one simple question: “Where do you see yourself five years after graduation?”

It might seem like an obvious question, maybe even a little outdated, but I’ve found it surprisingly effective. Typically, the first response I receive, if I receive any at all, is “I don’t know.” I estimate about 50% answer that way, another 25% find it too tough to even respond, and the final 25% offer a quick response. I’ve even had a few ask me what I would have answered when I was their age.

From there, I follow up by asking each of them to picture themselves doing something they like. Is the activity behind a desk? Out in the field? Managing a team? Crunching numbers? Inventing a new product? From there, we start to make progress.

Underlying these seemingly simple questions is a more subtle one: Have these students thought critically about themselves? Frankly, most have not.

Neither did I, of course. When I was their age, I certainly couldn’t have answered that same question with any confidence. But I should have. I can recall any number of people who offered this simple service to me, and I either didn’t listen or didn’t hear it in a way that meant anything to me. At the end of the day, though, it was my responsibility, and I didn’t do it.

Using my own experience, I try to make sure that I communicate in a way that does get through to students. This means speaking to classes and student groups, reiterating the message in nearly every student appointment, posting about it on social media, embedding it in the job application process, and most importantly, collaborating with other staff and faculty to make sure we’re all broadcasting the same thing.

These are power skills!

Day after day, we tell students that certain skills prepare them effectively for career success. Communication, collaboration, teamwork, emotional intelligence, creativity, critical thinking, adaptability, problem-solving, and all their brethren. We know from countless surveys and white papers and employer feedback sessions that these skills contribute to student success. They are also the very things in which we must demonstrate competency, and which we must master to truly achieve success in our shared mission.

While it might be obvious to many, until recently it wasn’t to me. For much of my career, I viewed myself as a connector for students to achieve success. I connected them to job opportunities, to learning opportunities, to presentations and materials that I knew would help them. But I’ve come to realize that they were learning from me as much as they were learning through me. Realizing that has helped me clarify how I can support them in the ways that matter most.

Now, when I ask them to envision where they will be, I also tell them where I think I’ll be: Right here, learning and growing right along with them.

Headshot of Michael K. Smullen Michael K. Smullen is the director of undergraduate engineering co-op at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

NACE24 Virtual Faculty Attitudes and Behaviors: The Integration of Career Readiness Into the Curriculum NACE's NEW Coaching Certification Program