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By Richard Burnett

Amid an economy still rattled by recession worries and pandemic angst, U.S. colleges are facing growing public pressure to step up their game in preparing students for an ever-changing job market, experts say.

That means a whole new volume of challenges for higher education, even at schools like Beacon College, which ranks in the top tier nationally with an employment rate of more than 80% for its neurodivergent graduates.

However, colleges can no longer focus solely on whether graduates are employed, but also how many work in the field they studied, according to “Building Tomorrow’s Workforce,” a special report in The Chronicle of Higher Education. It tracks a growing skepticism about the value of college education, even though a college graduate still earns 75%, on average, more than someone with a high school diploma.

“This isn’t the first time Americans have questioned the value of higher education,” Anthony P. Carnevale, a Georgetown University workforce research professor, said in the report. “This rhetoric that you don’t need to go to college has been a persistent problem in the United States,” he said, and it tends to resurface during recessions.

Career centers play key role

With that as a backdrop, colleges are mobilizing to rise to the challenge. Many are being proactive by fine-tuning, revamping and expanding their career development centers, which play a central role in preparing students for the workplace.

At Beacon, officials have expanded its Juan & Lisa Jones Center for Career Preparation, brought in new leadership, a new team, new technology and a new approach to its four-year development model. Career advisors have launched a beginning-to-end strategy for the entire student body — not just for seniors, which have historically been the focal point of career development efforts.

Some key parts of that strategy include:

Melissa Bradley

As these efforts take effect and others come online, the career center is confident it can build on Beacon’s strong track record in preparing its graduates for employment, said Melissa Bradley, the center’s co-director, who will become its top manager in June.

“Certainly, we are proud of the employment rate of Beacon graduates, but now we are laser-focused on how many of those grads are actually employed in their field of study,” she said. “It’s important that we are providing them a return on the investment in their education. So, we really want to look deeper into how Beacon is preparing someone for working long-term in a job related to their major. That’s the direction we are moving in now.”

Large employers get aboard for career development

In its new direction, Beacon has received a boost from some major companies that have jumped aboard, Bradley said. They include consumer product giant Johnson & Johnson, based in Brunswick, N.J., and CAI, a global technology services company based in Allentown, Pa.

Johnson & Johnson, for example, has committed to work with Beacon on a “deep dive” program focused on careers for neurodivergent students. As part of the effort, company representatives will visit multiple times with students either virtually or in small groups to talk about things like corporate culture, workplace dynamics and expectations.

J&J has also done a full-scale analysis of every major at Beacon and matched each with employment opportunities at the company. Ultimately, J&J wants to help students enhance their learning in their chosen fields and potentially work alongside talented professionals in their organization, Bradley said.

“This kind of initiative by J&J is invaluable,” she said. “The personal connection J&J is providing can help us develop competent, confident graduates who can go into a workplace, disclose their neurodiversity and feel confident the company knows them and their value.”

Likewise, in its partnership with CAI, Beacon will be able to match its graduates and their skill sets to job openings around the country. The company has established a dedicated unit — CAI Neurodiverse Solutions — that focuses on supporting, cultivating and finding jobs for graduates with learning differences.

Raising the bar for career opportunities

Its work with companies like J&J and CAI represents Beacon’s effort to take employer partnerships to the next level, according to Dr. James Williams, a consultant for Beacon since mid-2021 and the career center’s interim director, who is returning to the private sector in June.

“In the past, we’d basically let employers come to us and tell us what openings they had,” he said. “Then we’d put out flyers encouraging the students to apply. Now, however, we’re aiming to develop meaningful, long-term relationships with companies by offering to provide training upfront to their staff before the students get there. The message is this isn’t a transactional thing, it’s all about a relationship connection.”

Despite its past limitations, Beacon has generally done a good job of equipping its graduates for the workplace and employment, Williams added. Few schools can beat its overall graduate employment rate, he said, and within that number, the early data suggest nearly half of graduates may be working in their chosen field.

“In and of itself, I think that is impressive,” Williams said. “We work with students who have learning disabilities, who are statistically more difficult to employ anyway. So, the stats we have are certainly outstanding. The next step is to find out how can we raise the bar and push ourselves further.”