Universities should see alumni as a talent pool not a money pot (UK)

Let’s rethink alumni associations as a coaching network, says Alastair Creamer, and recent graduates as valuable voices.

By Alastair Creamer

Is every university proud of the careers and employability service it is providing? Is it working for every different type of student and graduate? Does it reflect the ever changing world of work? If it is a comprehensive service, is it actually being used? Against an unprecedented, underemployed generation, careers advisers in higher education hold the keys to the future of bright young adults.

And so, to an extent, do their alumni, with whom forward-thinking universities must surely now be developing and maintaining the tightest and most well-managed of relationships at the earliest possible opportunity, not to mention with those alumni’s employers. If this isn’t happening yet, it’s a serious missed opportunity.

This isn’t sensationalism. The gateway to employability is focused through the careers centres of universities because not enough courses have it woven into the curriculum. It’s not a recognised feature at all levels of the student experience. Only when the time draws near in students’ third or fourth year do they wake up and search out that advice. This too is where alumni come in.

Without fail, we should rethink alumni associations as, firstly, a coaching network and, secondly, as a fundraising resource. Attempts to tap alumni for funds shouldn’t be prioritised over the kind of contribution that significantly enhances the employability of future graduates. I believe that alumni should be actively encouraged by advisers to return more than once (with all dialogue and visits tracked – these are, after all, our ambassadors) to offer personal real-world insights from a graduate perspective and (only then) as an invaluable professional partner.

Graduates should be encouraged to have a duty of responsibility back to their alma mater, not just as individual mentors, but also in bringing their business into the fold. Ideally, this would feature not only presence at open days, seminars and panel events, but increasingly, practical one-to-one or small group mentoring, preferably involving their own employers in engaging with students. This certainly happens in pockets, but not extensively enough, and it’s arguably the part that needs to be cultivated the most.

Of course, this approach assumes that outgoing undergraduates (who themselves have been using the careers service) have enjoyed and benefited from their overall student experience. So much so that they are inspired enough to return once their working life has begun and share their ‘path’ with those a year or two behind them. It also assumes that the current careers service has an efficient system in place for tracking who these individuals are before they leave and has a file of contact details and topic areas they’d be willing to speak about – a fait accompli for some, food for thought for others perhaps.

As for whom exactly to engage, recent alumni should be targeted as much as, if not more than, the more financially stable older generations. Newer alumni have more recent, relevant experience of getting started in a career, which is what graduates want to hear about in the current economic climate. This should be prioritised over advice and tips on career progression.

Talks by and events showcasing alumni should not only involve the ‘successful’ big earners from big firms, but also feature and highlight graduates who chose an unusual or innovative career-finding path. For example, the Durham student who got a job by standing outside a bank in London with a placard reading: “Just graduated from Durham and looking for a job in insurance”.

Before all of this, current students and new alumni could be given specific opportunities to suggest what they would like to give and get from these relationships. What help would students most like to receive and in what ways are alumni willing to volunteer their precious time?

Conscientious universities may wish to find innovative ways to give something back to their alumni (rather than simply absorbing their funds and career advice), and could even provide long term value for money for fees by setting up a rewards system. They could offer employed alumni awards in recognition of their help and perhaps offer unemployed, recent alumni the chance of specialised coaching in order to regain confidence and create a more meaningful plan.

Imagine if a university could harness the total population of alumni behind a mission and not just one at a time – how powerful and inspiring that would be. This all presupposes that they’ve had a positive and useful experience, throughout their degree course and in their career seeking – and therein lies the challenge for current and incoming adviser.

We need to reframe and re-energise the ‘mission’ of alumni in a way that makes previous graduates feel useful and valuable as opposed to acting as a piggy bank that does occasional talks. Lots of cultural shifts in institutions require intense governance and funds; this doesn’t. It is simply a call to arms to involve our valuable alumni more innovatively in helping our current tranche of despondent and often directionless undergraduates become more employable, create more meaningful career paths and most importantly, not waste 10,000 working days.

Alastair Creamer is co-founder of Eyes Wide Opened, a coaching programme for graduates – follow it on Twitter @ewopened

Source: Guardian Professional http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2013/feb/19/university-alumni-careers-coaching-networks