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There is an ongoing national conversation right now about the value of higher education. Job placement is one measure used to talk about the value of a degree from the University of Utah. And by that we mean the job opportunities and starting salaries our graduates receive. Host Chris Nelson talks with Katie Abby, vice president for U Career Success and a special advisor to President Taylor Randall, about how U Career Success is helping students launch their careers – starting in their first year on campus to personalized coaching, salary negotiation workshops and more – as graduation nears.

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Chris Nelson: Listeners, welcome to U Rising. I'm Chris Nelson, host of this episode and chief university relations officer.

There's an ongoing national conversation right now about the value of higher education. One measure we use when we talk about the value of a degree is job placement. And by that we mean the job opportunities and starting salaries our graduates receive.

So what is the University of Utah doing to help students launch their careers? My guest today is a person who can answer that, Katie Abby. Katie is the vice president for career services at the U and a special advisor to President Randall. Welcome to U Rising, Katie.

Katie Abby: Thank you very much for having me.

Chris Nelson: So, let's jump into it. In May, we mark the one-year anniversary of U Career Success, a re-imagined approach to helping our students land internships and jobs. What's different?

Katie Abby: Yeah, so in a word, everything. If you think about traditional career services as it exists on most campuses in our country, it's fine. They have great services available to students to help them with professional development and job placement, but they tend to be optional for students, meaning the student has to self-motivate, come into the office, ask for help, know what they need help with, et cetera. And as a result, the vast majority of students, if they use career services at all, tend to come in, learn how to put together that first resume and that's the last that we see of them.

Katie Abby is the vice president for career services at and a special advisor to President Taylor Randall.

So, we basically turned career services upside down and said what we're going to do is create a different kind of strategy. And our strategy revolves around the relationship that we have with our employer partners, with the idea being if we take good care of our employer and community partners, we understand their businesses, their culture, the types of talent that they are going to need to hire, their future growth projections, et cetera, we help them with resources on campus and make it easy for them to navigate this incredibly large place we call the University of Utah, that they'll choose to make the University of Utah number one and in the end our students will end up with more and better opportunity.

We've really changed the programming in key ways. First and foremost, it's a ‘no student left behind’ approach. So rather than have it be optional for students, we have an adequate number of career coaches so that every coach has a set portfolio of students for whom they're responsible. And if they see that we have a certain population who has never been in to access service, we reach out to them directly and invite them in. The second key difference is, of course, this employer strategy and so we have a group of individuals who are there to take very, very good care of our partners and make it easy to navigate the University of Utah.

Chris Nelson: So, one of the challenges at a place like the University of Utah is change, that culture change. And so, I know you inherited a team when you came to this job, but you've also grown the team. Talk more. A lot of our listeners are on the university campus and they probably had past experiences with career services. So how big is the team now? What has that process been to connect with the colleges and departments?

Katie Abby: The team is growing. This whole thing started as a pilot program in the David Eccles School of Business about 10 years ago. And how large is the team? Well, it's really variable because we have to have a good ratio of coach to student. And so, in general, we try and keep roughly three to 500 students per coach. Doing the math, you can see over time how big this team needs to grow. Currently we are three times the size of the old career and professional development center and growing. We have partnered with seven colleges, and that is also growing year to year. My projection is that within five years we'll be in every college on campus. Although today, not to worry for the non-partner colleges, we do have coaches who are available for every student.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, in some ways it feels kind of parallel to academic advising, which is, in the first part of your academic career, you get that personalized coaching to be successful in college and then the second half, your team steps in. Was that a fair comparison?

Katie Abby: It's a fair comparison, but I would make one correction and that's we want to see the students the minute they step foot on this campus. So early and often is our motto. We have coaches who specialize in that first-year student experience. The needs for professional development for a first-year student are very different than those who are about to graduate and go out into the professional world.

Chris Nelson: So, part of the message to students and family and supporters and parents and loved ones is make those phone calls and get engaged.

Katie Abby: Absolutely. Absolutely. Make an appointment, come in and start seeing us, first semester! We have activities that are specifically designed for those first-year students and then the program progresses as their academic program progresses.

Chris Nelson: So, let's get into the nuts and bolts. Let's talk about personalized coaching. You've mentioned that. What does that look like for a student? So, a student calls, chooses a college you're working with and walk us through what that experience might be like for that student.

Katie Abby: It's different for every student. It's predicated on . . .

Chris Nelson: Because it's personalized. There we go. That makes sense.

Katie Abby: It's predicated on the belief that every student is different. Every student has different skills, desires, interests, geographic preferences and so forth. And so, at the heart of one-on-one coaching, it's assess where the student is today, reassess the next time they come in, reassess the time after that. So, we're constantly trying to meet the student where they are today and progress their program from there.

The motto at U Career Success? "Early and often," says Katie Abby. "We want to see the students the minute they step foot on this campus."

So, we do a lot of one-on-one coaching, but we feel that the student's experience is best when they round that out with lots of other activities that are also available to them, so attending focused hiring events, meeting with employers. We have many, many workshops that are available for students. For example, we have a fantastic negotiation workshop that we deliver all over campus all the time. And the success rate of students who participate in that particular workshop, about 90% or more of them improve the offer package that they receive.

Chris Nelson: So that's literally negotiating for that first job.

Katie Abby: Exactly. Negotiating salary and compensation for the first job, the first internship, you name it.

Chris Nelson: Because again, the University of Utah does great in the academic sense, training you to be able to do the job, but other than your team, you don't get a lot of that experience. Interesting. So, I love this idea of these kind of corresponding, weaving together academic advising with the career counseling because both are so important.

Katie Abby: They really are. And we find that we have the most success when we partner with everyone on campus. So, we are very close with the academic advising teams, with the colleges with whom we partner. We work very closely with faculty and we have many faculty champions for our program. We work with a lot of the centers and institutes as well. Anything that we can do to, as a collective, wrap our arms around students and help them have great outcomes we want to do and it works better when we do it together.

Chris Nelson: So, one of the things I thought when I looked at your website, you're not only just providing the advising you talked about, but also these very practical services. Talk about what practically can I get out of your team?

Katie Abby: Yeah, so we spend a lot of time thinking about how can we level the playing field so that every student, regardless of their background, has the same opportunity as every other student. And so we have things like a professional career closet where students can borrow clothing for interviews or if they're going on a trip or there's an event or maybe there's something happening on campus and they forgot and they can come in and grab a blazer. And when they return it, we dry clean it and put it back out for the next student.

We provide free professional headshots for students so that they can have a really nice professional picture on their LinkedIn page. We do a gazillion different workshops that are all incredibly valuable. We also have programs that might be very interesting for students. For example, there are still some employers who provide internships, but they're unpaid and maybe it's a valuable experience and the student wants to do the internship, but they also, they need the compensation. And so, we just developed a new program called Step Up where we pay students to complete unpaid internships. So, the message for students is, if you think that you need something, don't make a judgment whether we can provide it or not. The odds are good that we can.

Chris Nelson: Excellent. You mentioned part of this is key relationships, strong relationships with key employers. Can you talk about what that process looks like? I don't know if you have any examples you can share with us of employers that we've either improved or maybe they've always been great partners, but maybe just a plug for what that relationship looks like because, again, I think a lot of students, people listening to this, may not understand how much work goes in behind the scenes to build those relationships on behalf of students.

Katie Abby: That's such a good point. We really think that this is the cornerstone of our program, is the fact that we are able to build fantastic relationships with employers and make them want to make the University of Utah a target university for talent acquisition. So as a result, we have a team of individuals who are dedicated to building those relationships. Their efforts are augmented by a student team that does traditional business development and gets that initial inroad into a company.

And then we develop the program from there — much in the same way we work with our students, which is assess the needs of the organization and then make sure that they have access to the resources here. So right now, we have a portfolio of over 1,500 companies who have a really close relationship with the University of Utah and with our team in particular. And they range in size from two person startups through major global organizations.

Just one example to give you would be a major global giant in the world of technology who's based out on the West Coast. When we started working with them, we were not a target organization. However, we found alumni who were well positioned within the company who helped us get a foot in the door. We proved our worth by providing them with great talent. Our students are amazing and they can compete with students in any university in this country. And we also competed effectively with the service levels that we offered that organization. As a result, we moved from being off of the target list to being on the target list. And that's our goal with every organization with whom we work regardless of their size.

Chris Nelson: So, once we get a University of Utah student into the organization, we know they're going to be successful. And that just keeps it going, right?

Katie Abby: Exactly right. Once the companies get a taste for the talent that's graduated from this university, they want more.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, I know when I talk to alumni, as an alumni myself, I want our students to be amazing because that makes my degree even more valuable.

Katie Abby: Exactly right!

Chris Nelson: So, Katie, at a very practical level, we've got very specific goals for job placement rates for graduates and boosting starting salaries. Where are we at with that right now? What do you tell incoming students and their families about what to expect about their experience at the University of Utah and how that's going to prepare them for the workforce?

Katie Abby: Sure. Well, the proof case was completed in the David Eccles School of Business where we've seen over the last 10 years, year-over-year improvement in what we refer to sort of as our three key metrics, which is knowledge rate — do we know where every student went; placement rate — did they have a job at graduation, and then salary. And what I can tell you is that consistently for 10 years in the business school, we've had north of 90% knowledge rate and placement rate, and we have salaries that have increased every year, year-over-year, and will continue to do so.

In fact, my last measurement for the business school was a 16% increase for undergrads in salary. So that is the hope as we expand into other colleges, that we can continue that trend. We are just wrapping up the first full academic year, so I don't have complete figures yet, but I can tell you some of the things that we're seeing: a 23% increase in salary in the college of Transform, 3% in Science and 8% improvement in Humanities. And so, the goal is to continue with that year-over-year salary improvement and to get every college on campus with a placement rate at over 90% at graduation.

Chris Nelson: Yeah, and I love the idea that it's not just about the education, it's also how you're leveraging that. And the university really for, I think, the first time organizationally, I think we've had pockets that do that well, but really looking at that. The phrase that makes people cringe is degrees to nowhere and I think it's safe to say at the University of Utah, all of our degrees take you somewhere.

Katie Abby: I believe that 100%. And that's why I so enjoy working with students in Transform, in Humanities, because often people think, well, we're training them for nothing, and that's absolutely not true. They are walking away with essential skills, just an enormous amount of essential skills. So, they offer many, many good things to employers.

The other thing that happens is by working directly with a coach, these students have an opportunity to really expand what's possible in their mind. Because if you go in and you're getting a degree in communication, for example, perhaps you really don't know what you can do with that degree. And we probably have a hundred suggestions for you of jobs that you should think about and companies at the same time.

Chris Nelson: So, one of the things I'm always intrigued with, and I spent some of my career in health care, in healthcare, especially in the technology space, there are jobs that didn't even exist five years ago. I assume that's that way across the spectrum, but how do you explain that to students? I think that's probably a hard concept for somebody who's in their early twenties, to explain there's going to be a job that you don't even know exists. And so how do you handle that? And then my follow up question is I think your own career kind of mirrors that, so maybe talk about how we explain that to students, but I'd love to get into your background a little bit.

Katie Abby: Sure, yeah. Things are changing so rapidly right now, and I think something that people don't realize is while our primary customers are the companies and their need for talent acquisition and our students and their need for jobs and internships, but we also consider faculties and departments and centers and institutes here on campus as our customers as well.

And so we do a lot of data collection on what employers are asking for in terms of skills. And we feed that information to our faculty departments so that they can determine if the curriculum still matches and we're still preparing our students in a way that makes them very marketable for an employer. And I think we just need to continue doing that. And with students, they'll often come in to visit with us and feel that they are not qualified or they're feeling less than confident in their ability to secure a really good job.

And so we take the time to help them assess their own skill set and the value that that particular skill set will bring to an employer and then help them translate that into dollars and compensation as well. And then the final piece, of course, is the ability to articulate that very clearly to an employer so that they understand what they're getting when the student comes in. And I think once the student starts to experience that process, they gain confidence and they see the value and they know ‘I need to keep on top of this for the life of my career.’

Chris Nelson: How do you have that conversation with employers and students? Because I am wondering if this is the right comparison, it may not be, which is that the employers need students to be able to do certain things, but they also need them to think about things. And so, when I think of education at the University of Utah, I would say maybe if I were to boil it down, what we're really teaching is people to be critical thinkers.

Katie Abby: Correct.

Chris Nelson: Like the doing you can learn in a lot of different ways. I mean, is that an apt way to describe that?

Katie Abby: I would say so. In fact, LinkedIn just came out with its most requested skills for 2024 and the vast majority of them were not hard skills, but essential skills. And when we talk with employers in just about every conversation, we ask the question, what are we not training our students to do that you need us to train our students to do? And inevitably it's these essential skills — communication skills, writing skills, the ability to work well on a team, et cetera.

Chris Nelson: So, let's talk about Katie Abby because Katie Abby did not graduate and think she was going to be running a career services department. So do you mind just walking us, because I think your career trajectory is such an interesting example of starting in one place and ending in a very different place.

Katie Abby: You know, as a kid growing up, I always wanted to be some kind of health care provider and I wanted a career where I could help people. And originally when I started here at the University of Utah, I really wanted to be a physical therapist. I applied for PT school three years in a row and never got in. And at that point in time, I had bills to pay and knew I needed to make a pivot.

And so, I ended up graduating from the College of Health with a degree in nutrition and food science and parlayed that into my very first job with the Utah State Health Department as a nutritionist. But then very quickly from there, realized I needed a position where I could make a little bit more money and that would be a little bit more challenging for me. So, I kept nutrition as a hobby and went to work for a company that's now known as CHG Healthcare — back in the day, they were just CompHealth — and really fell in love with health care staffing and physician recruitment, in particular. I think it's such a good result because nobody grows up saying “I want to be a professional recruiter,” but in reality it was a fantastic career. It attracts really amazing people. I met a lot of people, I learned a lot and from there I was able to found my own company to do health care staffing. Again, something I never thought I would do. Growing up as a science person and then ending up in business was a trajectory that could not have been predicted.

And so I like to tell the story often to students because they will come to us saying, this is what I've always wanted to do and maybe they're crushed because it's not going the way they want to, but there's always another opportunity.

After I sold my company and tried to retire, I realized that that's not all it's cracked up to be either and really set out to do something new and different. And when then Dean Randall from the business school reached out to me to talk about opportunities to reimagine career services, I could see the overlap and the opportunity to take the skills that I have and transfer them to really an area that was both the same and different. And I never, never in a million years would've predicted that I would've landed back at my alma mater for my last act career. But here I am and it's amazing. And so, advice to students: be open because you never know what's going to happen and you never know what you're going to fall in love with doing.

Chris Nelson: Well, that was my next question. What's your advice to students? Any other advice?

Katie Abby: I have so much advice for students. The first is please come see us. We want to help you. We have lots of great resources. Please take our phone calls because we're probably calling to tell you about a fantastic opportunity or to invite you in for an event. And then I think what students need to understand is that career and professional development is not a one-and-done. This is a lifetime sport. And so, keep your resume up-to-date, keep learning actively, keep on top of new trends in industry and be open to trying new things.

Chris Nelson: What is your advice — I know I graduated in ’96 and so I was in this, I feel like, this sandwich generation, which, and I've spent my career at a single institution, so I think I'm probably a unicorn in today's world. What's the average lifespan of someone who's going to start at an organization now? Does that come up in those conversations about, because again, when I came up, it was like you need to spend five years and I don't feel like that's not the number anymore.

Katie Abby: Yeah, I mean if you look at Baby Boomers, Baby Boomers stick, right, their entire career at one company and one industry. And then you look at today's generation, they tend to move around a little bit more and it's more accepted. What we're also seeing that I think is fascinating is certain industries actually think it's good if students move around.

For example, in the world of tech, the opportunity for someone to move often every few years can be viewed as a positive by some organizations because you're gaining experience in new things. And in the world of technology where things are rapidly changing, that's a positive. For other organizations, that opportunity to hire somebody who's going to hang around for a while is very, very appealing as well. So again, it comes down to know the industry, know the organization for whom you're going to go to work and try and adjust accordingly.

Chris Nelson: A lot of conversation nationally around hands-on experience, the value of experiential knowledge. Talk about that a little bit. What are you hearing from employers? What's your advice to students on that?

Katie Abby: I advise students to do as many experiential learning opportunities as they can, and luckily the way we educate students has changed so much since I was at university. So, employers love it because they can better assess the student's skill set as opposed to just is the student book smart? We actually have real life examples of where they've done work for real organizations, solving real problems that are relevant in today's workplace. So, there are lots of opportunities to do this.

We have a program that we sponsor at U Career Success called Crimson Projects that gives students excellent experience. There are opportunities to do capstones, there are opportunities to participate in competitions, and those competitions are often judged by companies locally who are looking to find and hire the talent. So again, just participate as much as possible and not only do these things build your resume, but they give you real examples to talk about in the interview.

Chris Nelson: How long can students access a service? If I graduate this year, how often can I come back and talk to y'all?

Katie Abby: You know, in general, we have availability for at least the first few years after somebody leaves us. In reality, I've never turned anybody away. So, if you're pivoting and you're a University of Utah grad and you need some help, the odds are very good that the help is going to be there for you. The other reason why we don't like to turn people away is that when we're helping our employer partners, they're not just hiring for entry-level positions, they need talent at all levels. So, if you're a U of U alum and you've been out there for 10 or 15 years and you're ready to pivot, the odds are very good that we might have an idea of a high-level position that's perfect for you.

Chris Nelson: And probably if you're looking at some of our professional graduate degree programs, you know, the MPA, the MBAs, a lot of the stuff we have at the business school.

Katie Abby: Yes, exactly right. Yeah, employers are very much reliant on those programs for experienced talent.

Chris Nelson: Katie, I'm sure you get calls from friends and colleagues who have students who are graduating from high school and they're smart, and they're facing this question, ‘Should I go to college or should I just go get a job?’ What's your advice?

Katie Abby: Well, Chris, first and foremost, I'm a fan of higher ed. I just believe in what we do here and the power to not only educate people, but to make us better and stronger human beings, to broaden our vision of what's possible in the world. But there are also financial reasons to continue with an education. And, certainly, it's possible to not have a degree and get a good job that pays well. But if you look at the data here, just in our state of Utah, the jobs do exist where you can make a very good living without a degree, but there aren't very many of them. And so the vast majority of people without a degree are going to be compensated at a much lower rate. And so what we're finding is that the compensation with a degree is always going to be significantly higher than it is without a degree.

Chris Nelson: And then plus all the extra stuff you get on campus, I mean, you know, you're exposed to ideas and people who are so different and it is always interesting because there's the financial argument, but also you've been an employer, you've hired these folks. So, I assume you're looking for folks who know how to navigate diverse workplaces in all of their iterations.

Katie Abby: Absolutely. Learning to have difficult conversations in a civil way is almost a lost art in our country and you gain that experience here on campus and the opportunity to engage with people who come from vastly different backgrounds than you do. And you learn to respect and admire the differences and I think it enriches people's lives.

Chris Nelson: Katie, thanks for being my guest.

Katie Abby: Thank you very much for having me.

Chris Nelson: Listeners, that's it for today's episode of U Rising. Our executive producer is Brooke Adams, and our technical producer is Robert Nelson. I'm your host Chris Nelson. Thanks for listening.