By Jill Randolph
November 18, 2009
The following is an interview transcript with Mark Williams, Director of Career Development, Counseling, and Special Programs at The Community College of Baltimore County. Mr. Williams worked for 10 years in quality control for a major chemical company before moving to education at the community college level. He earned his Associate's degree in Business Administration from the Community College of Baltimore County, a Bachelor's degree in Economics from the University of Baltimore, and a Master's degree in Human Resource Development from Bowie State University. Mr. Williams started on his counseling path with CCBC as an academic adviser and progressed to his current role as director of career development and counseling services, overseeing all career development and clinical counseling at CCBC.
The Community College of Baltimore County provides education that prepares students for transfer and career success while strengthening the regional work force. CCBC has more than 100 associate degree and certificate programs. Career Development Services at CCBC provides support for students and alumni in all stages of the career decision-making and planning process - assessing interests and skills, exploring careers and majors, setting goals, and developing a plan of action.
Jill Randolph: What advice do you offer to students regarding how to balance work with life once they start working full-time?
Mark Williams: It is difficult advice depending on age and where they are in their career. When I started in this job, for example, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the job. I wanted to gain experience promptly because I wanted to be an excellent advisor as quickly as possible. So at the beginning of my career, it was approximately 85 percent work and 15 percent life. Those who are further into their careers or those who are balancing children, life and work will not be able to put in long office hours. We have a lot of single parents, both male and female, who are trying to balance their jobs and schoolwork with parenting. They work full-time, go to school part-time and have children in daycare. It's difficult and takes planning.
I recommend students take some time to do what they like. They have to reserve time for themselves, because they can become too inundated with work. When someone's job becomes their life, they are less likely to enjoy what they are doing.
I am not late into my career, but I've learned how to balance life and career demands. Home time is home time in my house, at least until everyone is asleep. It's really about balancing and making sacrifices, because I have to give my family their time, but then I may have to use some of the time I normally spend sleeping or watching football working instead. I try not to have conversations about work when I go home because I want to refocus and rejuvenate for the next day. Some thoughts of work are always furrowing, but I try not to let them interrupt my family time. This all goes back to why we tell students to find something they enjoy doing, because that's the beginning of a good quality of life. We want them to be able to do a good job when they are at work, realizing they can only do so much, and then go home and try to enjoy the other part of their lives.
I have found that everything is a part of life, not just work or home demands. Balancing may be difficult for someone who has just started his or her career and is eager to show that they know what they are doing at work, but those are often the people who can become burned out and disillusioned. I try to get people to appreciate their family life and realize that if family life is going to suffer, work life is probably going to suffer as well, so there has to be balance. Often, students have to experience everything for themselves before they realize they can't go to work full-time, take two classes and have kids. The biggest task for a student is prioritizing.
Success relies on health, and quality of life directly impacts one's health. Being able to manage stress and realizing that health is the most important thing is absolutely crucial. It's impossible to work and take care of one's family when a person doesn't take care of him or herself.
Jill Randolph: What are the three most important things students should do to prepare for finding a job after graduation?
Mark Williams: Researching prospective employers and important details about the company is the most important step. Students should know the mission of the corporation, its goals and how, as a candidate, they can facilitate those goals, because the research process is about connecting their talents with the organization. During the interview, students will usually be asked to explain how they fit into that particular organization. If they have researched the company in advance, they will be able to answer this question much more thoroughly and intelligently.
Second is to practice answering potential interview questions even before the student is invited for a meeting. These can be standard questions so that students feel more comfortable and are able to articulate their thoughts more clearly when the time comes. We don't want students to give answers that come across as overly rehearsed; instead, we want their responses to feel and sound natural.
Finally, students should remain calm throughout the process. The hiring timeline can be a very long one, so students have to understand that and relax. They also need to be confident in the written presentation of their resume and cover letters. Additionally, they need to prepare for potential interview questions, research organizations, be comfortable following up post-interview. Hopefully by the time they are invited for an interview, they have taken these steps and are prepared and confident. A lot of times, students are really nervous about the interview process, even though they are good candidates and they have the ability to answer the questions intelligently. Because they are so nervous, however, they lock up verbally on the interview, which should not happen to those who feel sufficiently prepared.
Jill Randolph: For non-traditional students who are at school to change career paths or reenter the workforce, does it seem like they are more highly invested in the process because they are older and have more responsibilities? Would you say that they are like more relaxed because they've had interview experience, or do you think they're more anxious because they have much more on their shoulders?
Jill Randolph: If someone has an interview offer for a job for which they are over-qualified, what would you recommend that they say in order to convince the employer that they are not going to leave as soon as something better comes along?
Mark Williams: That is an extremely difficult sell. Organizations weigh loyalty very heavily these days, because they are trying to hire the best possible candidate from an oversized applicant pool. The most important thing is for people to find work they enjoy, because it is more likely they will succeed and they will have a better quality of life because they enjoy what they do. However, it's difficult to convince students that it's not always about the money.
To use myself as an example, I worked in a chemical company, and I went to school as an economics major. I was crunching numbers all day long, falling asleep at a computer, and I didn't have someone to see what my strengths were. Luckily, I had an opportunity to work in the college environment and realized that this is what I want to do. I took a pay cut, but my quality of life improved because I enjoyed what I was doing and I excelled at it. I recommend that students think about what they enjoy and are skilled at, and many opportunities will come from that. This may be a tough sell for someone who has a mortgage payment, a PhD and is looking for the highest-paying job. Taking a pay cut is difficult, but it's even more difficult trying to get people to understand that quality of life has much more meaning than earning a higher salary.
Jill Randolph: What are some suggestions you make to students to help them stand out from other job applicants?
Mark Williams: Right now, people who know another language are competitive. Often, organizations are looking for people who are bilingual, but that doesn't necessarily have to mean that the applicant speaks Spanish. Those who can sign and understand sign language are competitive and will stand out as well.
When writing resumes, I advise students to include any volunteer work and the experience they gained from volunteering. I want them to understand that it is wise to get an education and experience at the same time because there will be a long-term payoff. Students may struggle to find internships that directly relate to their majors, but the classroom and volunteer experience they gain in college is additional knowledge that they can list on their resumes.
I also think it's a good idea for students to join a professional organization based on their major. A psychology major could join the APA for students, while a business major could join the Human Resource Management Organization. This will help students gain a feel for their field while gaining experience and meeting people to add to their network. .
Jill Randolph: In the past couple of weeks, I've read at least three articles that say that over 80 percent of people are finding job leads by networking. You had talked about how volunteering and joining professional organizations are a great way to meet people with similar interests. Do you think that companies are looking for future employees via current staff, or are they still using traditional methods to find new hires?
Mark Williams: It's not a set rule, but whom you know is a big part of the job search process. Having skills to do the job is important; knowing people is also important. However, having both skills and a strong network is the safest route. If I can refer someone for a position, and if I have credibility with that company, it is much easier to network that person into a position than for the candidate to go the traditional route. I definitely believe job search success is about knowing the right people, but networking takes time. Students need to understand that they have to make time to network. Sometimes the sacrifice is difficult, because it's so easy for a student to just put their resume out on the web and hope and wait for someone to contact them.
Students need to have opportunities to gain work experience and to gain necessary skill sets such as networking, because both are important. Having the ability to network can pay off in the long-term, because even once a person is employed, networking continues to be important. For example, a lot of times companies will ask employees if they know of anyone else who would be a good candidate for a posted job. Employees always need to think about how they can improve the organization they work for once they are hired.
Students usually don't network well in a professional atmosphere, though. They network at parties and at student events, but by exposing them to opportunities where they can practice networking with business owners and other professionals, it will pay off in the long run.
Jill Randolph: Do you have any career related books or websites that you recommend to students?
Mark Williams: I recommend "What Color Is Your Parachute". Also, "The Authentic Career", which focuses on work-life balance, "Seven Habits", which has students to focus on themselves and how they can improve as individuals, and "Seven Seeds of Meaningful Work", by Dave Smith. I read a lot, and I try to have my students do the same because authors will often pull in information from research, which gives students insight.
Jill Randolph: Currently, there is a lot of technology competing for students' attention. Is there anything you recommend to students who don't make or have time to read entire books?
Mark Williams: I want students to read books, because when they start working, they are going to have to read and analyze material. Books on tape and podcasts are all well and good, but what's the problem with a student picking up a book in their free time? It is sometimes a tough sell to get students to read, but it is a necessity. I try to give them relevant reading material that will give them insight on who they are and who and what can guide them in their process. The idea is that if we have good literature for students, they'll be more inclined to read.
Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things high school students should do in order to get into the best possible college, and how soon should they start working on their plan?
Mark Williams: High school students should have been working on their plan as early as middle school, identifying interests and honing skills to help them accomplish their goals. They should be involved in extracurricular activities beyond sports, language and business clubs, and focus on a club or organization that relates to their professional interests.
The second thing students need to focus on is grades, as most students overlook how important academics are. Students can earn college credit while they are in high school, especially in math and science courses, as those tend to transfer readily to four-year schools across the country. I think it's also important for students to get involved with a parallel enrolment program, and for them to find take courses in a foreign language throughout high school. I think learning Spanish, French, German or even an Asian language like Chinese helps high school students get into better colleges and universities because it allows them to stand out among other students applying to those same schools.
Finally, students should explore their college options, looking at target schools and admissions requirements including essays and public service hours, as early as ninth grade. If students begin this process early, they will be prepared to submit very competitive applications and materials when the time comes.
Jill Randolph: Do you think most students are proactive enough to look at a college or university's requirements an early age, or is that something high school counselors or parents may need to push them to do?
Mark Williams: I think most students are pushed in the right direction by their parents, as many are directly involved in their student's high school careers. Also, student peers have a lot of influence; they can inspire each other to reach for better schools. That's positive peer pressure that pushes students to begin the exploration process early so that they can get into their first choice of schools.
Jill Randolph: What are the biggest trends you are seeing with incoming students today?
Mark Williams: We are seeing a lot of students choose majors in the healthcare field. Students know there is going to be some security in that field once they graduate, that its salaries are very competitive, and that they will have opportunities to travel with a lot of healthcare jobs. For example, with a nursing degree, a student doesn't have to stay in Baltimore; they can go to Jacksonville, Florida or Los Angeles and still be able to find a job. The idea is that a lot of students want to be able to get into a career they can take with them and which won't limit where they can find work.
We are also seeing a lot of incoming students who are in need of more developmental course work. These students are looking for jobs and careers that sometimes don't match their developmental skills, and it takes them a little longer to take the required prerequisites for those majors. We are seeing many students lacking soft skills like communications, which they will need to find jobs. From our perspective, we help shape those students once they arrive here because they didn't use a lot of the processes in place in high school to help them prepare for college. We are starting the process of having students develop resumes and practice interviews so they can begin to work on their soft skills concurrently with class work.
Jill Randolph: Are there any specific classes geared towards teaching students job search skills, or does the school rely more on the career center?
Mark Williams: We offer a career development course, but few students take advantage of it. We also offer college-wide resume workshops, but students really don't come forward until help is urgently needed. There is little pre-planning among students, even though they know they are going to need this information. Ideally, students shouldn't be coming in for help with a resume if they have an interview next week; the planning piece is a big part of success.
We also recommend volunteering as an excellent way to gain valuable experience and potential leadership opportunities. A lot of students aren't willing to give up their time for free, so we have to educate them that volunteering is important because it gives them an edge in a competitive workforce. We try to change students' mindsets so that they will be more prepared for the future.
Jill Randolph: How would you say that your school or colleges in general have changed from years past?
Mark Williams: I think one of the biggest changes is technology. We have a student portal that puts everything literally in the students' laps and requires them to use technology. In a lot of schools, students cannot succeed without using technology. Certain courses are only offered online; while grades, financial aid and scholarship applications, class sign-ups and student-professor communications are all done online at most colleges and universities. Technology has changed, and sadly, some students aren't prepared for that. We have had a surge in enrollment, but along with that surge is the number of students who require more handholding when they use technology.
I think the biggest difference between then and now, however, is the amount of responsibility and accountability students place on their education today. They are making sure their instructors show up for class on time like they should, they are questioning and working with their instructors more, and they are taking advantage of the resources more than they did in the past. I think colleges are trying to offer as many resources as possible in order to increase retention among students, so they are trying many different strategies and initiatives to hold onto students.
Jill Randolph: What about students who are unable to afford their own computer? Most colleges have computer labs and libraries with computers on campus, but do you know of any programs that make it easier for economically disadvantaged students to purchase computers?
Mark Williams: It's very difficult for economically disadvantaged students; they don't use email, and they don't have home access, but we try to engage the students as much as possible while they are here so they will learn the necessary skills using technology. There are programs that help students buy computers, but there are other things that they need their money for other than a computer, which could be bus fare to school or something to eat.
I think that's our biggest challenge, and because we are an open-door college we are naturally going to have more disadvantaged students. It's an ongoing challenge, and that's why our libraries work hard to make sure students have online access, and why the college has computers in hallways and lounges across campus.