CAREER CENTER DESIGN SHIFT: Helping Students Launch Careers During a Pandemic

One of the most important outcomes of a college education is meaningful employment after graduation. However, recent graduates are seeking employment in one of the worst job markets since the Great Depression.  As of December 2020, about 7.2 percent of recent college graduates were unemployed in the U.S.  These statistics point to the need for a career center design shift to meet students’ needs today and into the future.

Today’s job market emphasizes the importance of robust career services to help students take their first career step.  Institutions need to provide students—and parents—with a tangible reminder that they offer a quality education AND critical career resources.  Even before the pandemic, career services have been assuming a more prominent role on campus.

Career Centers Today

Colleges and universities across the country have expanded or built new, state-of-the-art centers to help students launch their careers. These enhanced physical environments are designed to foster in-person connections between student talent, recent graduates, and business recruiters.  Often prominently located on campus, these vibrant centers provide centralized support services for students and alumni.  It is the campus resource they can turn to for internship and career postings, mock interview practices, resume preparation workshops, mentoring programs, prospective employer presentations or general job placement support.  Today, most of these centers are temporarily shuttered or open on a limited basis. Career support has converted to on-line or decentralized services, reinforcing the need for a career center design shift.

career center expansion at Muhlenberg College will allow for more robust career center support for students as well as ongoing assistance for alumni
The J. Conrad and Hazel J Seegers Union expansion will provide a home for Muhlenberg College’s career center, allowing for more robust programs, as well as ongoing assistance for alumni to help them through career transitions at any stage in life. An alumnus donation pledge, the largest personal gift received in the history of the 172-year-old institution, will provide funding towards this project.

Career Center Support in a Virtual World

While some career support functions, like resume preparation workshops or job postings, can easily be accommodated on-line, others can be more challenging.  Even as campuses reopen to students, in-person interactions, particularly with outside employers, have been limited.  Many colleges and universities have switched to on-line job fairs allowing employers and students to connect virtually.  Career center staff can provide coaching, but students may struggle to find an appropriate setting for virtual interviews.  Typical student housing is likely to have noise or lighting issues that can add to the stress of an interview.

Campuses with well-equipped resource centers can adapt interview rooms and employer lounges to serve as video conference rooms (also known as Zoom Rooms).  For universities that don’t already have these resources in place, flexible interview rooms or pods can be introduced cost-effectively.

Video Conferencing Solutions

While some may view this career center design shift as a temporary priority, video conferencing is expected to remain a significant part of the working world post pandemic.  These spaces can help to address space needs for test taking or video recordings for academic presentations, vlogs, YouTube posts and a myriad of other uses in the future, when the need for virtual interviews may lessen.

The minimum dimension for this type of space would be approximately six feet by eight feet. Privacy, along with acoustical separation, can be achieved through modest interior renovations or a modular furniture solution. Existing brands for this type of interview/recording room include Cubicall, Zenbooth, TalkBox, Orangebox and ROOM.  In either scenario, the space should include a comfortable chair, small table or desk, appropriate lighting, and technology connections.

Career center design shift to include video conference rooms for virtual interviews, test taking, tutor rooms, vlog creation and other uses.
Flexible interview rooms or pods can be introduced cost-effectively either through light renovations or introduction of modular solutions like these examples.  In either case, these video conference rooms can also be used for test taking or video recordings for academic presentations, vlogs, YouTube posts and other uses.  Photo Credits (L to R):  Cubicall, Orangebox HSBC Sydney, ROOM.

Setting the Stage for a Successful Virtual Interview Experience

Students must be able to make a positive impression on would-be employers in a virtual setting. Having access to a professional backdrop with reliable technology can help to alleviate some of the stress associated with this critical step in their career.  A strong WiFi connection is fine in lieu of physical network connections. Make sure students are able to plug into a power source.

When it comes to planning and designing optimum career center spaces for virtual interviews, our team of architects and interior designers references best practices learned through seminars with Graceworks, a presentation consulting firm.  The Graceworks team travels around the world helping students and professionals become more effective presenters, communicators, writers and leaders.

1. It Starts with a Nice Background

A plain wall is preferable to a bed in the background. However, adding a bit of color or a small shelf adds visual interest.  Accessories should be simple and not overwhelming. Books or plants work well. The best case scenario is an interior accent wall such as wood-look ceramic tiles, brick, stone or other simple patterned elements.  This could be another opportunity to reinforce campus branding, but only if it can be achieved as a backdrop rather than a focal point.  It may be tempting to set up a virtual background. However, particularly for an interview, a simple, authentic background will help to keep the focus on the student.

2. Make it Feel Like a Real Conversation

This is frequently a challenge for virtual interactions and the variability of camera and audio set-ups.  If possible, video conference rooms should be equipped with plug and play equipment. Include an external camera at a comfortable height with the screen so that looking into the camera is intuitive.  Many campuses will find that plug and play connections for student devices is a more budget-friendly solution that will better stand the test of time with rapidly evolving technologies.  In either setting, provide seating that can be adjusted in relation to the camera.

“Your eyes and camera need to line up with one another,” explains Carol Doscher, President and CEO of Graceworks.  “For your listeners to experience you talking with them, you have to look into the camera.”

Adjustable stands or even books are a simple fix for propping up a laptop so that eyeline is the same height as the camera.

Good sound quality is another component of comfortable conversation. Noise control is critical. The STC (sound transmission class) of the walls should be considered and discussed with your design professional to mitigate outside noise from entering the space. Interior noise can be managed through finishes, like carpet and acoustic ceiling tiles to prevent an echoes effect. An external microphone and headset are preferred over an internal device microphone. This will improve the sound quality when speaking and cut down on ambient sound and noises.

3. Get the Light Right

If the room can be set up so that the student is facing a window with strong natural light, that is the best solution—at least during typical work hours on a bright day.  However, that will not always be the case so adjustable interior lighting is a must.  Lighting should have dimming capabilities and include a flexible arm that can be moved to light the speaker’s face.  Make sure that the main light source in the room is not behind where people will be sitting.  This will cast a shadow over their faces.

Many campuses have group study rooms that can be retrofitted to serve the need for virtual interviews and other video conferencing functions. Photo Credit: Messiah University, Murray Library

Looking to the Future for a Career Center Design Shift

Career centers need to remain relevant by demonstrating the positive impacts their services and programs have on students and employers—during the pandemic and beyond. Design shifts to address current needs for virtual interview settings will position centers to meet increased demand for video conference rooms into the future. Complementary digital resources were already part of the career center experience. Now they can bridge the gap between those on campus and the outside world.  We expect these connections to last into the future even as we look forward to getting back to campus spaces in person!

Carson Parr, AIA, LEED BD+C, is a Partner at RLPS Architects.  He leads the firm’s higher education practice, helping clients envision future initiatives through campus programming and planning. He also guides and directs a collaborative, multi-disciplined process during project design and construction. An NCARB registered architect, Carson, holds a Master of Architecture, Community and Urban Design, from Pennsylvania State University.  He is a LEED Accredited Professional and serves as a student mentor. Carson is also a board member and past president of AIA Central Pennsylvania.