Give Students the Skills to Master the Workplace

By Dana Herra, '01
volunteer, career

Brian Oster and Lydia Ziegler discuss what Ziegler learned at Jobs PLUS workshops.

NIU hosts a number of career-focused events to give students a leg up in the working world.

So why weren’t more students attending?

Chad Glover, director of NIU’s Jobs PLUS, set out to discover the reason. He stopped random students across campus to ask if they attended career events he pulled from the NIU calendar, and if not, why not.

“What I heard time after time was, ‘I had to work,’” Glover said. “Many students take jobs to pay the bills – sometimes related to their course of study, sometimes not. They develop important work skills like responsibility, teamwork and time management. But programmatically, the university is usually not involved in these jobs.”

Off campus, Brian Oster was having a different problem. Oster is the president and creative director of OC Creative in DeKalb. In interviewing new interns and newly graduated job candidates, he noted some surprising skills gaps.

“Sometimes I don’t see enough practical knowledge in new grads,” he said. “They don’t know how to communicate in the workplace, they don’t know that before applying to a creative agency you should have a portfolio. There are decision-making skills – like coming to your boss with solutions instead of problems – that are not there.”

Enter Jobs PLUS.

Jobs PLUS is part of the new NIU PLUS (Progressive Learning in Undergraduate Studies) program. One of its cornerstones is a partnership with local employers who allow working students to attend career development workshops on their paid work time. The benefit to students is that they are no longer forced to choose between work and career prep. The benefit to employers is professional development for their staff that costs nothing more than a few hours of paid time.

When Glover explained the program to Oster at a networking event, the businessman thought it would be a great fit for senior Lydia Ziegler, an NIU student intern working at OC Creative. Over the fall semester, Ziegler attended three Jobs PLUS events.

NIU faculty, staff, administrators and alumni volunteer to lead the events on such workplace topics as communication, leadership and interpersonal skills. Ziegler said the workshops she attended reinforced her ideas about leadership and gave her valuable insights into her own character. As she prepares to graduate, she said, she knows which of her strengths are valued by hiring managers and where she needs to improve.

As an employer of NIU graduates, Oster said he looks forward to benefiting from the program in the long term – letting a student employee attend a workshop is a lot less costly than putting a full-time employee through a professional development seminar, and investing in staff tends to lead to greater employee engagement and less turnover.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘What if I train them and they leave?’ I say, ‘What if you don’t train them and they stay?’” Oster said. “As long as I have interns from NIU, I will continue in this program. The return on investment for OC and for students like Lydia will far exceed the few hours we invested in this.”

To volunteer to lead a Jobs PLUS career development workshop, or to make your business a Jobs PLUS partner, email cglover@niu.edu.