Designing the Future of Career Services

December 1, 2023 | By Hassan Akmal

The Future of Career Services
An illustration of a crumbled piece of paper transforming into an origami bird.

TAGS: journal, models, operations, organizational structure, strategic planning,

NACE Journal / Fall 2023

He who works in marble, and finds the shape of his own soul in the stone, is nobler than he who ploughs the soil.
— Kahlil Gibran


How do you define a “reimagination”? Merriam-Webster defines “reimagined” as to “imagine again or anew; specially to form a new conception of or re-create.”1 In the current career services paradigm, reimaginations are complex and multilayered.

In an ever-evolving landscape of education and work, career services professionals must adapt and innovate to guide individuals effectively on their professional journeys. With the backdrop of Kahlil Gibran's profound words in mind, we embark on a journey to reimagine career services for the future, weaving together insights from the realms of academia, practical expertise, and the wisdom of renowned professionals.

Over the past two decades, I have seen our field progressively evolve from reactive to proactive. Nowadays, when a student seeks our help, they aren’t just looking for a resume critique or checking a box of completion. They are looking for much more, something deeper, and an experience. The new generations are seeking meaning and purpose. It’s their stories that matter, and we must begin at the heart of who they are.

Leading With Empathy

Early in my career in 2010, I was selected for “Project Hawaii,” a nationwide group tasked with designing a model career center, if there was such a thing. It was a six-to-eight-month initiative, and, although it was a tall order and somewhat daunting task, the process was one of the best professional development opportunities of my life. In this group, I was able to pick the brains of many talented career services leaders from diverse backgrounds and institutions of all sizes and styles, both private and public. What I learned was that every student population was different, each with different needs and vulnerabilities and that the political landscape was critical. However, one formula always worked and that was leading with empathy.

Many people ask me what is the single most impactful and transformative change I have made while reimagining career centers. My answer is always the same: listening tours. A listening tour is essentially a scheduled meeting or block of time that can be used by teammates in the career center and by management to present a high-level picture of our reimagination (20%) and then to garner a deeper understanding of the focus group’s thoughts on our direction by listening (80%) to any pain points and additional feedback/suggestions they may have for career services and collaborations.

Through listening tours, we are trying to increase the engagement of our students with career and life-design opportunities. What is the timeline for the listening tour? Simple: As long as it takes, but I recommend a minimum of six months with at least a dozen stakeholders or more.

A New Definition of Leadership

Leading a reimagination effort in career services is far from easy and full of challenges.2 Designing a career center of the future not only takes impeccable leadership, but it also takes a dream team. In 2014, I became the chair of career education, director of business career services, and an adjunct professor at Loyola University Chicago. I was charged with building a new career center and a new breed of career professionals, and I was given a blueprint by Dr. Kathleen Getz, the former dean of Loyola University Chicago’s Quinlan School of Business. I was reminded that I was part of a $100 million fundraising campaign—their largest target ever to date—to build a brand new, state-of-the-art business school. Not only did I feel a sense of empowerment, but I felt like a kid in a candy store. I knew that we would successfully reach the target and looked forward to the joy, the ability to watch our energy in motion, and the center being built over the next three years.

After the ribbon cutting, it was time to rebuild and expand my team, and I wanted to start by exploring the key characteristics of effective leadership and rebuilding myself. I connected with Pedro Manrique, Ph.D., who did a TEDx Talk titled “Rebuilding Leadership: Secrets to Impacting Lives.”3 Dr. Manrique encouraged me to listen to a speech by General Colin Powell. In his speech, delivered at the 2015 CEO Forum at Loyola University Chicago, General Powell offered the best definition of leadership I have found: “Leadership ultimately comes down to creating conditions of trust in an organization. Good leaders are people who are trusted by followers. Leaders take organizations past the level that science and management say is possible. Over 50 years ago, my sergeant back in the Infantry School of Fort Benning, taught me that I would know I was a good leader when people follow you, if only out of curiosity.”

What he was saying is that you must build that trust through selfless service, not by being self-serving. You must train your staff, provide the resources for them to be successful, and be ready to take risks with them. This approach sets the conditions for learning, growth, and success.

Renaming “Career Services”

I realized early in my career that the field needed to evolve. Traditional career development models and many of the tools career centers were using were downright ancient. It was time to cross “career services” off the door and create a new name; what we do is much bigger than just career services. After thinking long and hard, I decided on a name: career and life design.

You also need a magnetic branding statement. At UC San Diego, creating a new branding statement took time, but we finally landed on “Transforming Passion into Purpose,” which resonated with everyone, as we knew we were transforming passions into skills that would solve real-world problems for people and organizations.

Traditional career centers have often operated within the confines of academia, but the future demands a more fluid approach. As Farouk Dey and Christine Cruzvergara aptly suggest in their article, “Evolution of Career Services in Higher Education,” career services should integrate more closely with the university's overall structure, becoming an essential part of the educational ecosystem.4 Career centers need to align their goals and strategies with the broader mission of higher education institutions.

In addition, as the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce recommends, career services should align closely with academic programs, tailoring guidance to specific fields of study and emerging career opportunities.5 The future of work is diverse, and we must reflect this diversity in our organizational structure to provide tailored support.

Location, Location, Location

Where should career services be located? Many assume the answer is in student affairs. At UC San Diego, we operate within advancement, and it works. It is important to be at the center of campus and not on the periphery. Regardless of where you are in terms of unit, you need ample resources and leadership support, and they must trust you as the expert in the field.

Additionally, career centers should establish cross-functional teams involving faculty, staff, and students.6 Collaboration with academic departments and student organizations can bridge the gap between classroom learning and real-world application. This inclusive approach fosters a culture where career development is viewed as an integral part of the educational journey.

Regardless of where the center lands itself, you will need a roadmap that embeds the cultural, economic, and technological changes. The roadmap includes:

  1. Kickoff, starting with an in-depth exploration of key principles
  2. Listening Tours, to build momentum
  3. Let’s Talk Data
  4. Training, to provide resources for skill acquisition and upskilling7
  5. Alignment, which must be ensured with the educational mission of the institution8
  6. Diversity and Inclusion, to embrace diverse talents and interests9
  7. Design Thinking10
  8. Communities of Practice, to foster networking and collaboration11
  9. Imagination, to cultivate creativity and impact12
  10. AI Integration, to be leveraged for personal guidance13
  11. Innovation
  12. Fine-tuning

We Don’t Sell, We Serve

Being able to sell is one of the most important skills today, but we aren’t selling. Career services should move beyond a sales mindset. A shift from selling services to servingindividuals is imperative. Remember, our paradigm shift is also a shift from being transactional to being transformational. Instead of merely selling job-search techniques, we must serve as catalysts for personal and professional growth.14 Students and alumni should find in career centers a supportive environment that nurtures their development, aligning with the principles of what I call “career and life design.”

As Dey noted, the evolution of career services is a transformational journey of understanding our own personal and professional growth.15 He emphasized that career services should be proactive in guiding students, and help them identify their strengths and passions. However, we must also apply this process in our lives and careers.

This transformation aligns with the principles of career and life design, a contemporary theoretical framework that places self-discovery and purpose at its core.16 In this context, career services should facilitate the process of students finding their unique paths.

Here are four principles to guide our service:

Principle 1: Educational mission and purpose alignment - The structure of career services should align closely with the educational mission of institutions. This integration ensures that career development is not an afterthought but an integral part of the overall student experience. Dey emphasizes the importance of shifting from a "placement" mindset to a "learning" mindset, where career development is seen as an educational goal.17

Principle 2: Design thinking for life - In Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans introduce the concept of applying design-thinking principles to career development.18 This approach encourages students to prototype different career options, fostering adaptability and resilience. I describe design thinking as “designing your thinking.”

Principle 3: Imagination and creativity - Career services should actively promote and cultivate human qualities, such as creativity and imagination. These are irreplaceable in a world where automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are reshaping industries. We should teach mindfulness and prioritize it as much as we do career education.19

Principle 4: AI and its impact - AI-powered tools, such as chatbots, can provide personalized guidance to help you serve and analyze labor market trends.20 (We need to learn to master AI prompts and be integrators).

Building Community

A career center should be more than just an office on campus; it should be a hub for community-building. Embracing generational trends, especially the aspirations of Gen Z for meaningful work and purpose, career centers should foster a sense of belonging and shared vision among students.21 Communities provide a safe space for self-discovery and peer support.

A career center should evolve into more than just an administrative office; it should become a vibrant and supportive community. It is important to define the career communities that we serve: 1) academic, including faculty, staff, and students; 2) alumni; 3) employer; 4) parent and family; and 5) business community.

The aspirations of Gen Z go beyond traditional career goals; they seek the ability to make an impact and give back. Creating a community-driven approach can cater to these desires. We should guide them and build a culture of giving of our own. One of the best ways to do this is by partnering with alumni relations.

Don’t forget about the alumni connector. Many employers come back to recruit or mentor as alumni. We call this the “student-to-alumni life cycle.” By establishing mentorship programs that connect students with alumni who share similar values and career paths, career services can foster a strong sense of belonging.22 Moreover, organizing networking events, workshops, and peer support groups can create an environment where individuals collaborate and learn from each other, aligning with the ideals of building a robust community.23 When you teach a student to be a strong mentee with something to offer, they will one day likely transition into an alum and mentor. They will give back and stay connected. It’s not about monetary gifts. It’s about the giving—yourself.

Each community has its unique needs and challenges, requiring tailored support. This is not just a reinvention of what we do—it’s a call to action.

Reimagining Is a Collective Endeavor

Reimagining career services is a collective endeavor that requires commitment and innovation outlined in this article. Consider the following actions with the communities:

Educational institutions: Reevaluate the alignment of career services with your institution's mission and explore partnerships with AI-driven career guidance platforms.

Students: Engage in design-thinking workshops, join career-related communities, and embrace creativity as you plan your future.

Alumni: Give back by mentoring current students and sharing your valuable career insights.

Industry partners: Collaborate with educational institutions to offer real-world experiences and skill-development opportunities.

Parents and families: Some parents are alumni. Others have large networks. Many know employers that are recruiting. Don’t overlook this key community. They were key in spark campaigns and fundraising efforts at UCLA and UC San Diego.


In 2017, while at Columbia University, I launched “Project Success,” through which we tied success stories to graduation and the first-destination survey. We believed that if it was successful, we would no longer need to ask students to complete a survey, that they would eventually willingly share. We were right, and we celebrated their victories with them. Projects like this help build lasting career cultures that will breed success.

The student experience is something we can impact every single day. When you transform experiences, you create stories. You impact lives. We must teach students to write and tell their stories. We must test them, and ask them, what is your story, the one you tell yourself? You would be surprised by what they will tell you. Sometimes I even begin a student appointment this way.

Stories inspire action and help individuals overcome limiting beliefs. They help career coaches understand what intrinsically motivates a person and evaluate if they are in the driver’s seat of their life. Sometimes a person is in the “back seat,” and the windshield is blurred by imposter syndrome or extrinsic motivations. To celebrate our students means to celebrate their stories. It means that we need to teach students to not take the easy way but instead to get into the driver’s seat and explore.

The Journey Is Inward

True career and life design begins with introspection. Every career center needs a Zen space, a tranquil oasis where students can engage in mindfulness and reflection. Guided by the belief that everyone has a purpose, this inward journey helps individuals tap into their intrinsic motivation and discover their unique path.24

The inner journey of self-discovery and reflection lies at the heart of career and life design. In Designing Your Life, Burnett and Evans emphasize the importance of exploring one's values, interests, and curiosities.25

This inward journey is not just about career decisions but also about life choices. As individuals embark on their career trajectories, they must align their work with their values and aspirations. This process mirrors the Japanese concept of Ikigai, which represents the intersection of passion, vocation, profession, and mission.26 Career services should guide students in their quest to find their Ikigai.

Career centers can play a pivotal role in helping individuals discover their purpose and align it with their career paths. Imagine the future of career services. You are the designer—an artist in a creative design space with no borders, in a sanctuary of self-reflection. Designing the future of career services is not just about looking within ourselves and toward what inspires us—it is also about a shared vision. You are co-designing the future of your career center and also designing a new way to work.27

At the UC San Diego Career Center, through our reimagination ideation, we created our own Zen garden on the back patio. We use it for a variety of purposes, including a dedicated student space, for networking events, and even for one-on-one appointments with staff and students. The goal is to renovate this space in the future with private funding and rename the career center.

Finding Meaning in Our Work

Career services transcends job placements; we empower individuals to become architects of a better future for themselves and society as a whole. To fulfill this profound role, career centers must champion the development of panoramic career and life visions, enabling students and alumni to gain clarity and focus on their aspirations.28 Opportunities hide in the periphery. As individuals gain clarity and focus, they begin to see themselves as agents of positive change.29

Career services also should embrace principles of servant leadership, as proposed by Robert K. Greenleaf.30 A servant leader prioritizes the well-being and growth of those they serve, fostering a culture of empathy and support. By viewing their work as a vocation dedicated to helping others succeed, career practitioners can create a meaningful impact.

Moreover, the principles of appreciative inquiry, as advocated by David Cooperrider and Diana Whitney, encourage individuals to envision their ideal future.31 Career services can apply these principles to help individuals explore their strengths and potential, fostering a sense of agency and the belief that they have the capacity to shape a brighter tomorrow.

Sparking Imagination and Creativity

In an era when automation and artificial intelligence are reshaping industries, the human capacity for creativity and imagination remains irreplaceable.32 The future of work demands not just technical expertise but also creativity and innovation. While machines can excel in routine tasks, humans possess the innate ability to think critically, solve complex problems, and generate novel ideas.

Career services should actively promote and cultivate these uniquely human qualities, preparing students to thrive in a rapidly evolving job market.33 Career services can nurture these through immersive experiences as well as design-thinking workshops, creative problem-solving seminars, and exposure to the arts.

Vision, Focus, and Clarity

Students and recent graduates need clarity and a vision but don’t always know where to begin. Guiding individuals toward aligning their purpose with their career goals is at the heart of career services.34

Many career centers lack robust frameworks for building a career and life vision, and this vision may be the most critical piece to a student’s pathway for more meaning in life. Frameworks like Ikigai offer profound insights into this alignment.35 Career coaches should transition into career and life coaches, focusing on mindset and guiding students through self-discovery and clarity.

In the pursuit of meaningful and fulfilling careers, individuals often grapple with questions of purpose and direction. Think about it: If a student walks into a career center and asks someone to help them find purpose, how many of us are truly prepared to help? The concept of Ikigai offers a framework for finding this alignment by exploring four fundamental questions: 1) What do you love?, 2) What are you good at?, 3) What does the world need?, and 4)What can you be paid for?

Career centers can incorporate Ikigai into their guidance, helping students and alumni discover the unique intersection of these four elements. By facilitating this process of self-discovery, career services can empower individuals to pursue careers that resonate with their passions and values.

Moreover, career coaches should transition into mindset coaches, adopting the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Aaron T. Beck's work on CBT emphasizes the role of thoughts in shaping emotions and behaviors.36 By helping students reframe their beliefs and thoughts about their career possibilities, mindset coaches empower them to overcome self-doubt and find clarity.

Encouraging individuals to dream big and envision their ideal careers can lead to powerful transformations in their lives. It is from this career and life vision students will reverse engineer toward true purpose.

Skills Are the New Currency

In a world where technology is rapidly changing industries, individuals must continuously develop their skills to stay competitive.37 Career centers should not only help with career alignment but also provide resources for skill acquisition and upskilling.38

The advent of automation, artificial intelligence, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution has reshaped industries and job markets at an unprecedented pace. As technology disrupts traditional career pathways, individuals need to adapt by acquiring new skills and competencies. According to the “Future of Jobs Report 2020,” emerging job roles will require a blend of technical, digital, and human-centric skills.39 There are new niches and careers surfacing every single day.

Career services must address this challenge by collaborating with industry partners and offering accessible, online learning platforms.40 By partnering with organizations and leveraging digital resources, career centers can ensure that students and alumni have the tools they need to thrive in the ever-changing job market.

Moreover, embracing the principles of competency-based education can enable career services to assess and validate skills gained through non-traditional pathways, further enhancing individuals' employability.41 This holistic approach positions career centers as hubs for lifelong learning, equipping individuals with the skills they need to thrive in a dynamic job market.

Many students struggle with the differences between interests and passions and don’t know how to connect them to purpose. Every student has a purpose, and we must begin with the “why.” We must transform passions into skills, because skills are the new currency. To move the needle on career readiness, UC San Diego introduced 12 career competencies and a co-curricular record that serves as a career-readiness badge and is tied to every student’s story and transcript.42

In fall 2023, the UC San Diego Career Center intensified its efforts with the UC San Diego Triton Career Readiness Passport (pilot), a brand-new innovative career readiness tool that helps students holistically begin their career and life journey toward meaningful work.43 This uniquely curated roadmap to effective career and life design is a digital passport that engages students through a plethora of career-related preparedness activities, reflections, conferences, and events. It serves as a personal and professional development checklist. We mention “personal” first, as we begin with the person.

The passport is intended to help students build confidence and skills that further develop their personal brand. Students build a career profile, align a portfolio of experiences, and earn Triton Stamps for attending career and life-design activities that help them better understand themselves and the situations that bring out the best in them. Using the institution’s competencies as the foundation of this robust career readiness framework assessment, the passport is a dynamic framework intended to thread collective impact efforts and integrate learning across the entire campus.

This initiative teaches students to not limit themselves to job titles but to focus on transferable skills and skills of the future. In other words, it expands the “career opportunity circle” around them. Try it for yourself; it will multiply the possibilities.

Adaptability Is a Necessity, Not an Option

In the rapidly changing landscape of work, adaptability is paramount. Lifelong learning and adaptability must be at the core of career services. LinkedIn’s 2023 Global Talent Trends report indicated the hiring rate has decreased over the past year in a sample of 17 countries, emphasizing the need for individuals to continually acquire new skills and adapt to emerging opportunities.44

The changes we are seeing in our field are not abstract or distant; they are very much here, profoundly impacting the nature of work and the skills required to succeed. The ability to adapt is no longer a desirable trait; it's an absolute necessity. The concept of lifelong learning, underscored by the influential work of Marc Tucker, has taken center stage.45 Tucker argues that high-performing education systems worldwide prioritize continuous learning, aligning education with the needs of the labor market.

Career services must embrace this paradigm shift by making adaptability a cornerstone of its approach. As the gig economy expands and traditional career paths evolve, individuals need to continually acquire new skills and adapt to emerging opportunities. This concept aligns with the ideas of Carol Dweck, who highlights the significance of a growth mindset in approaching challenges and seeking learning opportunities.46

Moreover, it’s not just breadth but depth. Career centers should adopt a holistic perspective, recognizing that personal and professional development go hand in hand. Research by Jeffrey Jensen Arnett underscores the importance of addressing not only career goals but also personal aspirations, relationships, and self-discovery during the transition to adulthood.47 Career services should provide guidance in these multifaceted areas to prepare individuals for the diverse pathways they may traverse.

AI Is an Extension of You

AI is fundamentally changing the way we define jobs. Harness the power of AI to enhance career services.48 Every career center needs a 24/7 chatbot to answer questions, enhance accessibility and responsiveness, and offer quick guidance. AI researcher Andrew Ng highlights its transformative potential by stating, "AI is the new electricity."49 However, remember that technology should augment, not replace, the human touch.

AI presents an opportunity to revolutionize career services, as it can augment the capabilities of career services by providing personalized recommendations based on an individual's skills, interests, and goals. For example, chatbots can assist with common queries, freeing up career advisers to focus on more complex and nuanced career coaching.

Moreover, machine learning algorithms can analyze labor market trends and provide insights into emerging job opportunities. By harnessing the power of AI, career services can stay ahead of the curve and provide students and alumni with up-to-date information and guidance.

Career services should draw from its rich history of human interaction and mentorship while integrating AI into its offerings. By combining the capabilities of technology with the warmth of human empathy, career centers can provide a holistic and personalized experience that resonates with individuals on their career journeys.

Career Ecosystem and Networks

Career services must extend its reach beyond the confines of brick-and-mortar centers. Building a robust career ecosystem is essential for comprehensive support and includes a plethora of networks. The interconnectedness of these networks provides a wealth of insights and opportunities.

Career services should harness the power of networking platforms like LinkedIn to connect students and alumni with industry professionals who can offer mentorship, internships, and job opportunities, enhancing the overall career development experience.

In addition, leveraging the principles of systems thinking, as articulated by Peter Senge in The Fifth Discipline, can help career centers understand the interdependencies within their ecosystems.50 By adopting this view, they can better serve the diverse needs of their stakeholders and facilitate meaningful connections.

Fostering Emotional Intelligence in Students

Career services can benefit greatly from integrating emotional intelligence into its programs, helping students and alumni develop resilience, empathy, and self-awareness. As part of this, career services should:

Foster global perspectives and help students leverage mobility: Career services should prepare individuals for a globalized workforce.51 Encouraging international experiences, such as study-abroad programs and internships in different countries, can broaden horizons and enhance cross-cultural competencies.

With remote work becoming increasingly common, career services also should provide guidance on remote job opportunities and the skills needed for successful remote work.

Recognize student interest in careers in sustainability and social impact: The younger generation is increasingly drawn to careers that align with their values and contribute to the greater good. Career services should address this by offering resources and guidance for pursuing careers in sustainability, social impact, and corporate responsibility.

Highlighting the importance of environmental and social responsibility, career centers can connect students and alumni with organizations that prioritize sustainability and social impact in their missions. By fostering a commitment to positive change, career services can play a pivotal role in shaping a more sustainable future.

Acknowledge the importance of mental health and well-being: Career services should integrate resources for stress management, resilience, and work-life balance. Promoting self-care and mental health awareness can help individuals thrive in their careers and personal lives.

Moreover, career centers should collaborate with counseling and support services on campus to provide well-being support for students facing mental health challenges.52 Ensuring that individuals have access to the necessary resources and coping strategies is vital for their overall well-being.

Extend support beyond graduation: Offering alumni networking events, career and networking fairs, and professional development opportunities can help graduates navigate the early stages of their careers. Think about the many people who will pivot after graduation, with many students landing careers entirely unrelated to their major. The sooner you develop programming or content that is scalable and related to career transitioning and/or advancement, the more popular you will become with graduates of the last decade.

We know that the most qualified candidate doesn’t always get the job. Organizations use third-party platforms and then customize algorithms for their recruitment needs.53 Robust mentorship programs can connect recent graduates with experienced professionals in their fields, facilitating the sharing of knowledge, career connections, and referrals. This continued engagement with alumni can strengthen the sense of community and lifelong learning promoted by career services.

This is an inflection point for all of us. The future of work is about well-being, inspiration, and stories as much as it is about organizations and people thriving. Ultimately, we are teaching students and alumni to “inner-view” themselves, to self-align, discover, and uncover who they truly are.


The New Playbook

The next generation of talent is arriving with digital career portfolio-style resumes and the “traditional resume” will soon be a thing of the past. Reimagining career services for the future requires a holistic transformation.

You are aligning organizational structures with educational missions, embracing a service-oriented approach, fostering communities, guiding inward journeys, promoting adaptability, igniting creativity, valuing skills, leveraging AI, championing emotional courage, and incorporating insights from thought leaders from all walks of life.

Will the effort and sacrifices be worth it? Absolutely, and we owe it to the students. This is about leaving a legacy. A ribbon cutting doesn’t mark the end of the reimagination—it sparks the real beginning, a home, a new purpose, and the next big adventure. Look for moments of wonder. 54

View Endnotes

Hassan Akmal is the executive director of Career and Professional Development at University of California San Diego and host of the UC San Diego Career Podcast Designing Your Career and Life.

Akmal has been a senior leader in career services for more than 15 years and in higher education for nearly 30 years. Prior to his current role, Akmal led an ambitious reimagination of career services at UCLA’s Career Center, and served as the inaugural executive director of industry relations and career strategies at Columbia University, where he founded the award-winning Career Design Lab. His TEDx Talk is titled “The Power to Design a Life You Love.”

Akmal is the author of The Interior Design of Your Career and Life, published in May 2023. He is also the author of How to Be a Career Mastermind: Discover 7 “YOU MATTER” Lenses for a Life of Purpose, Impact, and Meaningful Work and You Are the Artist of Your Life, a children’s career and life-design storybook.

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