How to cope with the complexity of careers service leadership

Mike Grey says that leading Careers Services in universities is getting harder - and has thoughts on what would help

Director at Gradconsult

Leading a careers service at UK universities has become increasingly challenging in recent years.

That’s for a mixture of reasons – the spotlight becoming seemingly permanently fixed on the employability agenda, the highly political landscape their role resides in, and the breadth of internal and external stakeholders impacted by their work.

There is an ever growing expectation that universities will help students and graduates develop the skills, knowledge, and experience they need to succeed in their careers. This has placed careers services at the forefront of a complex and challenging set of issues and priorities.

They lead increasingly diversified and complex teams with a wide array of skill sets, ideas and working preferences.

This would be challenging at the best of times, but across the sector efforts to grow provision are often stymied by difficulties around attracting and retaining talented professionals in a tight market.

The digital transformation of the career landscape has also necessitated the sourcing and management of a complex web of external technology and service providers. You only have to mention the words tender process and IT project to see the energy drain from many seasoned careers leaders.

Many of the leaders that I work with are also front and centre within the regional graduate retention agenda, securing significant funding and responsible for steering multiple regional funded projects.

This requires a strategic approach to careers and employability, with a focus on developing effective partnerships with employers, embedding through the curriculum, building efficient scalable but high-quality career services, and delivering a range of targeted initiatives that help disadvantaged students and graduates achieve their potential.

Are we making a difference?

Are we just attracting those students that will be fine anyway or are we engaging the key demographics that we know need our help? The sector as a whole has become much better at being more strategic in our approach to delivery and using the data to better inform practice.’’

Stephen Boyd, Director of Careers and Employability at Manchester Metropolitan University

Careers services face a myriad of challenging targets. These typically include improving Graduate Outcomes, reducing progression gaps, overcoming the complex barriers impacting TEF and B3 metrics, increasing the number of work-related placements and internships, and enhancing the overall reputation of the university as an employer-focused institution. These targets require shared accountability and a collaborative approach.

That is an awful lot of strategic thinking to be bundled into one role, not many other roles in the institution link so closely to the student experience, teaching and learning, external engagement and ultimately have such a critical role to play in institutional success and league table performance.

The most effective careers service leaders are able to act as a catalyst to bring key initiatives to fruition, remove blockages and secure the required resources. Much of their best work can go unseen by their team and often even the senior leaders that they report to.

This can make it quite hard for talented colleagues moving up into these roles to fully grasp the full scope of the role and political expertise required to succeed. It can also be challenging for senior leaders to clearly identify who will be capable of driving this agenda forward in their institution.

And it has become an increasingly big step for those moving up into this position from within the sector and a huge leap into the unknown for those coming from outside.

Stepping up

The transition was neatly captured by one of our clients who recently moved into a Head of Service role:

It was a big transition, the demands on you are completely different. It is challenging working across a large institution with competing agendas, some of which might conflict with your objectives; it is a political dance.

But even the best and most experienced careers service leaders can’t control the external environment and are at the mercy of the various shocks to the economic and educational context we have seen recently and will continue to battle.

We have had a pandemic, a mental health crisis, students’ engagement across institutions reaching a critical state, a cost of living crisis and are likely to be entering a recession. This is also exacerbated by the fact that many university courses have expanded dramatically in subject areas where directly related graduate roles tend to be in short supply.

Despite all of this, we have seen a positive improvement in graduate employment metrics nationally with many institutions delivering exceptional growth in the most recent Graduate Outcomes Survey.

Delivering results

Although there is significant individual pressure on careers leaders to deliver results, delivering success in this area is very much a team sport and some of the more maverick members of your team might well not be under your direct control and can’t be substituted.

Senior leaders are acutely aware that improving REF results requires a long-term strategic approach and often significant upfront investment to shift the dial – given the Graduate Outcomes Survey is a yearly endeavour it can appear a more tactical activity that can be impacted nearly instantaneously.

Although there are tactical actions that can deliver marginal gains in the short-term, the strategic shifts in approach and service delivery that can make the difference to institutional performance will also take a similarly long time to come to deliver impact.

That cleverly integrated careers module that all first years will now complete or those new placement courses that have just been launched will only start to impact the employment metrics in league tables in approximately five years. Institutions need to invest in this crucial provision but shouldn’t expect instant returns.

We should also have a more honest dialogue about the labour market as it is, not as we would like to imagine it to be. This requires stronger challenge from within the sector to those that seek to present simple solutions to complex problems. Not enough credit is given to careers services for the successes achieved in preparing students and graduates to enter this complex non-linear landscape.

Like in many realms of society, careers experts are not always fully appreciated. Perhaps that is because most people have a job, many have a career, a significant proportion have been on an interview panel and a senior leader at the institution may even have a son or daughter that recently secured a role on a graduate scheme – what should remain a dinner party anecdote, can sometimes mutate into a case study which then informs institutional policy that is then passed down to a careers service to deliver upon.

Nothing is simple

If you still believe there is a simple solution to the complex employability conundrum, it is less likely that you are a visionary thinker and more likely that you haven’t taken the time to fully understand the complexity and scale of the challenge.

A brilliant careers service leader encapsulated this common challenge:

There is often this really shiny thing that senior leaders want you to do that actually is not going to have the impact and is highly resource intensive.

It can become politically difficult for careers service leaders to consistently push back on a myriad of these ideas in order to target their finite resource where they can deliver the most impact.

My message to senior institutional leaders is to listen to those you have tasked with delivering in these complex strategic roles, really listen; trust their expertise and work alongside them to secure the resources they need to succeed.

There is always more to be done, but there are many brilliant leaders in this space with the expertise to do this strategic thinking and drive forward this important work.

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