Try to imagine the perfect job interview. You enter the office of a recruiter and shake hands confidently. You introduce yourself with a clear and concise presentation. You anticipate the challenging questions and reply with ease. You ask direct questions of the recruiter and show that the company has things to prove, too. After the interview, you review it mentally, noting places where things went well and places where you will do better next time. You’re not worried about getting a job; you want to get the right job, the job that matches your skills and values with a reputable employer.
That ideal job interview may seem like a daydream to many recent college grads – and to plenty of more experienced job seekers – but students who have completed the certificate program for Distinction in Professional Development at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith find the dream is within their grasp.
The certificate program has a 100 percent placement rate for putting new graduates into jobs.
The Doug and Kathy Babb Center for Student Professional Development hosts the program and offers many tools for students entering the workforce. One of the most powerful is the Distinction in Professional Development certificate program. To earn the certificate, which is available at two levels, students must participate in a series of 50 minute workshops as well as two career fairs and four employer mixers.
Not all students who participate in the program’s sessions will earn certificates, but any exposure to the workshops will help students develop their professional skills.
Mixers and career fairs provided over the course of two years allow students to meet recruiters, talent scouts and other hiring agents long before they have their first serious job interviews. Everything in the program is devoted to demystifying the job-seeking process and giving students a chance to build their confidence by trying things out in a safe environment.
Ron Orick, executive director of Career Services and the Doug and Kathy Babb Center for Student Professional Development, said that’s the goal: to give future job applicants all the “soft skills” they will need to land that first good job.
In particular, Orick said, he hopes to “put a little polish on” fledgling professionals so they demonstrate the hard skills they’ve learned in class.
Dale Williams, ’15, now a dedicated operations supervisor at USA Truck, valued the mixers, which provide opportunities for students to meet and chat with area employers and recruiters. The more opportunities students have to talk to employers, the more comfortable they feel, he said.
Williams wrote recently that “the center … provided me with the skills and experience I needed to enter the workforce after college. Ron and his staff went above and beyond … to make sure I was ready for the upcoming process of finding the right career.”
Orick joined Westark College’s career services office in 1999. Looking to make more of an impact on graduates’ job placement, in 2013 Orick brought in three focus groups of local employers – one of recruiters and hiring agents, one of human resources staff and one of vice presidents – and began asking questions about what employers want from job candidates that goes beyond knowledge and skills.
From that information the Distinction in Professional Development curriculum was born.
It’s about credibility, Orick said.
“Now I can tell students this, this is what employers want,” he said.
Requirements for the certificate are clear, if challenging. To complete the requirements, students have to attend several 50-minute workshops on topics like writing cover letters, using LinkedIn in their job search, and creating an “elevator speech.”
The program is non-credit, but students who earn certificates are awarded special cords to wear at commencement.
To enter the program students must have a 2.5 GPA; to receive the certificate, they need to have a 2.75 cumulative GPA. They must attend two career fairs and four networking mixers spread across their junior and senior years.
The mixers are at the heart of what the Babb Center has to offer students. They connect hiring agents from companies like ArcBest, Walmart Corporate, JB Hunt and Tyson Foods, with students to give them a chance to develop their small talk and networking skills in a safe environment. Students in education have a chance to mix with representatives from the region’s large and small school districts.
Orick said students new to the program can’t imagine they will ever be as confident and easy-going as the second-year students – until they are the ones with the poise and the polish a year later.
Another tool for students preparing for life after graduation is the StrengthsQuest Work Profile, an interest and skills survey created by Gallup to help students identify their strengths. Orick helps students take the StrengthsQuest themes and translate them into the kinds of skills employers want.
For instance if the survey identifies “competition” as one of the student’s strengths, Orick notes that the student is likely to be enthusiastic, to meet deadlines, and to be a leader and a self-motivator.
Someone identified as “deliberative” likely has skills in problem solving, organization and judgement and the ability to prioritize.
When students meet with representatives at a career fair or even at a real job interview they can take their StrengthsQuest profile with them. Local employers are familiar with UAFS’s use of the survey and understand what it says about the students before them.
For many students in the program, learning the soft skills can be as hard as any work they do in their major studies.
The program targets these skills specifically:
• Speaking and writing clearly.
• Working cooperatively.
• Solving problems analytically.
• Demonstrating a strong work ethic.
Cole Sullivan, ’15, a price support analyst at ABF Freight, said he believes the confidence he gained from mock interviews and mixers helped him when it was time to look for a real job.
Still, it takes more than workshops and mixers to develop those skills, and the program offers other tools and challenges, especially for students who wish to qualify for the gold-level certificate.
Those students have to complete an internship in a job related to their major.
They also must complete two items from a list of tasks that require real stick-to-itiveness, like completing a faculty-approved research project; competing or making a presentation at a regional, state or national competition; or completing 15 hours of an approved campus organization leadership project or an approved community service project.
College of Business students are introduced to the program, which was initiated in the fall semester of 2013, in their business communication class, which all business majors take. It is open to those students, students in the School of Education, students in the College of Science, Technology Engineering and Math and students in the Organizational Leadership program.
There are plans to bring other disciplines into the program as well.
The opportunities offered by the program are gaining popularity. In May of 2014, 115 students were enrolled; in 2015 it was 222; and in October 2016, a whopping 640 students signed up.
Orick brings graduates who participated in the program back on campus to help teach the sessions. A recent workshop on interview skills pressed four young professionals into service as interviewers. That achieves two goals. It reinforces for students that what they are learning is really what interviewers want. And it keeps good, civic-minded graduates in touch with their alma mater, where their skills are valuable.
Jeanetta Henry, ’15, a career services coordinator in the Babb Center, said the program didn’t just help her get her current job (and meet her current employers); she believes that it will help her advance in her career because it taught her the importance of those soft skills.
“The workshops allowed me to assess what I was already doing well in and what I need to improve on,” she wrote. “In both the many workshops and networking events, I was always able to gain some valuable insight on how to improve my soft skills in many ways, which will be something I will be able to use throughout my career.”
On the subject of how the program might be improved, alumnus Williams encouraged providing even more mixers to get students more time talking to professionals.
He also suggested some post-graduation sessions about “what to do after you have landed a job, maybe salary negotiation and how to ask for transfers or when to move up in the company.”
It’s clear Williams is still looking to UAFS to help him develop his career.