Willamette University

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The Campaign for Willamette: Celebrating Success

Selling a Liberal Arts Degree

Willamette students and alumni have career-related services coming at them from two directions: the undergraduate Office of Career Services and the Office of Alumni Relations Career Network. The people who lead these two departments, Jerry Houser and Stacey Lane, have a lot to say about the essential elements of a job search these days. Here are several topics to think seriously about.

It isn’t the loftiest way to think about a liberal arts education — the notion of “selling” the undergraduate experience has felt odd to higher education administrators and faculty for years — but it is timely. In order to compete in the job search, Willamette graduates must be able to articulate, specifically and with confidence, the skills they possess as a result of their education. Fortunately, many of these skills are precisely the ones that get people hired.

“Employers want tangibles,” says Jerry Houser, director of career services for undergraduates. “But the notion that a liberal arts degree doesn’t give you any is, quite frankly, long out of date.

In virtually every study I see, the top skills employers seek are actually related to communication: verbal, written, interpersonal and computerbased. Even engineering employers rank communication at the top of the list along with technical skills.”

And that is what liberal arts students do all day long. They wrestle with ideas and learn how to articulate themselves; they learn how to listen, how to solve problems and how to adapt. They work as a team.

According to Stacey Lane, director of the alumni career network, it still takes some work to define the skill set for others to understand. “I see that alumni often value their liberal arts degree more as they move through their careers,” she says. “They see real value in it having experienced its benefits first-hand. They also become more confident talking about it.”

“Employers see the value there, too,” she continues. “If I’m working with younger alumni who have come to the Career Network and are struggling to see how their education applies to a certain professional area, I refer them to other alumni who have seen it work. That’s why we’re always looking for alumni who can share their stories.”


Networking

It is no secret that networking — the art of building up a series of professional contacts — is the single most effective way to land a desirable job. The trouble is that many people don’t really enjoy it.

“But there’s some good news there,” says Lane. “Shaking hands and exchanging business cards is oldschool networking. Today, networking is more like a research project.” It takes investigation into field trends, company histories and the different directions the economy might be leaning at any given time. It takes multitasking.

Houser and Lane can give anyone a list of the programs at Willamette that help with networking. It might start with Speed Networking, an event that introduces upperclassmen to alumni industry volunteers in a creative, speed dating-style environment. Then there are the shared online tools, like JobCat, CareerBeam and The Compass, that help students and alumni find allies and job opportunities. “The career services and alumni offices at Willamette have done more and more collaborating, and this is to students’ benefit,” says Houser.

The system requires help from the outside. “Alumni or parent career advisors are crucial,” says Lane. “Once they sign up, they’ve already helped us. Even if they never get a call from a student or another alumnus seeking their advice, the fact that we know what they’ve done with their degree helps immeasurably. We have something to share with the student who asks us, ‘What on earth can I do with my film studies major?’ We have examples.”


Credentials and Exposure

“For alumni, credentials equal experience, education and exposure,” says Lane. “I talk a lot about this to alumni — particularly new graduates. It’s estimated that 80–90 percent of the jobs that will be available after graduation for today’s freshmen don’t actually exist yet. It’s not about what you think your destination is going to be when you enroll — it’s about the credentials you pick up on your way there.”

Credentials come from experiences like internships (typically unpaid), research programs and other studywork opportunities. Aside from providing instant networking, internships flesh out students’ resumes with real-world experience that matters. If marketing a liberal arts education is like marketing a car (we all shudder at the comparison, of course, but stay with us here), then internships sometimes serve as the alloy wheels, leather seats, moonroofs and horsepower. Extras matter.

What’s more, the extras — like internships — aren’t always thought of as extras anymore. Often they’re assumed to be part of the package. The best internships are as competitive as the best jobs nowadays because everyone understands how important they are. When it’s not enough to have a bachelor’s degree, students need internships. And when it’s not enough to have any old internship, students need to have won the best of all possible opportunities.


Moving Forward

“Here’s one way to look at the current job market,” says Houser. “A 10 percent unemployment rate is also a 90 percent employment rate. The question becomes, ‘What can I do to become one of the 90 percent who are employed?’ The supplemental question is, ‘Can I get a job that I want?’”

For many new graduates, the answer to the latter is yes. But for others, the immediate rewards of their undergraduate work don’t seem to add up.

Landing the right job often takes a resource that most Willamette students have very little of: time. “It’s really tough for someone who is used to taking action and getting results to stand by while the rest of the world does its thing,” says Lane. “It’s not always even about measuring up or not — it’s about being able to hear that little rumble of opportunity amid the chaos clearly enough to follow it.”

How appropriate, then, that Willamette graduates tend to listen well.


The Career Advisor Program

Career advisors assist recent alumni and current upperclassmen by sharing their professional stories and advice. They also provide business and professional background information that is greatly helpful to us as we work with those who are unsure what their professional paths will look like.

Career advisors are not meant to provide job offers — they are allies and resources for others who are navigating the job search process. Advisors can customize their involvement with the program to whatever degree they wish.

To learn more or get involved, visit willamette.edu/alumni/career_network.

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“It’s not about what you think your destination is going to be when you enroll — it’s about the credentials you pick up on your way there.”

— Stacey Lane

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“The question becomes, ‘What can I do to become one of the 90 percent who are employed?’”

— Jerry Houser