By Andrea Dine

Welcoming career changers into career services

This article also appears in the 2017 Summer issue of Career Developments, the National Career Development Association (NCDA) print magazine.

Professionals and researchers in career services have heralded and documented an evolutionary renaissance in the conception, structure and delivery of career services in higher education. A variety of influences will continue to fuel change, including shifts in the labour market and economy, rising costs of higher education and consumer examination of the return on investment of a college degree (Roush, 2016).

As we look to embrace and manage change, it makes sense to examine the shoulders upon which this change rests ─ the career centre staff. Career centres have been more open to individuals with diverse professional backgrounds and career changers than some of our neighbouring student affairs offices that source staff from student personnel or higher education administration degree programs. Career centres have welcomed professionals with backgrounds in higher education, counselling and human resources. However, our changing needs as a profession will drive us to become talent entrepreneurs. This article will make the case for embracing career changers, professionals who have not worked in higher education, into the field of career services and propose the creation of a supportive professional development framework to foster their transition.

Changing needs: skill sets, models and demographics

Career centres have evolved over the decades as hubs for vocational guidance, job placement, career counselling and planning (Casella, 1990), and now, customized connections and communities (Dey and Cruzvergara, 2014). No longer are career centre staff members’ skills limited to those traditionally associated with conducting career counselling appointments or co-ordinating on-campus recruiting. Highly desired, specialized skill sets may now include marketing, social media communication, online learning, operations and logistics, assessment, volunteer co-ordination and technology. Professional organizations, networks and individuals are working to address these skills and coalescing professionals with these strengths. For example, National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE)’s Professional Standards for College and University Career Services includes a focus on technology and assessment, Assessment and Research in Career Services (ARCS) has created a listserv and quarterly newsletters, and Gary Allen Miller, Executive Director of the career centre at Hofstra University, hosts a blog titled Service Design, Marketing and Innovation for Higher Education. Career changers from industries including marketing, consulting, operations management and information technology could bring the very skills a career centre most needs in today’s market.

Shifting models of career counselling and coaching are also driving staffing needs. For example, the refocus to career clusters or communities aligns career centres away from majors and more towards industries. A variety of career centres are implementing industry-focused models including Columbia State Community College, Rutgers University, Stanford University and Wellesley College. The industry communities a career centre identifies as high priority are tailored to the specific campus, and includes groupings like, “Information Technology,” “Education, Non-Profit, Human Services,” and “Food and Agriculture & Environmental and Natural Resources.” Professionals from these industries could share with students’ important insights as natives who know the industry’s recruiting peccadillos, language preferences and professional practices.

The demographic origins of the students we serve, and therefore their needs, are also changing. As American high school graduation rates plateau, entering college students are projected to come from more diverse backgrounds including first generation college students, students of colour and low income (Seltzer, 2016). In addition to domestic shifts, many campuses have increased their enrolment of international students (Institute of International Education, 2016). Given this changing environment, recruiting diverse professionals skilled in inter and intracultural communication, and fluent in languages beyond English, would benefit our profession.


Career professionals at conferences as large as NACE, and as small as the Boston Area Directors meeting, often ask each other, “How did you get into career services?” “Did you use career services as an undergraduate?” Frequently, the answer to the first question is an illustration of chaos and happenstance (Krumboltz & Levin, 2004), and the latter is, “No.” There are relatively well-worn paths from Master’s programs to career centre internships and assistantships, from academic to career advising, and HR recruiting to employer relations, but responses describing mid- or advanced-level career changes from other fields are less common. There are a variety of challenges in attracting, training and retaining talent in career services, beginning with the fact that individuals do not pursue opportunities they have never seen or heard of. Additionally, on-boarding may require training a new employee about career services, student development and higher education. Office or institutional retention of a talented career changer may require thinking about career trajectories in a new way. In the same spirit of our asking, “Where do you see yourself in five to 10 years?” we should consider potential trajectories for non-traditional professionals in our midst.


Career centres sit in the centre of a complex community Venn diagram. We can draw on our own expertise and that of our constituents to reap the benefits and mitigate the challenges of welcoming career changers into career services.

Create awareness of our field and opportunities in it. We educate clients about diverse career fields, but do we ever mention our own? Here are ways to pave the path for new professionals to enter career services in higher education:

• Start local: Engage with undergraduate and graduate students on campus in programs that teach the skills that your staff needs ─ from research and assessment, to computer science, to marketing. If your campus has a higher education program, build a relationship with faculty and staff in it to open the door to young professionals who may initially work in other areas of the institution.
• Go wide: Get involved with professional organizations and communities online or in-person that attract the candidates you desire. For example, #SAChat, American Marketing Professionals, American Educational Research Association, Society for Human Resource Management, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education. Consider offering a professional development workshop to build credibility and exposure.
• Think big: Post opportunities beyond traditional higher education sites; consider posting on sites that use skill algorithms to source candidates, like LinkedIn. Tap your employer, alumni and social media networks for talent.
• Tell all: Write detailed position descriptions so that qualified career changers can imagine themselves in the work of a career centre.
• Answer questions: Accept informational interviews with professionals in other fields interested in higher education and career centre work.

Develop transitional supports and opportunities:

• Speak skills: Look at candidate’s skill set carefully; be careful not to dismiss a candidate based on the field from which they seek to transition.
• Set expectations: Articulate what you expect a candidate to learn before you interview them. You can reasonably expect a candidate to do due diligence in their research about your institution and office, but if you are expecting a candidate to address something as specific as the narrative approach to career counselling or how their MBTI type would fit in your office, you had best say so.
• Create transitional roles: Career centres have long had paraprofessional roles and graduate assistantships. Consider offering similar opportunities for career changers.
• Bridge the gap: Evaluate vacant administrative roles to determine if they could serve as a bridge into the field. If there is a particular skill set you seek, use language familiar to your target career changer.

Imagine and establish pathways for professional development and advancement:

• Seek knowledge: Identify professional development organizations and opportunities that compliment career changer’s role in your office. If no obvious match exists, consider being a convener.
• Play the long game: Look at potential advancement opportunities for your career changers inside your office and your institution. The former techy in your office that went on to work for the central university technology office may be your ticket to better institutional support for your department for years to come.


Career changers are poised to bring valuable skills, knowledge and perspective to our work, and help us tackle the challenges of today. Though it may take additional effort to find, develop and support these professionals, developing talent pipelines and support structures to welcome new professionals into our field will make us nimbler to face the challenges of tomorrow.

A complete list of references is available upon request from the author.


Andrea Dine, MA, is the Assistant Vice-President for Students and Enrolment, and Executive Director of the Hiatt Career Centre at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. At Brandeis, she is leading the evolution of the career centre, bringing communities of students, employers, alumni, faculty and parents together for purposeful career education and engagement.