By Jill Randolph
November 20, 2009
The following is an interview transcript with Shelley Lowe, Executive Director of Career Services for Davenport University, also known as DU. Ms. Lowe graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Science and was a business owner for 15 years. After selling her company in 1999, she acted as a consultant for clients such as MSU, Michigan Foundation for Education Leadership, SBAM (Small Business Association of Michigan), H Inc., and Business Review. Ms. Lowe was hired by Davenport University in August of 2007 and became the Executive Director of Career Services.
The Career Services team provides assistance to 14 locations with 16 Career Services Directors, Senior Coordinators and Coordinators, and serve approximately 15,000 students and alumni. Through special programming, in-class presentations, career fairs, 24/7 on-line service and other resources, the career services team supports new students, online students, graduating seniors, alumni, as well as staff and faculty. DU has absorbed many colleges and provides lifelong career assistance to all of the colleges' alumni, at no charge. Admission to their career fairs is free to students, alumni, and exhibiting employers.
DU is a private university offering associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees including an executive MBA. Through their Maine School of Business, School of Health Professions including Nursing and Allied health programs, and School of Technology, DU delivers programming in high-demand careers.
Jill Randolph: What advice do you offer to people who are changing careers later in life?
Shelley Lowe: When we look at our alumni, sometimes we find that they haven't given themselves enough credit for the work they've done in the past. It comes so naturally and so easily to them after 10 or 20 years that they don't realize the breadth and scope of what they have accomplished. The first thing we do, and maybe this is counterintuitive to a university, is review their resume see if additional education is really needed, or if they are not giving themselves enough credit on paper.
For example, about nine months ago, I received a testimonial from an alumna who had consulted with one of our career services team. The alumna wasn't happy because she wasn't being promoted or progressing with her employer. She told us she thought she needed to earn a master's degree so she would be able to move forward. The career services person looked at her resume and saw that the former student had phenomenal experience, then asked her what kinds of questions she was being asked in interviews. They completed an analysis of how she was depicting her professional experience and then the career services person rearranged her resume and brought up some pointers that the alumna hadn't thought of. Her skills were second nature to her, but it is very important for an employer to be able to see and hear about candidates' expertise. After the career counseling session with our teammate, the woman interviewed for and was offered an extremely high-paying position at a hospital. The lesson learned is that this person was going to commit to additional education and all the time, work and expense tied with it, when in fact all she needed to do was to represent herself more effectively on paper and during interviews.
We don't always come out right away and recommend students return to school to earn their master's degree. We want to get to know them first and evaluate their experience to see what might be keeping them from moving to the next level or finding a job fit. If we think they need more education, we then decide if they should pursue a master's degree or if perhaps a certificate program will help. We ask them what they see themselves doing in the future, then we steer them towards the certifications or the master's degrees to help them on their paths. We also factor in the amount of time the person can dedicate to their education when making this decision. Some of our master's degrees are run like normal course work, and that's great for some people, but not for others. We also have an Executive MBA Program that holds classes every other weekend. It's a very strategic process we use when making this decision, and if the student needs to add an additional skill set we tend to send them into the regular MBA Program. If they are trying to move to the next executive level, then we recommend an Executive MBA or something similar.
Jill Randolph: Does your school only offer Executive MBAs to people who are currently employed?
Shelley Lowe: Any student with a bachelor's degree can get into the Executive MBA Program, but the university looks at the student's history. To use myself as an example, I really wanted to earn my MBA, but I was only looking at the regular option. I was thinking I needed my MBA in human resources management, because as a manager I tend to deal with a lot of HR issues. As I started looking at the program, however, I realized I've already had statistics, accounting and economics courses, and I decided I didn't want to go back and essentially retake those classes. Then people started telling me it would be more like a ticket punch because of all the experience I'd already had, and that I would probably be better served to go into the Executive MBA program where I could work on case studies and gain experience leading a group. As I thought about it, I realized they were right, and that I was definitely going into the Executive MBA Program. In fact, I am turning in my paperwork this year and will be starting next fall. It's worth it for me because it will help set me apart from other people, and I'll also be able to complete my coursework without the classes I've already taken; I would rather work on the core of the MBA.
In some universities, students are allowed to test out of certain program requirements; Davenport considers it for certain classes. The university wants to make sure the foundation is in place however, so they are pretty tough in assuring the core is developed before they allow a student to move on. They look at testing out of requirements at an individual level. For example, I owned my own company for many years, so in my case, they might look at my work history and agree that an undergraduate passing grade for economics qualifies as pre-requisite fulfillment.
Jill Randolph: Some Executive MBA programs require students have permission from their employer before being enrolled because the program is very demanding. They disallow enrollment to those who are currently unemployed because the unemployed have no current employer to grant them permission to pursue an Executive MBA. Why do you think some Executive MBA programs disallow enrollment to potential students, when those students may have other commitments or responsibilities that are just as time-consuming as working full-time?
Shelley Lowe: We have a lot of displaced alumni who have re-enrolled in school because they are currently unemployed, so there is a silver lining for them. Why would we keep them from furthering their education now when they have the time, and many of them have received severance packages, so they have the money to afford going back to school? It's an appropriate time in their lives, and I don't think we would turn someone away for one of those reasons.
Maybe there is some logic to what other schools require. Perhaps the schools were so engrained in the notion that the employer covered part of the tuition, so class work had to permitted. Our focus has always been on individual development and improvement. Our assumption is that if a company sees one of their employees striving to improve their skill sets, they are lucky to have that employee.
Jill Randolph: What advice do you give to students regarding networking?
Shelley Lowe: We stress the importance of networking tremendously with our students. In fact, we have whole programs in place to try to teach them how, where, and with whom to network, and for what purposes. We are piloting a student organization at one of our satellite locations called "Succeed". It is focused on how students should be presenting themselves when they are in the professional world, and how they should by networking to move to the next level. It starts with a thirty-second elevator speech about who they are and what their goals are, which I tell students they should be practicing every so often. This way, when the time comes, the speech is completely believable to the other person. I recommend students practice their elevator speech on family members, neighbors and friends, anything to help make it clear and concise, because people never know when they will need to have their speech ready for an opportunity.
I also want students to understand that if they don't tell me what they are looking for, I can't remember who they are when I am meeting with employers, who are offering the position the student is seeking. We tell our students to tell us about their goals and their dreams, and then they will be the student who comes into our minds when a matching opportunity arises.
Networking is very important, and it starts with understanding one's goals. For example, students should join clubs related to the industry they are interested in. I use my friend who belongs to a Wool Growers Association as an example: the association includes everyone from people who only grow wool to weekend farmers, executives in corporations, nurses, and people who work at the county jail. There are so many different people in the association that a 30-second speech to the right person will stick in his or her mind because it's clear, concise and meaningful to that individual.
Networking is what we call an aggressive form of job searching. "Aggressive" in that the candidate can clearly identify what he or she is aiming for and is able to repeat it succinctly and believably to anyone who asks, at any time. We offer a lot of classes and workshops on networking, since it is such an important facet of searching for a job and career success.
We also recommend utilizing LinkedIn Groups, whether it's the Davenport University Alumni Group or a trade group. All of our team has completed training on how to best utilize LinkedIn, and we show our students how to effectively utilize professional networking groups. We also talk a lot about Facebook and the results students will see when they clean up their profile page and start to utilize it to let people know who it is they want to be versus showing pictures with their head in the toilet on Saturday nights. That's not who students want to be when they grow up, so they shouldn't let prospective employers see them like that now.
Jill Randolph: Are most employers you talk to looking for their job openings to be filled through their network, or are they still looking via traditional methods?
Shelley Lowe: They all want candidates to apply through their website. We are hearing that over and over, but I think employers appreciate a recommendation, particularly small and midsized employers. However, if a student determines the opportunity is not a good fit for his or her career goals, there is a professional way to ease out of the situation. It is not okay to not show up, act badly, or tarnish the reputation of the person who recommended them for the position. Employers like to know our faculty and about our programs so they can believe us when we tell them a student is suited for a position. We work very hard to help our employers get to know our faculty and we see that it helps the students find job and internship opportunities because when employers see Davenport on a resume they feel good about it. We remind students to remember that if they were hired because they came from Davenport, they are an example of the university, so they need to look and act in a professional manner at all times.
Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things high school students should do to be accepted into the best possible college, and how soon should they start working on that plan?
Shelley Lowe: I think personality tests are beneficial and a lot of high schools provide them to their students. We look at a student's strong interest areas and personality types, and we help guide them to where they will be happy in their professional life.
I think a lot of students go to college because they are told they are going to be an accountant or a doctor, or because they think a career sounds good even though they don't know a lot about it. We see a lot of students who come in with the notion that they have to pursue the career they always thought they wanted. We also encounter students who come in and have no idea what they want to do for a living, and they sometimes end up leaving school altogether. Students should assess the careers they may want to pursue, and then research the universities that offer those programs. Then they can sample those career paths in their first couple of years of college and start to make a formulated decision about which areas they feel most strongly about and are interested in pursuing as a career after college.
We want students to assess their career and personal goals. Very few people go to college thinking only that it sounds like a fun thing to do, because it is too expensive to do that. When students go into college not knowing where they want to go in their future, they tend to struggle and may have higher dropout rates.
Jill Randolph: What are the biggest trends you are seeing among incoming students?
Shelley Lowe: I think they are more concerned about where they are going to be when they graduate. When I went to college it never occurred to me to worry that I might not find a job when I graduated, but it's totally different now. Students are making the decision to come to Davenport because our degree programs offer them opportunities to find employment after graduation. We work really hard with them to assure that happens.
We are different than a traditional university because we only offer programs in health, business and technology. We are seeing a lot more students planning to continue on to a master's degree when they finish their undergraduate work, because they want to separate themselves from the competition. Our students are very focused on where they are going after graduation, and work hard towards their professional goals from the start. A lot are pursuing their master's to wait out the recession, and many of our older students, including some alumni, are coming back to do the same thing. We are starting to see a lot more alumni in our office, and many of them are considering what the next step in their lives will be. Some of them have had a career for twenty years and have been downsized and are trying to find ways to be more marketable. They seek advice from the career services center, then talk to admissions and move into our master's programs.
Jill Randolph: What are the three most important things students can do to prepare to find a job after graduation?
Shelley Lowe: Experience, experience, experience. If all else is equal, experience will separate them from other, otherwise equally qualified candidates. They need to show leadership and we hear this regularly from employers. For example, we recently held an accounting fair focused on our honors accounting students. We had 9 top employers from across the state and the country here, along with the 65 students who qualified to attend. The students did a fantastic job, and the employers were pleased, but the one piece of negative feedback we received from employers was that there was not enough volunteer and leadership experience on the students' resumes, so that's something students can improve on. We advise our students to approach their applications from all angles. We want them to have some volunteering experience while they are here, whether it's in a student life organization, accounting students participating in the beta program and doing taxes for other people, or going into the community and volunteering with an organization like Habitat for Humanity or the Boys and Girls Club.
The second is to find an experiential opportunity, such as taking on a project. Sometimes we'll find a company with a network program or development need. We'll give the problem to a class of students and a faculty member, and they will work out the project management of the whole networking system and help implement it. Any experiential opportunities students can find - including designing a webpage or going to an organization and offering to help create a human resources manual - will give them concrete experience for their portfolio, that they can show to prospective employees. It shows the ability to work in a team and leadership skills that are valued in industry.
Finally, we encourage students to seek out an internship or two, whether it is for-credit or not-for-credit. With so many qualified people looking for jobs who already have experience, it is harder to compete unless students have been in an organization and done the tasks necessary to demonstrate that they can fulfill the needs of the position. For example, many banks offer internships, and finance and business management students can show concrete examples of management leadership experience or finance experience after they've completed the internship.
It's a three-pronged process: students need to show community or club involvement, they need to gain experiential skills, and they need to have some work experience as well, even if they freelance. A lot of our students have the types of majors that allow them to freelance, but they also need to complete an internship to show they have organizational experience, that they understand the workplace environment and can function well in it.
Jill Randolph: What suggestions do you give to students to help them stand out from other job applicants?
Shelley Lowe: The two main pieces of advice we give students is if they are using an objective on their resume, they should specifically state the position they seek, and also the company name. I have seen hundreds of resumes that have nothing to do with the job posted, and nothing stated in their objective statement grabbed my attention. When an employer has numerous resumes coming across their desk, they are looking for a reason to eliminate applicants because they know there are going to be qualified people in the stack. If a company receives 100 applications but will only interview 7-14 people for the job at most, then they are looking for a reason exclude the other 90 resumes.
We tell students their resume should be fluid and specific to every job they apply for, and their resume should change in a couple of ways for each respective application. The first thing that should change is the objective, which should be specific for each different posting they are applying for. Then we also tell them to look closely at the job description. We have students set up their resumes so that much of their skill sets or previous experiences are bullet-pointed. The reason is so that students can move their prior job experiences around to suit the format of the job they are applying to. The average time an employer spends looking at a resume before they make their decision is around ten seconds, so being able to rearrange their resume for each application will make it more likely they employer will see something they like right away.
In those ten seconds, we want employers to see that our students understand the job they are applying for, what the company stands for, and can demonstrate experiences related to the employers' keywords used in the job description to define the candidate they are looking for. A resume's appearance is also important, but we want students to utilize the objective to tell the employer a very concise story about what they know about the company, and also to indicate to the employer they have the skill sets that are sought. We tell students the cover letter can fill in the gaps and better explain information in the resume.
I always tell the story about when I was hired into this position. I was handed about 120 resumes and I was told to hire a director for the east side of the state. I hadn't yet started this job, and I sort of knew what I was looking for, but if the objective said nursing in it, I threw it into the pile and never looked at it again, because I was looking for a director of career services. An applicant who didn't take the time to personalize their objective statement wasn't the candidate I was looking to hire. I was able to take 120 resumes and narrow them down to the 15 applicants I was going to look at more closely in just 20 minutes. As a past employer, I was flooded with applications for retail store manager positions, stockers, warehouse managers, purchasing, and receivable and payable positions. I agree the 10-second statistic is pretty accurate, based on my past history as a business owner. It's important for students to understand that they can use all the flowery language they want, but what employers really look for are keywords to indicate they understand the job and have the experience to allow them to succeed in the position. Any gaps can be explained in the cover letter.
If a student is able to include quantitative information stating they increased sales by 23 percent through improved customer service campaigns or something similar, it's worth including, especially if customer service is important to the company they are applying to. Employers look for quantitative and qualitative language, but it should be specifically related to the job posting. We struggle because we have resume books in our system employers can look through, and a resume book requires a generic resume. We tell students there is a passive way to find a job, and an aggressive way. Passively searching means applying for jobs on websites and putting resumes in a resume book, which is a good start. The aggressive way is the more personalized approach candidates can use, including personalizing every resume and networking one-on-one with people connected to or working for the company.
Jill Randolph: Do you recommend, "you seek, I offer" wording on a cover letter, so that way the applicant specifically calls out how they meet what the employer is looking for?
Shelley Lowe: That's an excellent format to use. We have some students who don't understand the cover letter is an engagement piece where they should be telling a company about the skills they have to offer. We also advise against including anything about what they expect to gain from the job, including simply stating they are seeking a position to help improve the quality of their skills. These days, employers don't want to know that. They assume the people they hire are going to improve the quality of their skills by gaining experience, so they don't want to read the obvious.
Jill Randolph: How has your school or colleges in general changed from the past?
Shelley Lowe: Many years ago, we were a last resort college for many students, but we have changed for the better. We still have mostly nontraditional students - our average student age is around 26 - but we now have five hundred students living on-campus and a student activity center, which sponsors 21 different sports. This has all developed within the last three years or so. We have evolved into a university with admissions standards, master's programs and have progressed and grown tremendously in the past 8-12 years.