Filling the Gap: NMC doubles down on career readiness

A common complaint about higher education is that students are not adequately prepared for the workforce. Last fall, Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) decided it needed to up its game for student job application readiness.

That decision led to an alliance with Northwest Michigan Works! (NMW), a workforce development agency that serves employers and job seekers in Grand Traverse, Antrim, Benzie, Charlevoix, Emmet, Kalkaska, Leelanau, Manistee, Missaukee and Wexford counties.

Baldyga

Through the team-up, Lisa Baldyga of NMW joined NMC’s Academic and Career Advising Center as an employment readiness specialist.

Lindsey Dickinson, who serves as director of the Academic and Career Advising Center, says that Baldyga’s arrival on campus immediately helped fill a fairly significant gap in the college’s efforts to prepare students for the job market.

“At NMC, we serve learners in pretty distinct categories,” said Dickinson, whose office advises transfer students and also those who come for a specific skillset with the intent to get out into the workforce.

Until last fall, that second group of students was not being served quite equitably across the institution, she said. “We had a lot of academic areas that were doing a nice job of trying to serve their students as best they could with resume, cover letter, and interview skills,” she said. “But we didn’t have a unifying way to serve all students.”

Dickinson says this gap in services repeatedly exposed a common pain point in the NMC community: Students didn’t feel ready to go out and apply for jobs or sit down for employment interviews, and didn’t know where to go to get the help they needed to prepare.

“One of the things we were often getting was students coming into our office and asking for this kind of help, but we didn’t have it,” Dickinson explained. “So we had to find a creative way to request some assistance in this area, and that’s when we decided to partner with Michigan Works.”

Baldyga’s job with NMC is essentially to fill the void that used to exist between college service and employment opportunities. If a student comes into the Advising Center looking for resume advice, interview coaching, networking pointers or other similar services, Baldyga is the person they talk to.

Dickinson

Having career readiness support available in the Advising Center is a part of NMC’s plan, but according to Dickinson, it’s only a small piece of the puzzle. For every student that comes to the office seeking advice, there are dozens or even hundreds of others on campus who could probably benefit from the same information but don’t know where to go looking for it. As such, Baldyga’s mission from the beginning has been to establish a cross-campus presence that was rooted in the Advising Center but not tethered to it.

“One of the main things I’ve been working on this year is just getting my name out there, so that the students and teachers know that I’m on campus,” Baldyga said, adding that she expects to be a lot busier next fall now that she’s laid a foundation.

One part of that foundation was an event called “Stay Calm and Network On,” which invited students to submit questions they had about career readiness and then focused on providing skill development in those areas. At the event – which Baldyga spearheaded – dozens of NMC students learned how to start networking conversations, how to tie a tie, how to clean up their social media profiles, how to spotlight their hard and soft skills to employers, and more.

Elsewhere, Baldyga has been a part of classroom experiences across numerous departments and disciplines. Throughout the fall, she was a frequent guest on campus, teaching classrooms full of students how to write effective resumes, how to identify their core hard and soft skills, and how to convey those job-winning attributes in cover letters.

In one English course, Baldyga even helped roll out an extensive mock interview process. As part of the project, students were required to create resumes, select local job opportunities they were interested in applying for, and sit down with Baldyga and their professor for a full employment interview. The process incorporated resume and interview critiques and taught students how to draft engaging post-interview questions to ask prospective hiring managers, among other key skills for job seekers.

When COVID-19 hit, Baldyga says everything from the NMC campus to the United States economy “did a 180 in a day.”

NMC closed down campus buildings and pivoted to distance learning for the remainder of the school year, while the economy crashed from near-record-low unemployment rates in Q4 2019 to a trend of mass layoffs and unemployment claims. These changes, Baldyga says, have changed things in numerous ways. For one thing, she’s had to change how she worked, whether that meant conducting some mock interviews virtually or making Zoom Classroom appearances to continue her employment readiness spiel.

Even the content of her presentations to students changed, shifting from general interview process tips to more specific advice on how to handle a flailing economy and job market.

“My classroom appearances in the past would be geared toward what employers expect, or how to present yourself in an interview,” Baldyga said. “It’s kind of switched, though, because everyone was finding that they were unemployed. I was answering their questions about ‘What do I do now?’ or ‘Who’s hiring?’ or ‘Is it safe to be working out there right now?’ or ‘Why is it taking so long for me to get my questions answered by the unemployment office?’ Just having my background (with workforce development) and knowing how that system works, I think I was able to help alleviate some of the fears and anxiety around that.”

If anything, COVID-19 and the resulting economic downturn have provided evidence to Baldyga and Dickinson that zeroing in on employment readiness was an essential move for NMC to make.

“I think we’ve all gotten a little relaxed over the past few years because there have been so many jobs out there,” Baldyga said. “Now, everyone is going to be scrambling and competing. This is when you really need to have the edge on getting your resumes right and knowing those hard and soft skills and how to highlight them to get a job. So I’m sure I’ll be busy.”

Dickinson says she’s grateful to have someone like Baldyga there to help students at this uncertain time, and adds that NMC will likely seek to expand its career readiness efforts significantly in the coming semesters. Such expansions could see more integration with NMC’s already-mature experiential learning programs, as well as a greater push to add internship experience to every program and department across campus.

“From a career decision-making standpoint, we would really like to see all students having some sort of job shadowing or internship experience while they are with us at NMC, because it’s such a crucial part of them making a career decision,” Dickinson said. “It’s hard to buy a car before you test drive it, and the same thing is true with a career.”

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