(MoneyWatch) If you picture a college on-campus recruiting center as a slightly gloomy place with 3x5 index cards posted on the wall listing bad job openings (Wanted! Person with degree in biophysical engineering to fix sewer problems. $7.50 per hour!), it turns out that things have changed, according to Alexandra Anderson, associate director of career services at Southwestern University.
While not all schools prioritize graduates' post-college careers, she noted, most career centers now help graduates secure not only their first jobs, but subsequent ones, too. The traditional "employment agency" feel of on-campus recruiting works well for students in majors such as engineering, nursing or accounting because they have largely been trained to do certain jobs. Therefore, a list of open positions serves these students well (along with the occasional guidance about resumes, cleaning up Facebook pages and not having your mom contact the recruiter).
And if you're, say, a history major? "What many career centers are doing is teaching students the skills that it takes to find that hidden, one-off job, which means creating a network, building a brand, getting experience, internships and leadership. Because employers are not lining up to recruit them, especially at smaller schools," Anderson said. Additionally, career centers offer self-assessment tools to help students explore what type of career they want to pursue.
At a high-achieving liberal arts college, most students are capable of doing just about everything. Therefore, career centers at these places tend to focus on aiding students figure out what they want and then helping them gain relevant experience. "It's not about putting pegs into the proper holes, like the old career centers did," Anderson explained. Rather, it's about helping students succeed in their future careers.
And what is the key to success? Internships, Anderson said. "If it were up to me, all students would be required to complete an internship. In doing so, you have to learn how to network, how to dress and how to market yourself to land an internship, and the actual experience on the internship is extremely valuable. You learn what you like and what you don't."
That last point is important. After all, a three-month internship looks good on a resume, while a three-month stint at a regular job makes you look unreliable.
In other words, rather than seeing an internship as something you can't afford to do, think of it as something you can't afford not to do. Networking is a skill that you need, not just for your first job out of college, but for every future job change. Since the average person changes jobs 10 to 15 times over their career, that's a skill they will need over and over again.
College career centers also hold networking events where they invite alumni to visit with students. At Anderson's school, Southwestern in Georgetown, Tex., they do something they call "speed networking." She said: "We have a networking barbecue in the spring with 35 or so alumni, and we set up 20-minute meetings in a very structured environment. It puts the students through the paces of talking to someone who is a stranger, but a friendly stranger, and hopefully gives them the courage to approach someone else."
Anderson, who serves on several boards designed to help students across many universities, said these new approaches to helping students succeed are increasingly common. So perhaps the next step on any college student's career path should be an appointment with the campus career center. They may be able to help in more ways than one.