Old Dominion University Career Director Interview: 'Soft Skills' Important To Employers

By CityTownInfo Staff
September 1, 2009

The following is an interview transcript with Alice Jones, Director of Student and Alumni Programs with Old Dominion University. ODU is situated in Norfolk, Virginia. It is a large public research university which began in 1930 as the Norfolk Division of the College of William & Mary.

The athletic teams of Old Dominion University are known as the Monarchs and compete in the Colonial Athletic Association. ODU's athletic teams have won more than 20 team national championships.

Interview Transcript

CityTownInfo: What career advice do you give to someone entering college today?

Alice Jones: I make presentations to the new incoming students for the College of Arts and Letters, and I've found a lot of freshmen aren't really thinking about the specifics of their careers and their future when they first get to school. They are still all excited about coming to college and being here at ODU. I make sure to tell them to use all of the resources available to them and to start early with whatever they are doing and really focus in on it. I advise students to explore and take time to look at the different career opportunities and options available, and to look into where those majors might lead them. The liberal art students I work with often have a difficult time choosing a career path because their majors don't directly map to a particular job. Unlike in the colleges of business or engineering, there is no direct link, so we talk to them about exploring their options and getting as much experience as possible, to help carve out their future career paths. It's also important for them to develop soft skills along with their job-related hard skills, including good communication skills, a good work ethic, strong leadership and computer skills, as well as the ability to adapt their textbook learning to the working world. I advise students to do as well as they can academically also, because that might be where employers draw the line, and students want to be above that line instead of below.

CityTownInfo: Does Old Dominion University offer career services to its alumni?

Alice Jones: Yes, and were actually just awarded a second NACE Chevron Award, for our use of technology. We first received this award from the National Association of Colleges and Employers in 2007. The 2007 award was for our implementation of technology and our provision of service. We provide services 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year to all of our alumni and students. We are able to be available a lot more easily because of the technology we have implemented, and also with the live face-to-face, electronic and self-service options we offer. My title is the Director of Student and Alumni Program, so I am one of the links to help market our programs and services to alumni. We don't charge our students or alumni for our services, so that helps. Sometimes our faculty and staff members come in for quick advice as well.

CityTownInfo: Do you offer any special services to the community at large?

Alice Jones: Members of the community can visit our website and take advantage of the wealth of information there. We participate in other programs as well, and are starting to expand our participation in programs that impact the community. We have been asked to give presentations to various organizations on a variety of topics, and coworkers recently did a presentation for the city of Norfolk for their summer intern program. Some of the interns were our students, and some were from other colleges and universities. We have a link with the Urban League, the Chamber of Commerce, the local Youth Council and several other organizations in the Hampton Roads Area. This past year several of us served on the planning committee for the Urban League's Empowerment Summit. It is a huge community event the organization holds every year. In addition to some of us being on the planning committee, our office also sponsored a trip allowing students an opportunity to participate in the event. Some of our staff members attended and helped with the resume review session that was part of the career fair. Even though we don't offer individual services to non-students or non-alumni, we have lot of connections with the community. We have a career instant messaging feature on our website, where people can ask questions about careers or any related topics. Usually students are the ones involved, but sometimes we'll get emails from people in the community about how to do things, and we have staff members working in out Cyber Career Center who respond to their inquires and questions.

Our last few career fairs have been open to military families, and at our spring fair we allowed current students and alumni, and university faculty and staff to bring their family members. This fair was right at the beginning of the economic downturn, and there had been a lot of layoffs. Everyone starting to be concerned about the economy, and this was a really positive community effort.

CityTownInfo: What differences are you seeing between students of today versus years past?

Alice Jones: Last summer we held our annual employer symposium, and asked employers to give us feedback on their impressions of our students and what they felt they should be able to know and do upon graduation. One of the key points they addressed is that students have an expectation that they are going to start out at the top, or that they'll get there fast. Students today usually don't plan on being on one place for a long time. It's easy for them to look at a job they don't like and move on to something else.

Today's students have grown up with so much technology and I think it's also a lot easier for them to come up with faster or more efficient ways to get work done. I think the difficulty sometimes comes in how they communicate that information to their supervisors or their audience.

For the most part, I think students today are hardworking, dedicated and diligent, just as they were several years ago. However, I also think some students today are overly concerned with the economy, and at times they are more pre-emptive and stop themselves in their job search process. They don't meet face-to-face as much and they'll wait for more feedback from parents or whoever the significant people in their lives are before making decisions. From our particular population of students, a lot of them are tied here through family, so they have a difficult time moving outside of this area. A large majority of our alumni live in Virginia and the Hampton Roads area.

CityTownInfo: What are some suggestions you recommend to students to help them stand out from other job applicants?

Related Article: How to Research Potential Employers Before the Interview

From eHow.com

This article is about how conducting research on a potential employer is an important step to take before your interview. By researching a potential employer, you will be able to find out what it's like to work there and if you will be a good fit for the organization. Excerpts from the article:

  1. Make a list of what you want to know about the potential employer before you begin researching the company.
  2. Use a search engine on the Internet to find out information about your potential employer.
  3. Look through print media to see if you can locate further information about the potential employer.

For more information and more tips, read the full article.

Alice Jones: There are all kinds of articles and information out there about standing out from the crowd, but I think students need to be prepared, know what they are looking for, research the companies and have good questions to ask. Often, students think just looking at the company's website is sufficient, but some of the feedback we get from employers is about how prepared or unprepared students are. Through our on-campus interview program, and preparation seminars, we encourage students to research companies and gather enough background information to ask good questions, and make a positive impression. Students can also stand out by having a clear focus and being able to articulate to employers what their strengths and weaknesses are and where they see themselves going in a way that makes sense to the employer.

In terms of putting an application together, a strong resume and cover letter makes such a difference. If a student can communicate with employers to help them see where they fit within the organization, it makes the student all the more appealing as a candidate. Employers tell us some students just know they want a job, but aren't able to clearly talk about what they've learned while they were at school and how their education and the skills they've gained fit together to help them in the job. Having work experience like internships or co-ops can help a student stand out as well. I was recently reading an article about the job search process, discussing how students now need to be able to take their search to the next level. It's more than just going online and posting resumes on various job search sites, they need to make sure they use all of the resources available to them. Many students today are diversifying and using a lot of other online tools, including social networking sites to help with self-branding. They are basically marketing themselves in another place where employers may be paying attention.

A student in one of our masters programs put together a whole presentation for a group on-campus about using LinkedIn and creating a brand for oneself. I think that's becoming an area where people need to start to consider when taking their search to the next level; they can't just stick to the same old thing. Personal contacts are also really important, and I think a lot of employers are starting to look at these online tools and social networking sites as a viable resource. Professional associations in the career field like the Virginia Association of Colleges and Employers are using online networking more and more. We are talking about online opportunities and how employers are using them and how we are coaching our students to be able to take advantage of them as resources in the job search. It's a way to moving to the next level.

CityTownInfo: What do you think are the three most important things a student can do to prepare to find a job?

Alice Jones: I think it's important for students to have experience, whether it's through volunteering, participating in an organization on or off campus, internships, co-ops or a part-time job. Just having any experience is going to be a real key. I think it's important for students to be focused and know where they are trying to go so they can make the right choices and choose the right combinations of coursework ahead of time. Developing skills a student might not learn through coursework is important as well. In a report recently done in conjunction with SHRM and the Corporate Voices for Working Families and the Partnership for the 21st Century Skills, the three skills employers weighed most heavily for four-year College graduates were oral communication skills, teamwork skills and professionalism. A lot of people talk about Generation Y and the Millennials and the ways students are portrayed, but those topics come out again and again when we talk to employers. It is really important for them to be able to see those qualities in the students they hire, and those are skills students don't necessarily gain by taking classes.

CityTownInfo: Do you think most employers lean towards a candidate who has integrity and other soft skills, or do you think they look for potential employees who have the desired technical skills who can hit the ground running?

Alice Jones: I think most employers feel like they can teach their new employees the needed technical skills, but if the candidate can't work with people, it doesn't matter how great they are at their job because there is going to be constant friction and drama. As I said before, I work with liberal art students, and that's what I tell them. There are a lot of employers who come to our career fairs who hire regardless of major. This reinforces to me that employers would rather have a candidate with a certain skill set, and what they get from a particular major is not the most important thing to them. We produce a Career Advantage Program Guide for our students, which is our career center's branding and helps gives an advantage to our students and alumni. One of the sections in the Program Guide talks about qualities desired in new college graduates, including energy, drive, enthusiasm, initiative, being able to transfer what they have learned in class to the working world, a knowledge of computers, communication skills, leadership skills and looking for ways to accomplish more than is required. If an employer sees a student who has succeeded in the past, they believe that means they will be successful for them as well. Accounting students need to know how to add and do math, but for the most part, there are opportunities all over for people with strong soft skills. I think employers would be willing to work with an employee who lacks certain technical skills in favor of strong soft skills.

I think there are always going to be certain areas where the employers are going to need to have people with a strong set of specific skills because the industry demands it. There are an equal number of areas, however, where the employers are looking for a broader, well-rounded person they can train to perform the job.

CityTownInfo: As far as a resume goes, do you encourage students to include both their technical skills and their soft skills since the employer might be looking for one or the other, or do you encourage students to just mention soft skills during the interview process?

Related Article: CityTownInfo Career Story: Database Developer In Financial Services

Job Title: Database Developer

One may not think that a Database Developer, who is usually behind the scenes, would need to develop soft skills, but not so! Read the excerpt from one of CityTownInfo.com's career stories:

Type of Company: We provide financial services to retail and institutional investors.

Job Tips:
Don't forget "soft" skills. It's important to be able to write and speak well, both to technical and non-technical people. A good attitude and work ethic goes a long way no matter what you're doing.

Don't give up! You may think you don't have what it takes, but as you get more and more experience, you get more and more confident.

Alice Jones: I encourage students to include both skill sets in their resumes. We even encourage students to include their related classes or coursework so employers are aware they have a foundation or familiarity with the concepts they will be dealing with. We encourage them to include computer skills, specific software, hardware or technology skills, and language skills on their resumes as well, because occasionally that's what can make the difference. It's better for students to cover all their bases.

As far as how long a resume should be, we always have this discussion. We tell students one page is typically enough, but if it goes onto two pages, we want them to have all the most important information on the first page. We have a pretty large population of nontraditional students here; we have a lot of transfer students, older students, and even military students, so each resume is unique. We have students who have worked before with years of experience but with no degree to back up their experience, so they come back to school to get their degree. These students might have lots of related experience that makes their resumes a bit longer, so I try to look at each student I work with individually and figure out what they need and what makes sense. The information we have on our website in our resume section talks about choosing a format and doing a self-inventory, then we have a checklist so students can try to make sure they have included the most important information. Often times I tell students to give relevant details on all of their jobs, and then we will review their resume and start cutting information so we can include the most relevant items based on the needs of the position. Some students feel like they have to have one page, so they cut out a lot of important information and they don't have anything left that makes them remarkable.

CityTownInfo: At what point of experience would you say that it's okay for students to start removing their coursework from their resume?

Alice Jones: Once they have related experience that outweighs the benefit of having the courses. Sometimes people are changing directions, so maybe they have a lot of experience in one area, but they don't have a lot in the area they are switching to. If they've had courses in those areas, I encourage them to put that back on their resume if they didn't take the courses too long ago. Sometimes I have liberal art students who have taken accounting courses and I tell them to put that on their resume because it might help them, depending on what they are applying for. Again, it's on a case-by-case basis, but once they've been out of school and they are working, that coursework is no longer necessary because the other experience will outweigh it.

CityTownInfo: Do you have any career related books or websites you recommend to your students?

Alice Jones: One book I recommend to many of my students is called "Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?" by Ellen Gordon Reeves, is a fun, quick-read book And discusses a lot of different topics related to interviewing, the job search and being successful in the first year on the job.

Our career management center's website has lots of information from basic resume writing tips to career exploration, cover letter writing, job search strategies, evaluating job offers and information about graduate school. We have one specific tool we encourage our students to use, especially the freshmen, which is a self-assessment tool, FOCUS, where students answer questions to help get a handle on their strengths and weaknesses. It also can help them if they are choosing majors because it relates the career fields back to majors we have here at ODU. It even gives general average salary information, so that's really helpful. There is also a simple tool students can explore, which shows what kinds of opportunities are related to each major, and then it lists industries where students might find those kinds of jobs and strategies for how to be successful in those fields. We are also moving into the career media area, where we have different media tools to help students explore information about companies. There are tools through YouTube, iTunes and a live radio broadcast where students can hear people talking about the issues impacting their job search or their career decisions. Some of our seminars are actually available there as well. For example, if we are not doing a workshop or seminar on resume writing, someone who needs help can visit our website and find a self-serve resume seminar they can watch at their leisure. They can listen to it on iTunes too.

CityTownInfo: That's also good for the students who may not able to attend certain seminars.

Alice Jones: Correct. And we have a large distance population too, so that's a way for them to get information as well. Our Cyber Career Center is staffed Monday through Thursday from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Fridays, where students can instant message a question and one of our staff will immediately respond. We can even provide web-based appointments and seminars so that students and alumni can get that information and assistance as well.

CityTownInfo: How do you think the recession is impacting your student enrollment? Is enrollment up because people realize they need more schooling in order to be competitive in this market, up because students are deciding to earn higher degrees now while the job market is not so great, or down because more people can't afford the costs of higher education?

Alice Jones: I think all of that is going on. During May graduation we did a sample survey of the students graduating from the undergraduate program. We sampled over 300 students, and about 46 percent of them were planning to begin or continue on with their job search after graduation, 29 percent were planning to attend graduate school, 23 percent were starting new jobs and 15 percent were staying in the area or already had a job that they were continuing. We also saw a small percentage, about four percent, were going to travel or things like that. I think a lot of students who were considering staying in school were doing so because it's easier. We see a lot of students preempting themselves and thinking there aren't any jobs out there, so they are not looking and they are stopping themselves before they even get started. It makes it interesting to work with them. We have to convince them there are in fact jobs out there. One of the tools we use on our website lets us identify all of the jobs that haven't had any applicants, so we can send that information out to students, and there are hundreds of jobs every week.

We also have accelerated master's programs at ODU, which we see students looking at more frequently now. It will be interesting to see how many students are applying for these programs compared to other years.

CityTownInfo: Are you referring to an executive master's program where students attend class one night during the week and all day on Saturday?

Alice Jones: We have a lot of evening programs and daytime programs as well, so there is a range in the kinds of programs we offer. In the accelerated programs students apply during their junior year and if accepted, during their senior year, take bridge classes so they can complete their master's degree in one more year. The bridge classes satisfy their B.A. or B.S. requirements, and they also satisfy their M.A or M.S requirements, so it's a lot more economical.

CityTownInfo: With this help students get into the workforce much more quickly as well?

Alice Jones: Yes, it makes it better for everyone, especially when considering the costs of paying for education.

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