Thursday, March 31, 2016

Takeaways from the SXSWedu #Employability Summit

by Steven S. Vrooman

This was the first year I attended SXSWedu, which is kind of the nerdier week before crazy cool SXSW starts. "EduTech" people and teachers all get together and talk shop.

I decided to attend the four-hour "Employability Summit" with my students and their anxieties about job seeking in mind (btw, if you follow that link you can see some video from the sessions).

Here's my list of most important takeaways. Nothing super-new here, I guess, but students doubt me when I tell them this kind of stuff, so maybe now they'll believe me when I start telling them things like . . .


1. Your major doesn't matter


Yeah, ok, I guess if you want to be a surgeon it does. But you can easily find statistics on how few people actually find jobs that are directly tied to their major. And this has always been the case. When I graduated from college, philosophy majors were reported to be the most in-demand law school applicants. People with English and history majors are not destined for unemployment, in spite of what lazy jokes that float around Twitter would have you believe. But, as my colleague, Dr. Pam Johnston is fond of saying, there is no job called "Englisher" that is calling to you. Instead, a liberal arts or humanities major signals a huge skillset that can open a lot of doors for you if you can pitch yourself the right way.

Another way of thinking about it is that the era of "jobs with names" has been slowly coming to an end for  a while, especially if you work for a smaller organization. People wear lots of hats at many places of work: "Oh, you can actually do social media better than our college interns? Great. Maybe we might shift some of your hours that way?" Or, "We are starting a yearlong process of applying for this huge grant, and we like what we see in your reports. We'd really like you to consider joining that team." These kinds of stories are more and more common in people's tales from the workplace.

And these trends will continue. As educational researcher Jeff Selingo said at the Employability Summit:


What are these "soft skills"? Glad you asked . . .


2. Soft skills are key


First of all, I hate this term. Why is writing "soft" and doing my taxes "hard"? And if these are the things employers want but that college grads do not have, does it make sense to make them sound fluffy and unimportant?

Selingo again:
So what are these skills?
Look at that! This is exactly why you chose to major in my field, communication studies! We don't just touch on these skills, as all majors SAY they do in the age of assessment and learning objectives performance indicators, but our entire major is focused on that! 40+ graded speeches across the COMM coursework, about the same number of papers and original, gather-your-own-data-and-analyze-it research projects, starting with your first class in COMM, etc. Ok. Commercial over.

These skills are scarce, so everyone should highlight their abilities in this area:
And just having a major with a name that sounds like you can get a job with it, something, say, called "pre-professional," doesn't guarantee anything! I'm always amazed that students still think the name of their major is a ticket to somewhere.
Your major doesn't communicate that you learned enough to be valuable, so to turn that degree into a job you have to sell yourself:


3. Have a pitch


Even though I've taught this for years, having to practice my pitch in a room at the JW Marriott with job seekers was really stressful!

Everyone these days knows you need a good "elevator" or "tell me about yourself" speech. But do you know what it should look like?
This was the hardest thing for most of us to do well: start with your destination, not with who you are and where you are from. Instead of "I can write well, gimme a job of some kind, plz," we should have "I want to find out whether or not we can change the world through social media working for your organization. I've been analyzing the persuasive successes and failures of tweets since my second year in college. I eventually did my thesis on it and started a blog to share my findings. If I'm going to continue that research journey, I'd rather do it with an organization with a mission like yours."

Here's the thing: The people you are interviewing with or networking with DON'T BELIEVE YOU if you don't do this well:
This is not just the joke I tell my seniors about the interviewee who says her/his greatest strength is they are a "people person" and then sits awkwardly and waits for the next question. Establish a track record. Have proof that you are a good researcher/speaker/writer/thinker/communicator/organizer. Where do you put that proof?


4. Linked In


I know. You hate it. I told the LinkedIn executive there, Kyle Poll, that. I posted his response, which was pretty good, on my MoreBrainz Facebook page:

I told the ‪#‎employability‬ panel at ‪#‎sxswedu‬ that my students hate ‪#‎LinkedIn‬ and making profiles because 1) It's no fun 2) They don't see the point & 3) Their profiles are depressingly thin. In answer Kyle Poll from LinkedIn suggested the following: Throw your passions and extracurriculars on there. Talk about your life and career goals on there. Share projects, PowerPoints, creative work, etc.

Turn in into a portfolio of your skills. Or, if you have those portfolios elsewhere, like on a blog or Instagram, post those updates to LinkedIn.

Ron Nash was there selling his book on how to optimize your LinkedIn profile. But one of the people in the audience tweeted her short, free resource on it. If your LinkedIn game is weak, you should check it out:
Her stuff is set up for her university, but all of the tips work for wherever you went/go to school.


5. Network


This is a much longer conversation, but the basic idea from both Mike Marriner from Roadtrip Nation and Kyle Poll from LinkedIn is that you should be interviewing people. Networking is NOT just about finding people who can help you get a job. I went to enough awkward networking happy hours at SXSWedu to know that that whole scene still reeks of desperation and sadness all too often. Networking can and should be about learning from new connections, without the "gimme a job" element always upfront. You are a recent college grad looking for help, not just to find the job, but to figure out what you need to know in order to be successful in that journey. The world is full of people who, in the right circumstances, might tell you their take on that. That is how you build a network that doesn't suck.

I'll end this blog post with a final bit of food for thought from Kyle Poll:

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