Sierra College uses Career Coach to implement guided pathways, a model that aims to help students reach their educational goals in a timely manner.
Career Coach allows undecided students to embark on career exploration with hard numbers on local salaries and job growth at their fingertips. More decided students use the tool to pursue their chosen paths in the smartest possible way.
Sierra has made a concerted effort to make Career Coach a campus-wide endeavor. Because deans, administrators, faculty, and counselors are all familiar with the tool , they’re prepared to engage students in career planning whenever and wherever the opportunity arises.
A community linchpin
The Sierra Community College District (located east of Sacramento, CA and southwest of Reno, NV) serves an economy as diverse as its population and geographical district. The district includes all of Placer and Nevada Counties and portions of Sacramento and El Dorado, which includes urban and rural communities. The single college district has a main campus in Rocklin and additional satellite campuses in Grass Valley, Roseville and Tahoe-Truckee — making the district a regional linchpin for education and workforce needs. The college serves approximately 18,000 students each year.
Sierra College students come from diverse backgrounds with respect to residence, age, ethnicity, and education level. In 2019, Sierra College was designated as a Hispanic Serving Institution, which allows additional support to improve the educational experience of Hispanic and low-income students. The college is committed to providing academic excellence and student success for all students while advancing student success with an equity lens and practice. In addition, a large portion of the local economy consists of small businesses that rely on home-grown talent. That’s one of the reasons Sierra College adopted Career Coach as part of its comprehensive guided pathways approach: to ensure that it is effectively serving (and connecting) every student, and every business, within its region.
As the Career & Transfer Connections Manager that helps lead district career integration efforts, Shannon Wells has had a close-up view of the way Sierra College has integrated Career Coach into multiple aspects of the college ecosystem.
Guided pathways is a model developed in 2015 by Thomas Bailey, a leading educational economist at Columbia Teachers’ College, and promoted by the California Department of Education. The idea is that under the current model, community college education resembles a cafeteria: tons of attractive and useful offerings, but no guidance in assembling a complete and balanced meal.
Even if students have everything they need to graduate into a successful career, they don’t know how to assemble the component parts efficiently, often wasting time and money on unnecessary credits. In some cases, they don’t know how to assemble them at all.
“Within guided pathways, one of the first pillars is to help clarify the path for students,” Wells said. “Career Coach has been an anchor for that.”
Career Coach: A data-based map
Sierra College uses Career Coach to implement what is arguably the most important step of guided pathways: Create clear program-to-work maps for students.
Students browsing through the program offerings at Sierra College can see the careers related to that program, the regional job openings, the median salaries, and the education levels required for entry level jobs. And if they already have work goals in mind, they can search for a career and see all the different jobs in the field to which Sierra College offers paths.
Students don’t have to wait for a counselor to start thinking about the concrete outcomes of their studies. From their first, most casual attempts to look at majors, they can immediately see where the programs they are considering will take them in life.
Serving people where they are
A key part of Sierra College’s success with Career Coach is their commitment to helping students find success where they are. At its most basic level, this means preparing them for the specific regional economy Sierra College serves.
“If a majority of our students are going to stay within the region, as most community college students do, what are we preparing them for? And what skills, knowledge, and training do they need to be successful?” Wells said.
That’s where the regional specificity of Career Coach comes in. Students don’t just get national medians, they get data pegged to the area in which they’ll be looking for a job.
“I think that’s what makes Career Coach truly unique: the regional labor market information,” Wells said.
But the ability to look beyond the immediate region can also come in handy, as Wells found when working with a student interested in theater. Because the student had a strong, clear goal, Wells didn’t insist that she choose another career when they couldn’t find compelling careers associated with a theater major in the surrounding counties. Instead, they broadened the search to state-wide, where they found jobs in production, set design, acting, playhouse administration, and other opportunities for a theater graduate. The student would just need to make a realistic plan—in this case, planning for a move after college, and develop additional skills that could supplement income from a theater job.
Career development continuum
Serving students where they are can mean guiding them to a career, but it can also mean helping them pursue the goals they’ve decided on in the smartest possible way.
That’s why staff in Sierra College’s Career and Academic Planning (CAP) Sessions for new enrollees work with students based on where they are in the “career development continuum.” Students are either in career exploration (undecided), career confirmation (somewhat decided), or career preparation (fully decided). Students do Career Coach activities based on where they fall in this continuum. Someone in career exploration would do the career assessment, while a student who identified in career confirmation might begin researching salary and job openings. Students in career preparation start making academic plans.
“We’re immediately able to give them something that can help them, based on where they are,” Wells said.
A team effort
At Sierra College, Career Coach isn’t just the province of students or academic counselors. Wells leads a career integration work group whose goal is to ensure that conversations about career planning occur at multiple levels of campus life. The work group includes campus staff, instructional faculty, counselors, managers, deans, and just about any other part of the campus community imaginable. Thus, a host of informal career advisors are available to students.
“We know that students are asking about careers in multiple places, whether it’s in the classroom with their instructional faculty, whether it’s in a counseling appointment with a counselor, or whether it’s talking to one of our enrollment specialists in an outreach or a recruitment setting. That’s why we make sure we can engage students wherever they’re bringing it up.”
The focus on involving the whole campus means that anyone can take ownership of career guidance in a pinch. Once, an executive dean found herself giving a presentation on career readiness with minimal time to prepare. She didn’t panic—she just pulled up Career Coach and started guiding students through the activities.
Faculty have also been highly engaged with Career Coach and student career planning. They help add nuance to the tool by reviewing career-to-program mapping and making sure it corresponds to what’s actually happening in the classroom. Sometimes this means removing a career from Sierra’s academic webpages, because the college doesn’t provide the specific training for that pathway.
Sierra College’s team effort mentality and innovative use of Career Coach in a guided pathways agenda ensures that it will continue its role as a vital driver of long-term success for students.
“A lot of navigating careers is about unwritten rules and knowing the game, and if someone’s lucky enough to have someone to help them, then kudos to them. But what about the students who don’t have that type of social capital? At Sierra College, we’re trying to make careers more accessible for students, based on where they are. That means equipping our staff with the best tools and resources. And seeing the results in students’ lives is the most exciting part of the work,” Wells said.
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