Richard T. Berman, the newly appointed director of the Office of Career Services, has a reputation as a rebel in his field. And while some might wonder how radical a career center director could really be, it only takes a few minutes with him to discover that the assessment is at least somewhat accurate.
Berman advocates creating a “platform for serendipity” for students to explore their future career options, rather than pursuing one linear path toward one vocation. “Even I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up,” he wryly admits.
He worries about those who believe career center professionals should help them find “the one thing”—the monolithic career that will define the rest of their lives. “Ask alumni if they’ve found their one thing. You’ll hear stories about the journey rather than the destination, about the many zig-zag lines in the paths they’re on, about how serendipity helped them find their way to their true passion.”
Indeed, Berman’s aims for Oberlin appear to be so aligned with the school’s ethos that it’s easy to forget he’s only been on campus for a few weeks. “I’m having a great time orienting myself to the culture here,” he says. “It’s a delicious learning curve.”
A 30-year veteran of higher education administration, Berman came to Oberlin from a four-year stint as the career center director at Carleton College in Minnesota. Prior to his tenure at Carleton, he spent 11 years at Kalamazoo College, where he authored a revolutionary Discovery Externship Program that places first-years and sophomores in two-week internships and home stays with Kalamazoo alumni, parents, and trustees.
Berman derived the concept for the externship program from his general frustration with the standard internship model. “I don’t think everyone needs 12 to 16 weeks fetching coffee and sorting file cabinets in one summer to figure out what they do or don’t want to do,” he says. “So an alumni donor and I started thinking of other possible shapes and lengths of time for an internship, and we came up with the idea of a two-week model.”
Using the externship model as a starting point, Berman started to think about other ways to connect students and alumni to possible job opportunities. “One of the main things I want to do here, at Oberlin, is build a platform of engagement with other people,” he says. “Alumni, parents, friends the college already has, friends we’re going to make together. I want to be part of building different ways and different models for people to be in touch with one another. We need to mix it up somehow, and we’ll do it Oberlin-style.”
Upon starting at Carleton in 2007, Berman dedicated himself to building a similar platform by creating an online resource connecting students and alumni, which he says was modeled after the “employment wanted” section of the want ads. Every week, the career center sent out five different senior profiles to thousands of alumni, along with brief student-authored summaries describing their career goals and life aspirations. By the end of Berman’s tenure at Carleton, the center had connected hundreds of students with thousands of alumni, building an informal platform for students and potential employers to connect with each other.
Berman envisions a similar program at Oberlin, involving a volunteer corps of parents and alumni enlisted to work with the career center. Although the volunteers would provide multiple levels of support for students embarking on the post-grad job search, Berman says that this approach to networking diverges greatly from the model established by most professionals in his field.
“All anybody ever gets is an opportunity to put their foot in the door, and there are all these artificial protocols and procedures that make it harder to do that,” he says. “If you get to know people by talking to them, it’s not networking for the sake of networking. It’s not ‘who we know’; it’s about who we can come to know. It’s establishing a two-way street by making authentic, genuine connections with people.”
The post-grad job search, Berman says, is “first and foremost a human process,” a concept that students and counselors at other institutions often fail to grasp. “I worry that the process itself can sometimes seem so intimidating,” he says. “The more I do this work, the more I want students to understand that the answer isn’t playing a role or playing a game. It’s a combination of self-confidence and genuine, authentic communication. It’s important for seniors and juniors to understand that, to take the pressure off.”
Despite his emphasis on reducing the stressfulness of the post-graduate job search, Berman also acknowledges that the impact of the 2008 economic crisis—which slashed entry-level hiring rates by 40 percent between 2007 and 2010—serves as a legitimate source of stress for students poised to enter a rapidly shrinking market. Yet he strongly disagrees with the contention that a liberal arts degree is worth little in today’s employment landscape. In fact, Berman claims that there’s never been a better time for today’s crop of liberal arts graduates to find career opportunities.
“What I hear from employers now is that they’re placing a much higher premium on adaptability, analytical and problem-solving skills, and the ability to view problems from a variety of perspectives than they ever have before,” he says. “The world has shifted in favor of applicants who can flex and move, if you will, and liberal arts graduates are wired to do just that.”
In today’s tightening job market, not only is it paramount for applicants to have the ability to “flex and move,” it’s integral to the success of career counselors as well. And it is precisely this knack for flexing and moving—for finding alternative solutions to old problems and thinking creatively about new ones—that truly warrants Berman’s reputation as a rebel in his field.
“After 2008, all of the front doors to job opportunities suddenly started slamming shut,” he explains. “So what do you do instead? Do you use the old approach and work harder to get more people in the few front doors left, or do you try something new and start looking for side doors? If you get to know people, if you talk to them one-to-one, you can identify and illuminate where those openings are. So that’s what I try to help students do.
“Because,” he adds, eyes twinkling, “I love side doors.”
Richard Berman sounds like a great catch. If we could share a meal, I would ask how he sees Winter Term in the scheme of student externships. I'd also be curious to know how he thinks LinkedIn can or should be used by students.
Very cool. Optimistic about the prospects of leveraging the Obie network for current and past students. Certainly there is a tremendous amount of room for growth.
Wow! I finally feel like there's potential to shake things up in a good way regarding Oberlin's career services. I appreciate Richard's energy, enthusiasm and creative ideas. Wouldn't it be nice for Oberlin's career services to support Alumni as well in a real way...