Lifelong Career Success

By Syl Kacapyr

Career Center's new mission has students thinking differently about jobs.

Until he arrived at Cornell Engineering, each step of Gabe Zimmerman’s ’17 followed fairly straightforward steps in his life: elementary school, middle school, high school and then college. Now facing the end of his undergraduate education, the mechanical engineering senior says he no longer has a standard path forward.

“There is undoubtedly a lot of stress associated with finding a job. For me, the majority of the stress is founded in the unknown,” said Zimmerman.

Zimmerman is one of many in his generation that is bringing with him a new set of challenges for those charged with helping him to prepare for a career. The rising cost of tuition combined with an economy still wary from the Great Recession has placed more pressure than ever on graduating college students to land a job and provide a return on their investment in higher education.

Career advisors must also consider the different needs of today’s job seekers. A recent Gallup report titled “How Millennials Want to Work and Live,” found that people born between roughly the years 1980 and 2000 tie their careers much more closely to their personal identities than previous generations. A job is no longer just a paycheck to young employees, it’s their life.

For Zimmerman, being a mechanical engineer means having a wide range of jobs and industries to choose from. “I know that I don’t want to participate in [defense-related] work. Because so much engineering is focused around defense, it obviously reduces the options I have in selecting a career path,” said Zimmerman, who added that he views the reduction in options as a guiding factor rather than a disadvantage.  

With students like Zimmerman in mind, the Cornell Engineering Career Center is evolving with the times. A new name, new director and new mission are positioning the center to best prepare students to meet their personal goals as well as the unique challenges of the 21st century. By engaging with students early, providing a customized experience and encouraging self reflection, the center is empowering students to not just land a job that will pay off those student loans, but to find satisfaction and a pathway to lifelong career success.

Knowledge of Self

When Christa Downey became director of Cornell Engineering Co-op and Career Services in August 2015, one of her first orders of business was to establish some clarity. The name of the office was changed to the Cornell Engineering Career Center, and its long vision statement was boiled down to its essence: Every Cornell engineer experiences career satisfaction.

As an associate director at the center from 2004 to 2008, Downey’s focus was to prepare students to find jobs. But as a director, she sought a deeper understanding of what would satisfy students beyond simply receiving a job offer. She began to ask “What kinds of jobs are students finding?” and “How are we empowering students to get jobs they’re more inspired by?”

And that’s where the career center’s new philosophy departs from that of many others. The goal isn’t just to get students out of the classroom and into a cubicle, it’s to get students thinking about how their values might align with a company’s, the kind of culture they’d like to work in and the type of people they’d like to surround themselves with. 

“If their strengths include focus and analysis, for example, and they want a job where they’re working intently with data, it may not be in their best interest—or in the interest of a company—for them to pursue a job in which the majority of their work includes being engaged with a team for the majority of the time,” said Tracey Brant, director of the center’s Kessler Fellows program and certified life coach, among other certifications.

Another finding from the Gallup report on Millennials helps redefine what job satisfaction means to today’s job seekers. They don’t want to simply be happy in their professions, they want to have purpose and they want the opportunity for career development. They prefer coaches and mentors who can help them build on their strengths, as opposed to traditional bosses. And they don’t favor annual reviews. Instead, they want real-time, ongoing communication and feedback on job performance.

These concepts are declared in the career center’s new mission statement, which is to “inspire and empower Cornell engineers to create lifelong career success.” To ensure students identify exactly what they want in a career, and position themselves to consistently find that satisfaction as they advance from job to job.

To help navigate students through their career journey, the center is encouraging them to do what it has done: define a vision and define a mission. Through the center’s various programs and offerings, students are asked to write simple vision and mission statements for themselves. Downey says this prepares students to move forward with important, and sometime difficult, career decisions using a clear set of goals and values to guide them.

And the statements help students articulate to employers why they’re interested in a specific job or company, according to Downey. “Employers tell me ‘by the time I’ve narrowed it down to a dozen students, I know they can each do the job. But who wants that job? Who’s excited about the work that we do? Who’s able to convince me that they’re really interested in this database that we produce, or this software, or whatever the thing is,’” said Downey.

“Recruiters are telling us that articulated self-awareness helps set students apart,” added Brant. “It’s the difference between a student who presents a mindful career pursuit and one who is saying ‘I need a job, any job.’” 

Noah Pacifici ’17, who’s studying biological engineering, states that his mission is “to make people’s lives safer and more convenient using medical technology.” His vision is “a future where any biological problem can be solved using engineering and technology.”

“Originally I was set on the idea of being a product development engineer,” said Pacifici, who said self-reflecting has changed the way he thinks about future jobs. “Now that I realize my overall mission and vision related to the more general goal of helping others through medical technology, I see that I can accomplish this through a number of career paths such as research, marketing, management and teaching.”

Early Intervention

Downey and her team of career service professionals have begun to incorporate this philosophy of self reflection into individual meetings with students as well as into the various programs they run. And they’re finding that the greatest impact occurs when it’s integrated into a student’s education from day one.

“We’re starting to work with first-year students straight away, and those conversations have been surprising,” said Brant, who added that the career center is integrated into the freshman seminar ENGRG 1050, where students earn a credit for meeting with an advisor once a week. Topics of discussion include grades, engineering ethics and career services.

Members of the career center have been meeting with students as part of the seminar for over a decade now, but only recently has the format of that first encounter changed. “We used to show up with a PowerPoint that had tips for resumes and some post-grad survey statistics,” said Downey. “Now we’ve changed that up so they’re more interactive sessions talking about networking and how to introduce yourself. And we get them thinking about what they can do over the next four years that is career related.”

Encouraging students to be proactive as early as freshman year is a fairly new concept in the world of engineering career services. Many first-year students are more concerned about finding their way around campus and choosing majors than they are about their future careers. But the expectation isn’t that freshmen need to choose a career path. Downey says the goal is to get students actively involved in preparing themselves to make that decision at a later time. It’s about having a game plan and mapping out their time so no opportunities are squandered. “Students from our spring course used these statements as guides in selecting courses, internships, and majors,” said Downey.

Tae Kyung Kong ’20 says he’s been passionate about product design since high school, but he didn’t know how to translate that into a career. He initially considered pursuing this passion through chemical engineering, but after coming to Cornell and contemplating more deeply about what exactly he enjoyed about product design, he realized it was the visual aspects he was most enthusiastic about. This led Kong to major in information science and minor in business.

“It really helps to know what you want to do in the future. This allows you to take classes that you’re interested in,” said Kong. “If I hadn't thought about my major, I would have taken courses only relevant to chemical engineering and would probably never had discovered information science.”

Armed with a new pathway to his future, Kong began to examine concrete steps he could take to traverse that path. One exercise the career center does with students includes a blank calendar marked only with semesters and seasonal breaks. The calendar comes with nearly 100 suggestions students can consider exploring during each of those time frames. Suggestions for first-year students include items as simple as creating a LinkedIn account and researching clubs they can join in order to gain valuable experience.

Kong began searching LinkedIn for product design internships and used the career center to obtain a list of startups he could contact. “I also look at career pages of tech companies that I’m interested in interning at. I ultimately just want to gain experience and get the grasp of what it means to be a product designer in the industry,” the freshman said.

But not all students are like Kong. Downey concedes that some first-year students simply won’t be ready to take those first steps toward career development, and that’s OK. Despite the advantages to early intervention, the career center takes a “when you’re ready” approach to the services it offers.

For students who aren’t ready to develop a personal mission statement or meet with a career advisor, the center provides a number of web-based tools for students to explore career options on their own time. These tools include webinars and workbooks with tips for job applications, interviews and networking.

Downey says those tools can help students get ahead so that when they do have the time or feel comfortable meeting with an advisor, the conversation can be at a much higher level.

A New Model

For students who are ready to take their career exploration to the next level, they’ll find an experience inside the career center—located on the second floor of Carpenter Hall—that’s built to meet the needs of today’s job seekers.

“The historic model of career services relies heavily on resume critiques, mock interviews and maybe interests- and strengths-based assessment tools to guide a student through the process,” explained Downey. “Our enhanced model offers all of this and also pulls together values, interests and skills through self-reflection and dialogue, providing the space for students to question the impact they wish to have.” 

An example of such a space is the small group workshops implemented by the career center, where five to six students sit together and share their different perspectives, experiences, hopes and fears. The sessions are moderated by staff professionals and include themes such as case interviews, negotiating the terms of an offer, career fair preparation and developing a personal pitch. 

While students can learn valuable information from each other, Brant says the group sessions also provide an opportunity to hone communications skills. “Students declare what it is that they believe they currently want in a career and it’s an opportunity for them to try it out and see if it feels good to them,” said Brant, who added that the sessions build on the philosophy of providing opportunities to increase self-awareness and confidence, but in the context of working with others.

Julie Shields '16, a biological engineering senior who plans to pursue a master's degree in biomedical engineering after graduating in December, said the group discussions were a casual, pressure-free way to share interests, values and strategies. “Hearing what other people had to say makes you realize that you are not alone in this endeavor, and that while there are some people that know exactly what they want to do in life, there are also many others that are still figuring it out,” said Shields.

This new group-model of career services is also reflected in the course ENGRG 2350–Career Development For Engineering. The two-credit course had offered job application basics such as tips for creating a resume or writing a cover letter, but has since been overhauled.

“We moved away from the lecture-style class format because it wasn’t conducive to creating an environment where students could engage with each other, explore possibilities, reflect on past experiences and have thoughtful discussions around career planning,” said Nadia Kiechle, assistant director of the career center and one of the course instructors. 

And unlike the ENGRG 1050 freshman seminar, ENGRG 2350 is geared toward students at any point in their academic careers, including graduates. The course has been so popular that the career center is now offering two sessions in 2017, with both expected to fill.

“Our goal is that when students leave this course they are more prepared and confident to take ownership of their career planning, and have developed strategies for successfully managing their careers over a lifetime,” said Kiechle.

After taking the course, Shields said she walked away with a new perspective. “One of the big take-home messages was that career development is a continuous process that requires work. Your career is a journey, not a destination,” she stated.

Trevor Allain, a Facebook recruiter who relies on the career center to help identify potential interns and employees, said Facebook devotes resources to ensure it hires students not just looking for a job, but also looking for a challenge. "The students we are fortunate enough to have join us are not afraid to venture into the unknown and drive their career down the path of their choice," said Allain. "In a way, you could say we look for students who feel empowered to take action on their career goals and interests rather than have it passively prescribed to them."

Customized Experience

Cornell Engineering students at their respective Co-op Program locations.

The career center is open to all 5,200-plus undergraduate and graduate students within Cornell Engineering. That includes the nearly 700 Master of Engineering (M.Eng.) students who enroll each school year, most of whom are seeking jobs.

Downey says that amounts to approximately 11,000 contacts with students each year for the center, so in order to achieve its new vision of every Cornell engineer experiencing career satisfaction, a one-size-fits-all approach cannot be applied. That’s why the career center offers a menu of programs and tools that fits the needs of any student seeking career advice.

For those M.Eng. students and others ready to enter the job field, the career center’s recruiting program is the largest of any college on campus. In the 2015-16 school year, the center oversaw 1,809 on-campus interviews for full-time employment, with 114 different companies invited to campus. For students looking to bolster their resumes with an internship, the center oversaw 1,241 on-campus interviews with 100 different companies.

The center maintains relationships with those companies and also reaches out to potential employers that haven’t been to campus yet. “If a student came to me and said, ‘what’s it like to be at Johnson & Johnson or GE Aviation? Have you ever been there?’ All of our advisers have been there at least once,” said Kimberlee Swartz, associate director of the center. “We get a sense of what students experience and what their work entails. We talk to employees, visit with alumni and build relationships with employers. We see what the campus and facilities are like,” she added.

“In order to best advise students, we also read industry news and participate in various conferences and workshops to stay on top of trends,” said Downey.

Aside from an aggressive recruiting program, the career center facilitates two other programs that serve as advanced versions of internships, providing a deeper, richer experience for students looking to explore a career field: The Co-op Program and the Kessler Fellows Program.

It’s almost disingenuous to compare the programs to an internship. Take the Co-op Program for example. While most internships last 10-12 weeks, co-op is a 28-week program where students are treated as entry-level engineers.

“The nice thing is many of your colleagues might think you’re the new person,” said Downey of co-op participants. “So you’re given the level of responsibility and respect that you often wouldn’t have with an internship. Your supervisors already have projects more significant ready to give you,” she added, noting that the program also comes with the benefit of being a structured experience with resources provided by the career center.

Not only does the center work with students to search and secure co-op positions, it helps them make the most of them by checking in with students during the first half of their tenure, even visiting work sites in some cases. The monitoring ensures employers are providing meaningful challenges and mentoring to students.

Henry Ly ’15 had been a civil engineering major and spent his co-op experience as an assistant engineer with Turner Construction Company in New York City. There, he worked with consultants and subcontractors on orders and installations for a project on the 65th floor of the renowned Rockefeller Center building.

In his final job summary report, he wrote that when other students finished their internships, he stayed and gained valuable experience. “I was really able to just pick up where I left off at the end of the fall term since they knew my abilities and I knew what they expected out of me,” wrote Ly. “Since I was put on the same project, I was allowed the rare opportunity for an intern to see the beginning and the end of a construction project,” added Ly, who wrote that he also gained exposure to the financial aspects of a construction site, a privilege many other interns did not have.

Ly’s co-op experience resulted in a job offer from Turner Construction Company where he now works as an assistant engineer.

For students with more of an entrepreneurial mindset, the Kessler Fellows Program provides a year-long experience for select juniors looking to combine on-campus learning with exposure to the startup culture. The prestigious title of Kessler Fellow not only comes with a unique curriculum and a stipend, but an entrepreneurial experience at a vetted startup company that combines both business and engineering work.

Fellows are expected to meaningfully contribute to their selected company’s success, and according to Brant, students often choose to continue working with their companies throughout their senior year at Cornell. Some receive full time job offers upon graduation.

“The program is one-of-a-kind and fellows are involved in every step of designing an individual experience,” said Brant.

Looking Forward

It’s clear that today’s job seekers are taking a different approach to their careers than the generations that came before them. “They’ve always known the Internet and they’ve always had a phone in their hands,” noted Swartz. “So that’s informing how our office offers our services.”

Swartz says that means in addition to in-person advising, the career center offers services through online digital resources like video clips and webinars. Also, the center recently installed four wall-mounted computers in its interview rooms.

“Virtual remote interviews are becoming more widespread. We used to do some Skyping and WebEx, but now we’re seeing it more and more, where you don’t have to be on location to interview, which provides additional opportunities for our students,” added Swartz. 

The career center also makes use of the university's subscription to Handshake, a digital platform where students, career centers and recruiters can virtually meet, talk and share opportunities. The service is popular with young job seekers because its social media-like approach is convenient and intuitive to them.

"Working as university recruiter for the past 4 years I will say Cornell is very fortunate to have the resources it does, as many universities are not as well equipped," said Allain.

But helping students find a career path that provides both purpose and opportunity requires more than just the right tools of the trade. It requires instilling a contemplative mindset to give students the chance to learn about something they can’t from a textbook: themselves.

Zimmerman, the mechanical engineering senior who would like to avoid working for defense-focused companies, may have already found his niche. He enrolled in the co-op program and soon found himself at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) where he helped develop Earth-observing satellites capable of monitoring ocean winds, pollution in the atmosphere and agricultural ecosystems. “As I completed more work at JPL, my mission was honed toward a desire to use my engineering education as a means of helping others,” said Zimmerman.

And while he admits there is some stress associated with finding the time to apply for jobs during his last semester at Cornell, he’s not particularly stressed about landing a job offer. “I’ve been adequately prepared by Cornell's curriculum and Co-op Program,” he said with confidence.

And as Cornell Engineering welcomes its next few classes of students, those freshmen will be considered the last of the Millennials. The next generation has yet to be defined, but as the needs of job seekers change slowly over time, the career center is well-positioned to understand those needs and address them through programmatic changes that will ensure its vision continues to be achieved: Every Cornell engineer experiences career satisfaction.

Learn more about the Engineering Career Center