By Jill Randolph
December 8, 2009
The following is an interview transcript with Tonya Britton, Program Manager, Workforce, for the Business and Social Sciences Division at Lone Star College - Montgomery, in Conroe, Texas. Ms. Britton is a graduate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Institute of Organizational Management and is certified as a Professional Community Economic Developer, as a Professional Trainer, and as a Business Retention and Expansion Consultant. She is also a military veteran, having served as a Signal Officer with the United States Army, and is a graduate of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Inter-College Program. She is currently pursuing a Master's in Economic Development and Entrepreneurship through the University of Houston-Victoria.
Lone Star College System consists of five colleges and six centers including Lone Star Corporate College and LSC-Online. With more than 58,000 students in credit classes this fall, LSCS is the third largest community college system in Texas and the twentieth in the nation. Over the last year, LSCS has seen an increase in total enrollments, including increases of dual credit, first time in college students and international students.
The Career Services offices at each campus provide services to both students and community members in the areas of career assessment, career path and transition counseling, degree planning and transfer advising, interviewing skills, resume and cover letter writing and review, job search and career fairs. The LSC-University Center hosts 35 academic programs from six universities, including unduplicated bachelor's (29) degrees, master's (33) degrees, and continuing professional studies.
Jill Randolph: What do you think are the most important things high school students should do in order to get into their preferred college or program, and how soon should they start working on that plan?
Tonya Britton: Before their junior year, high school students need to begin narrowing their focus on the degree they want to pursue and the college or university they want to attend. College has changed so much since I was pursuing my undergraduate coursework; it's much more competitive now.
Here in Texas, we have something referred to as the top ten percent rule, which requires public state-funded universities to accept the top ten percent of students in each graduating class. While that's been great in opening up some institutions to students from inner cities and rural communities who may have had a harder time competing in the past, students who graduate with good grades, but who are not in the top ten percent and who may have been a shoe-in 10 or 15 years ago, are now really struggling to be accepted into their preferred college. Therefore, high school students today should not assume their GPA is all they need for admittance, but should instead contact the institutions they are interested in to find out what is specifically required for acceptance into both the institution and their program of study.
For example, being accepted by a university may not guarantee that you will be able to get into that institution's business or nursing program. There are a variety of criteria for admission, as well as multiple entry points into college. Service academies sometimes prefer a letter of reference and will also recruit out of the enlisted ranks, while some community colleges have articulation agreements with universities. In such instances, taking a year or two of classes at a community college before transferring may make getting into the students' university of choice much easier. Students should look at the strengths of each institution and try to define which will suit them the best. If a student wants to major in criminal justice or biotechnology, for instance, there may be a local college or university that is very well known for those subject areas, and it doesn't really matter if it's not an Ivy League school.
Students should therefore define which college is best for them based on their major, their interests, and also where they are in their lives. Some students may get lost in a large, urban school far from home and may prefer a small town college. Some students are going to be able to afford a school that's a bit more costly, while others need to save money. Maybe they want to take the first year or two and go to a community college, and then finish at a four-year school so they can continue right into grad school without going into student loan debt. Overall, I would say that a student needs to look at the big picture--program of study, cost, entrance requirements, lifestyle, academic goals--and then develop a strategy for not only getting into the college, but also for graduating from their preferred program.
Jill Randolph: Students also need to consider where their career future lies and try to move in that direction as early as possible.
Tonya Britton: Absolutely. As many colleges do, we offer dual credit courses with high schools, so that is another factor to consider. If a student's college has articulation agreements with universities nearby, they can save one or maybe two years of their time and money, because every year students are enrolled at school, they are spending money on student service fees, clothing, housing, food, and other things. Students will save by being focused.
Jill Randolph: What are the biggest trends you are seeing among incoming students?
Tonya Britton: Since we are a community college, we've always had nontraditional students, but we are starting to see more of what we call 'renaissance students', meaning a lot of people in their 40s and 50s who may be changing careers or returning to work. We also see older students coming back to school because they now have an opportunity to pursue a career they've always wanted, but didn't because other things were in the way. A lot of the people who come back to 'recareer' tend to take technical courses. For example, we have some business majors returning to school once they realize they need technical skills, so they are coming back for computer science or computer information technology courses. We are also seeing an increased amount of military veterans coming in, and more who have special needs. We've always had veteran students, but schools are ramping up to better accommodate returning veterans' social, emotional, physical, and financial needs. At our college, we have a new Student Veterans Association, and we are increasing our veteran services staffing to support these students.
We are also seeing a greater emphasis on technology in general. Many years ago, technology was reserved for students who were interested in computers, but now we are seeing so many of our students enrolling in basic computer courses in order to be able to develop a technology background. Our faculty are also bringing multimedia into the classroom at a rate we've never seen before. We've moved far beyond basic PowerPoint presentations into podcasts, videocasts and computer simulations. What's great about this is that our students are now seeing opportunities for careers and employment by seeing the different ways those technologies are being used. If someone, for example, wants to go into education but they don't necessarily want to teach, they are now seeing how computer information technology and desktop publishing can be used in education, and I think maybe they wouldn't have considered that option in the past.
We are also seeing funding needs increasing with the economy and many colleges and universities across the country are limiting the number of classes a student can drop without being penalized. Some universities are looking at increasing the cost of courses after a student enrolls in a specific number of classes. For example, if a student goes over 120 credit hours, they may start being charged out-of-state tuition. States are doing that to encourage students not to squander financial aid. As a result, students have to be more focused. Students are considering their funding needs earlier. They are no longer relying on student aid and dropping courses without really thinking about the future impact. It's good in a lot of ways because I think students need to be more focused so they are not graduating from college with huge amounts of student loan debt, which has sometimes been the case in the past. On the other hand, it puts a greater responsibility on both the student and the institution to get the student through school as efficiently as possible. For example, our college has advisors in the general student services center, and in each one of our divisions we have counselors available as well. We encourage students to not only speak with an advisor when they come in, but also to make an appointment with our counselors so they can receive career advice and other assistance on a one-on-one basis.
Jill Randolph: What are the three most important things the students can do to prepare to find a job?
Tonya Britton: Assuming the student has earned his or her degree and is ready to join the workforce, I think internships are still very important, maybe more now than ever before. We see students having a difficult time taking unpaid internships as funding sources become restricted, so there is always some push and pull there. We advise students who consider internships to complete more than one, because in so many industries, working for just one company won't give the student the big picture of what that field is really like. For example, we have a land surveying and mapping technology program where students can work for the federal government or a municipality, but those are only two options. Another option is working for a private company, either a small business, or a large corporation, such as the oil companies we have located here in the Houston area. Students will have completely different experiences doing internships for each of these different sectors. We recommend students also consider completing internships in more than one industry. For example, a computer technician can work in the medical, banking, and energy industries and have very different experiences in each. We also recommend that they start interning when they are freshmen or sophomores, even if they have to start out with an internship that doesn't give them a lot of responsibility at the beginning. Gaining an idea of what an average workday is like is very valuable because there is a lot that students can learn just being in the working environment that they cannot get from the classroom. Finding out early whether the things you like about your major translate into a job you can live with can save valuable time and money down the road.
The second thing we recommend to students is to join student and professional associations. We have one here that targets students over 30 and which is designed for people who took some time off before coming back to school. Joining an organization like this is a great way for students to bond with their peers. Joining a professional association as a student helps them to get an idea of where they can go with their job search. They will also gain helpful tips and learn industry language and about their industry's culture.
The third most important thing while preparing to find a job is to learn how to write a targeted resume appropriate to one's industry. Students should include previous work, volunteer and internship experiences, as well as academic work, all of which should be worded in a way the employer will understand and find value in. We do, however, tell students to be careful not to use too much industry jargon so it is a balancing act; we want them to speak understandably and in a way that will clearly define the value of their accomplishments. Someone who has worked as a waitress, for example, has probably developed great customer service skills and an ability to remember and organize information in a logical manner, and these skills can transfer to many fields. The key is for applicants to write a resume in a way that translates their skills into industry language that is both authentic and relevant to the position they are applying for.
Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to students to help them to stand out from other job applicants?
Tonya Britton: Of course internships will help students stand out, particularly if they stay in touch with their previous supervisor and their coworkers. A lot of times, students are in and out and they have no follow-up with that organization. Internships provide an opportunity for students to get experience, but just as importantly, they provide students with the opportunity to develop lifelong contacts with people who can help them throughout their professional lives. If the student stands out in his or her internship, perhaps that employer will work with the student and give him or her a recommendation. The internship may have ended two years ago, but because the student maintained contact with the employer, he or she will be able to receive a positive and helpful recommendation.
Students should also consider pursuing an advanced degree, a technical skills certificate or industry certification. We often see students who have a passion for an area that doesn't necessarily translate directly to a job. For example, undergraduate students may struggle with identifying available jobs for psychology majors, so we talk to them about continuing on to get their master's degree before they go into the work place. A psychology student can also become highly employable by pursuing a certificate in human resources. So, if they take classes with us during one additional semester they will be able to develop a very attractive skill set in a specific career field. Employers need someone who has soft skills, but the employee also needs to meet the job's technical requirements. Sometimes students think they have to choose between a four-year degree and technical certificate, but we are seeing students who choose both. We have a program at our college that allows students who have a bachelor's degree in business to pursue a certificate in accounting. Once they complete the coursework with us, they are eligible to sit for the state exam to become certified public accountants. In addition to awarding degrees, community colleges are excellent and cost effective resources for career development and specialization.
Jill Randolph: I've recently heard that 80 percent or more of jobs today are found through networking. Are you hearing that more employers are looking for candidates through recommendations from current employees and through other networking approaches, or are traditional methods still important?
Tonya Britton: I think networking is still very relevant for many employers. Making the wrong hire can be costly to them in terms of both time and money, so it's always easier and safer for employers to go with who they know.
The key is to network with the correct people. Sometimes people will blow off positions that they have worked as temporary hires, but working for a while with a less than desirable company will still help people expand their network and options for the future. Students also need to keep in mind that they should treat staffing agencies with the same respect as an employer, because agency recruiters are a vital part of any network. Some companies will hire for certain positions only through staffing agencies so they are first-line human resource personnel. We see a lot of this with our information technology folks and it's becoming true for some in the healthcare community as well.
In some fields, such as Biotechnology, a lot of companies are start-ups, so in order for people to get their foot in the door, they need to know someone. That's where an internship can come into play. A student can help the new company develop their website, and once the company is up and running, they may hire that person full time.
Sociologist Mark Granovetter calls networking "the strength of weak ties", and states that many weak ties can be more beneficial than a few strong ones because they bring forward new information and ideas, and more opportunities. It is important for students to consider their network beyond their friends and the people they go to school with, and to use social networking sites as well. Sites like LinkedIn and Facebook can provide students with information and access to people at a level they might not have otherwise been able to reach. We encourage students to keep their social media profile appropriate and up to date, especially when they decide to transition into the professional world, and to look beyond sites like MySpace and into more professional sites like LinkedIn.
Jill Randolph: What do you recommend to students or recent graduates in order to help build their professional network on sites like LinkedIn?
Tonya Britton: A lot of employers are interested in effectively incorporating multiple generations into the workplace, so they are very interested in hearing from students. Identifying industry groups on LinkedIn and then participating in the discussions is a great way for students to start with online networking and once they feel comfortable interacting with the other group members, they can invite someone to connect with them. If they communicate in a respectful and professional manner, and are authentic, it is very likely that the student will receive invitations to connect with others first. Those connections become important links in the networking chain and can expose the student to any number of decision-makers.
For people who are re-careering, joining networking groups in a new field will give them the opportunity to showcase how their knowledge and skills transfer across industries and positions. They should find a group that is in their desired career field or industry and respond to some of the questions without being afraid of referring back to how they handled a similar situation in a previous job. A background in technology, human resources or management can transfer to many different careers, and joining different networks is a great way to be able to showcase one's knowledge and skills.
Jill Randolph: What advice do you offer to students regarding how to maintain a work-life balance once they start working full-time?
Tonya Britton: It's never too early for a student to begin making decisions with work-life balance in mind. They can start as far back as in high school by taking courses for dual credit. This way, the student won't have to pay college tuition for those classes. They will then need to take fewer courses after graduating high school and will be closer to finishing their degree before their financial aid begins to run out. This could mean the difference between a college career that includes participating in internships, student clubs and other student development activities versus one spent working back to back jobs just to pay for tuition. Also, the major a college student chooses can impact future work-life balance. For example, if someone decides to go to school to be a physician, they are going to have many more years of schoolwork and residency ahead of them than someone who pursues a less demanding course of study. Once students start working full-time, we encourage them to make time to exercise, have fun and socialize.
Last month, we offered seminars on a variety of facets of work-life balance, including: exercise techniques, financial wellness, time management, a painting class as an example of hands-on creative release, goal setting, leadership balance, and how to find a career that matches one's natural personality. Work-life balance means different things to different people, and we aim to help our students and community find their balance, regardless of their definition of what that means.
Jill Randolph: Do you have any career-related books or websites you recommend to your students?
Tonya Britton: "Reality Check" gives students a taste of how much things really cost and how much income one needs to achieve a specific standard of living in Texas. It's a fun online game we use at orientation sessions for junior and senior high school students. It's really interesting to see how surprised they are at the actual cost of one car versus another and the difference between staying home with children and paying for childcare. People don't always realize the true cost of their decisions, and that also translates into thinking about which careers their majors will lead them to.
"The Rise of the Creative Class", by Richard Florida, is good for students interested in technology-oriented jobs, because it analyzes that shift. "Who's Your City", also written by Richard Florida, is an interesting book, along with "What Color Is Your Parachute", by Richard Boles.
I think a lot of what college is about is learning to ask questions and knowing there is an answer for every question, somewhere. I think it's one of the reasons getting involved in professional associations is so important, because they demonstrate a lot of what we teach students in a real world context. We put so much emphasis on the academic side of college, but students also have to look at the big picture and what they want out of life when choosing a major and a career path.
Jill Randolph: How do you think schools have changed from the past?
Tonya Britton: I think schools are becoming more flexible in trying to organize class structure and format in ways that will best accommodate students. We offer several degree programs and we have articulation agreements with many universities so there are a lot of options for our students. We are also offering an increased number of online and hybrid courses. Today, we are working in a learner-centric environment and our efforts demonstrate that we recognize that.
Jill Randolph: The articulation agreement is invaluable because so many students start at one school and finish at another, so the fact that those credits are able to transfer is wonderful because it saves time, money and effort.
Tonya Britton: As funding resources become more restricted, it's more important than ever that students receive the most value possible out of every course they take, and it's their responsibility to narrow their focus and be strategic. It's also the responsibility of colleges and universities to make sure students receive the best value for their time, effort and money. LSC strives to do this by offering no-charge career counseling to our students and to the community, by offering relevant courses that help our graduates find gainful employment, and by offering high school dual credit courses. Our campus also hosts The University Center, where six universities offer programs leading to both undergraduate and advanced degrees. We have articulation agreements with many of the programs so that even our technical certificates and degrees will transfer into some bachelor's programs. The Lone Star College System is a one stop shop for students who decide to take advantage of all that we offer.