industry spotlights

Alumni Career Services: How alumni networks help everyone win

When Cheryl Bonner arrived in the field of Alumni Career Services in the early 2000s, alumni had just recently started turning back to their alma maters en masse as recovery from the “Dot Com Bubble” was in full swing.

Cheryl Bonner

At the time, Career Services departments, for the most part, were solely focused on Students, and already spread thin. Providing services to Alumni on top of their existing workload was maxing out a system that was already doing as much as they could with the resources available.

And then the industry hit a turning point…

Yes, helping students land their first job is an important measure of a school’s prowess, however, isn’t sustained career success just as important?

Within a few years, many colleges were expanding their focus and offerings for Alumni Career Services, and organizations like the Alumni Career Services Network were born.

Cheryl is the current President of the ACSN, and can passionately list why such a network is so useful (and so much fun!): helping ACS professionals share ideas, best practices and playbooks for successful events are just a few of the things that rolled off the top of her head.

I was lucky enough to get on the phone with Cheryl to learn a little more about the field of Alumni Career Services, and why every Higher Ed institution should have their own department.

Why (or why not) do you think every school should offer Alumni Career Services?

Alumni trust their Alma Maters. Many used career services as students to select a career path or find a job. As adult job changers, alumni are consumers of career information. They want the tools needed to navigate a career transition including opportunities to network, learn career and job search strategies, and gain access to job listings. Schools are going to see a value in meeting these career needs.

All schools will at some point in time want to provide Career Services to their Alumni because there are a want and need for such services. I believe all schools are going to see a huge value of engaging and serving their alumni in some way.

How does your Alumni Network support Career Services?

If we work with our alums effectively, that network provides “inside” information that is industry-specific. Most career counselors are generalists and know how to ask great questions, but we can also connect you to the people who can take a deep dive into an industry or location.

Finding out the needs of companies, as a form of that “inside information” to alumni, helps alumni cater their personal experiences to the needs of a particular company or position. Having a connection to alumni in a specific industry or company helps inside jargon: “Does Company X call it onboarding, and Company Y call it HR.”

Also, alumni WANT to connect with each other, and build alumni-to-alumni connections because the commonality is there--that’s one of their biggest things.

People, in general, want to do business with people they know, they like, and they trust, and having that similar connection of going to the same school helps build the foundation of such a connection. Alumni Career Services can help facilitate such connections, by partnering with the Alumni Relations and Academic departments of your school.

What are the 3 or 4 steps you recommend for a school looking to grow their ACS?

1. Survey: Both alumni and your own institution to know interests and availability of resources.

Alumni: to see what they want. Career Counseling? Networking events? Resume workshops?

Your School: to see what resources are available to build such a program.

2. Set and Understand your goals:

  • Based off of the answers to your surveys, set solid goals around how you plan on accomplishing those goals.

3. Measure your progress

  • Measurement should be baked into your goals from my second point because any goal you set should be measurable.

  • How do you measure Alumni Engagement?

4. BUILD THE PROGRAM

  • If you don’t have the personnel, find out if there are tools that you can use and leverage to have a bigger impact.

  • It’s a matter of location, alumni, school personality, how does the school already engage alumni, how do you take advantage of the resources that are already there?

What are the biggest challenges for Alumni Career Services?

Figuring out how to measure success is a big challenge. Also, figuring out how to accomplish this while making alumni feel like this is their family helping them, not someone telling them, “oh here’s this resource, go use it.” We want them to feel connected back to the university and feel engaged and connected back to the community.

Another challenge is figuring out what the future of alumni needs will be in regards to Career Services. Is it a mirror image of Undergraduate Career Services with coaches and job developers or are we programmers, giving alums opportunities to meet each other? Are we educators in regards to the hiring processes utilized by companies? And that role will be different from school to school.

Your vision for the future of Alumni Career Services?

Well, since we can’t be everything at once, I think we will be most successful when we partner with other facets of our school… Because we are the experts at running Networking events. When we partner with our College of Nursing, or Engineering or Science, we partner with alums and we help them get to the events and support those departments because we know how to help people network.

When we partner to run mentoring programs, we work with the big Alumni Association and then teach them how to engage with our chapters and our groups. And we help take off some of the load that comes with putting on such an event, and then they’re able to help us say logistically, in understanding their area. For example, we can ask, “are people more likely to come to a morning or evening event in this area?”

The future of Alumni Career Services is to continue to leverage relationships, to partner, to share resources because every department at the school has an interest in having happy alumni!

Alumni Career Staff need to keep their ears to ground, with economic shifts, so that we can help adult alumni that are thinking about career changes, or thinking about going back to school so that they can understand where those economic openings are going to be based on trends.

Why should Alumni Career Services Professionals consider joining ACSN?

Here’s why I love it: We really get to share best practices to help each other succeed and help figure out this field, together! We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. If you run a great Networking event for your alumni in Boston, I could come in and run the SAME EXACT event, IN BOSTON, with my alums and no one would ever know! There’s no competition, so we can genuinely share because your alums are your alums and my alums are my alums and we’re just trying to make the whole experience better for everyone.

With professionals like Cheryl leading the way for Alumni Career Services, we can all rest assured that our alma maters have our backs and are willing and able to help take our careers to the next level!