Career Readiness Minor Prepares Grads to Enter Job Market as Standout Candidates

February 18, 2022 | By Kevin Gray

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TAGS: best practices, branding and marketing, career development, competencies, nace insights, operations,

Last fall, Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) integrated career readiness within the curriculum in a new way as it began offering its Interdisciplinary Career Readiness Skills (ICS) minor, an 18-credit pathway for students to develop today’s most highly sought-after job skills. The program is based on the NACE Career Readiness Competencies.

“VCU offers courses and resources across campus that help students develop the skills necessary for career success,” explains Dr. Zachary Hilpert, director of Interdisciplinary Studies, University College, VCU.

“The ICS minor incorporates those opportunities into a transcript credential in the form of a minor. There is also a vital reflective element; students enrolled in the ICS minor cap off the experience with an ePortfolio course during which they can reflect on what they’ve learned and prepare to demonstrate their career preparedness to potential employers.”

The minor’s 18 credits include nine upper-level credits and requires three credits each in:

  • Critical thinking/problem solving;
  • Digital technology;
  • Global and intercultural fluency;
  • Oral and written communications; and
  • Teamwork/collaboration/leadership.

To complete the requirements of the professionalism/career management category, a student must successfully complete UNIV 450: Career Readiness Synthesis—a capstone synthesizing course for the minor—and two additional credits.

In some of the minor categories, students may substitute an internship, co-op, undergraduate research, study abroad, or other relevant, credit-bearing experience for the required three credits. Every undergraduate student at VCU is eligible to sign up for the minor; the curriculum can be easily integrated and serve as a complement to almost any major.

The Interdisciplinary Studies Program, which is based in the VCU University College, administers and advises students in the minor, and offers the capstone ePortfolio course.

Dr. Constance Relihan, dean of VCU’s University College, conceived the ICS minor as a way for VCU students to get an advantage in their job hunts by developing each of the NACE Career Readiness Competencies.

“Getting it put together and approved was really a university-wide effort,” Dr. Hilpert adds.

“Samara Reynolds and the VCU Career Services team, along with Dr. Inta ‘Maggie’ Tolan, senior associate vice president of student success, provided critical advice and guidance during the development process. The classes are drawn from every school and college at VCU.”

Dr. Relihan proposed the minor in the spring of 2020 and began reaching out to campus partners about their willingness to be involved.

“There was a great deal of support all over campus for the initiative,” Dr. Hilpert says.

“VCU Career Services, University College, and the Interdisciplinary Studies Program collaborated to develop the course list to fulfill the idea of creating a minor that built directly off the NACE competencies. Once the course list had been finalized and the ePortfolio capstone course built out, the minor was put before our school’s University Undergraduate Curriculum Committee, which approved the initiative unanimously in December 2020. The minor debuted this past fall.”

Reynolds, director of career services at VCU, says that integrating career readiness within the curriculum as the ICS minor is a crucial step to help ensure students are prepared for the transition to the workforce and helps alleviate some of the issues with traditional approaches to it.

“For many reasons, students often can’t participate in optional, supplementary professional development experiences,” she says.

“At VCU, many of our students are working one or more jobs and balancing home and family responsibilities while taking classes, so even if they like the idea of learning about and building skills in career readiness, if it is something they have to make time for beyond their academic and personal commitments, it likely won’t happen. Creating a home in the curriculum for career readiness allows students to integrate this important skill-building and articulation into their current studies with the support of instructors, advisers, and peers.”

This integration is happening in other ways at VCU, Reynolds says, stressing that each effort shows a commitment to professional skill development that is validated for both the students and faculty/staff involved, whether it is:

  • Infusing career readiness skills and concepts into preexisting course modules, like VCU Career Services is doing with the VCU Department of Psychology;
  • Teaching specific for-credit career development courses as electives, like the first-year UNIV Student Success course offerings, or program requirements, such as those within VCU’s School of Business and College of Engineering; or
  • Designing full academic minors with this focus like in the VCU University College and Interdisciplinary Studies Program.

As Reynolds noted, one of the benefits of the ICS minor is that it allows students to fulfill the 18-credit minor via a number of designated courses they may already be scheduled to take or are interested in via their primary majors, core/general education requirements, or other electives.

“This emphasizes the idea that students don’t have to start from scratch or delay their progress to graduation to build career readiness skills; they are already on their way, but may just need support in connecting classroom-based learning/outcomes with the tangible needs of the working world,” Reynolds points out.

“The ICS minor approaches this work with accessibility, self-efficacy, and integrated learning in mind, bridging equity gaps and promoting a campus culture of creativity, critical thinking, and intentional career and self-development.”

She explains that when the VCU Career Services team set its 2019-2022 strategic plan, the number one goal was to “infuse career and professional development into the campus culture.”

“Meeting this goal has involved creating and deepening meaningful partnerships with campus colleagues and academic departments, and finding ways to scale career development and support for a campus of 30,000 students beyond our staff of 11 professional career advisers,” Reynolds says.

Having the ICS minor in place also amplifies the campus conversation—with students, faculty and staff, parents and families, alumni, and external partners—about their shared responsibility to understand and promote career readiness and the building of related skills.

Reynolds anticipates that having the ICS minor will enhance the career services office’s ability to promote career readiness through its programs, services, presentations, and events.

Reynolds notes that students and faculty are now hearing about career readiness in departments and course sections across campus, as there are courses from a diverse set of disciplines that can count toward the ICS minor. As a result, she hopes that “it will be that much easier for the VCU Career Services team to interest students in our programs and services, to bring career readiness up in our own classroom presentations, to champion experiential learning, and to engage with college deans, department chairs, and faculty on the importance of this concept for all students.”

This is critical, she adds, because focusing on career readiness during college allows students to hone the essential qualities and skills that employers across industries want and need in new hires.

“This type of skill building will serve college students for years to come as contributors, innovators, and leaders in organizations of all kinds,” Reynolds explains.

“Perhaps even more important than intentionally developing these skills—which students are doing all the time and in myriad life roles—is students knowing and internalizing the specific language of the NACE Career Readiness Competencies.”

Reynolds says that, for example, understanding the concepts of career readiness provides students with wording and context to use effectively when:

  • Writing resumes and cover letters;
  • Engaging in networking;
  • Answering interview questions; and
  • Advocating for themselves during the offer process and in workplace environments.

“This knowledge allows them to speak the language of their prospective employers and feel more confident in professional situations,” Reynolds says.

“Being able to articulate how their unique experiences in the classroom, co-curricular settings, and jobs and internships have set them up to contribute immediately and impactfully will empower students to succeed as they transition from college to career.”

She offers several suggestions for others in career services looking to integrate career readiness competency development within their institution’s curriculum.

“An effective strategy we have employed in recent work with the College of Humanities and Sciences here at VCU, and that is also evident in the way the ICS minor through University College is structured, is to make the concept of career readiness more accessible and applicable to what departments are already doing and the courses they already offer,” she says.

“By helping academic departments review their core and elective courses specifically through the lens of career readiness competencies—with the goal of putting each into categories or a visual chart for reference—they will likely be pleasantly surprised to find a great deal of alignment between what students are learning in the classroom—demonstrated through course descriptions and syllabi—and the skills they want and need to develop as future professionals and leaders in their field.”

Another best practice at VCU is its unique and functional Major Maps website, which infuses career readiness language and concepts in a year-by-year planning tool customized to each and every undergraduate major and academic pathway at VCU.

“We work directly with academic advisers and faculty leaders in each department to update and refine Major Maps content each year,” Reynolds says.

“This ensures timeliness and applicability as students pursue their academic goals and become well-rounded candidates for future internships, jobs, graduate/professional programs, and more.”

Preparing students for entry into the workforce and giving them key skills to use throughout their careers have become top priorities at VCU.

“We want to help our students achieve career success after graduation, and it is our belief that the ICS minor sets VCU students up for just that,” Dr. Hilpert says.

“We are certain that by using NACE’s Career Readiness Competencies as the core framework of this minor, the minor will allow our graduates to enter the job market as standout candidates.”