Season 2 | Episode 5 | Gail Cornelius, University of Washington
Major doesn't equal career. Gail Cornelius, Engineering Career Center Director at the University of Washington, comes to higher ed from 17 years at Boeing. Her experience gives her street cred and the desire to give back to an industry she loves by putting homegrown talent into the system. She explains why brand management is critical for the entire ecosystem from students to career centers to employers.
[00:05] ERIN KING
More people than ever are questioning the value of higher education. We're here to explore why they're right, why they're wrong and which institutions are rising to the challenge. I'm here with our Analytics Consultant, Dr. Jacob Bonne, and the College of Engineering Career Center Director at the University of Washington, Gail Cornelius.
Thanks so much for being here today.
[00:27] GAIL CORNELIUS
Thanks for having me.
Gail, you were with Boeing for 17 years. You really leaned into the field of industrial engineering without isolating yourself to one specific department or role. You obviously have a love for the industry, so why now higher ed and specifically career services? What do you want to give back?
Well, I was fortunate to have come from a family that cherished education. My mom was a registered nurse for 30 years. My dad served in the Navy. We're a traditional Asian family where education's really important. And now that I look back 44 years later, a lot of the things have pointed me in this direction.
In 2014, I had a mid-career crisis. I was at Boeing. I had been there. I did three summer internships. I came back to Seattle to work...after going to college in California, and I was working directly with an engineering executive team. And one of my female mentors who was at that time a Boeing executive for 30 years said she was going to quit and pursue a leadership role at a local nonprofit.
And I was in shock thinking, here we were. We're breaking the glass ceiling. She, particularly as an example of a female executive working her way up, and she basically said to me, there's more out there. And so in one of our mentorship conversations before she left, she pulled out an 11x17 piece of paper and said, "Let's draw your map. Let's draw your career map, and let's just see if you're really doing what you should be doing."
I drew the one line representing my day job at Boeing, and she goes, "Well, what else do you do?" And so I drew a line for some work that I was doing with the summer intern program. I did some recruiting for my alma mater for about the same amount of time. And she goes, "Well, what about outside of Boeing?"
I drew another line for things like Junior Achievement, volunteering in the schools, and then I also coach high school girls volleyball. She looked at me and she said, "This is a no-duh Gail. You should be in education." And that was really my light bulb moment.
In the fall of 2014, I started looking for roles in schools. Now, mind you, I have a master's in engineering, and I told my parents, "Hey, guys, I'm going to quit Boeing and give up my six figure income to go work at a school district or at a nonprofit."
And I really couldn't find anything. Obviously with a family to support, that was hard, too. But during Christmas break, someone said to me, "Have you ever thought about working for the university?" I'm thinking, oh, gosh, no, not really.
But honestly, the following Monday, I went to the UW careers website. This was the first position that came up. This is the first time the college has hosted and really just opened its own career center for the College of Engineering. And so it was my privilege to actually take on this role for the first time in 2015 when it came to the U.
It's been seven years now, and it's been a ride for sure. But I tell that story because I think one of the things that we try to tell students in our office is that major doesn't equal career. There's a difference between a single point in your timeframe and your timeline, like a job, but then there's the full trajectory of career. Although some things may make sense at the time and not make sense, there's always going to be some purpose that you can tie back and say, here's what my experience gave me.
And so really, again, as part of paying back and having been fortunate to have mentors like Deb along the way who have given me that light bulb moment or helped me play the long game, this has really been a great role for me to pay that forward
[03:46] DR. JACOB BONNE
Yeah, that absolutely does sound like the perfect opportunity with how your career aligned, and I'm sure you're just a fantastic asset for your students with all of that practical experience as well. So that's really awesome.
You'd be surprised the street cred has worn. You tell a student in this current generation, "Yeah, I worked at a company for 18 years." They go, "Why would you ever want to do that?" And so, yeah, that newbie card and that street cred card takes me a little bit of the way. It certainly doesn't take me all the way.
UW College of Engineering's economic impact on the State of Washington exceeds $594 million every year, with $14.3 billion generated by alumni over their careers. How does the Engineering Career Center contribute to and strengthen this pipeline
Yeah, thanks for the question. So our data...we're very fortunate in the career center to run our first destination survey, so we know where 85 percent of our student graduates go from a role perspective, industry, company, geographic location, etc. We know where the majority of our students go post-graduation.
Our data shows that 75 percent of our University of Washington graduates will stay here in the Puget Sound and contribute to this community. Being able to send that kind of talent back into their hometowns, into places that have made impact on them for the last four years or maybe even longer.
We're really fortunate here in the Seattle area to be in this geographic space with so many industries and business sizes available. Clearly, our students know names like Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon, and so we really work with those companies and those major employers to make sure that those brands are positively portrayed to the homegrown talent. But that also doesn't take away from all of the small startups that have spun off from some of those companies, other industries like biotech or even space.
We try to work with those smaller to medium sized employers or ones without as strong a brand to show them how to be competitive against those big names. And so again, when we talk about brand management on this campus, we're not just helping Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing get to the front of the line with our talent. We actually have statistics that show that of all of our first destination survey data that we've seen, 43 percent of our students will go to 20 employers (Boeing, Microsoft, Philips, Space X) but we also know 57 [percent] of our graduates will also secure employment at 235 other companies.
And so again, when we're able to put that homegrown talent back into the system and give them opportunities like senior projects or research or even internships during the school year, that has become this kind of giving cycle that we can continue to use to strengthen that pipeline.
And again, I think one of the things that we try to tell students is, it's not just about the big names. It's about what would be a good fit. And sometimes that's not the big ticket employers. It might be a smaller startup. It might be a nonprofit. But engineering work is engineering work, and it can be done in a lot of different industries and a lot of different sized companies.
I love that you are talking about career analytics in this storytelling way that you are because we live and breathe career outcomes to see who's making an impact. Specifically, we recently ran an analysis to find out which universities produce the most female software engineers in the U.S., and UW ranks No. 2 with female alumni working at top companies, some you just mentioned, Google, Amazon, Expedia and even Boeing.
So how does gender play a role in the work that you do and does coaching look any different?
I've been a huge proponent of giving back as a female, as a minority. I always have tried to surround myself with prominent female role models, both in the types of work that they do and the industries that they represent. I have a number of mentors. I call them my board of directors. I don't just have one mentor. I have about twelve that speak to different aspects of my life.
As the mother of two daughters, I also want them to see people in roles that they aspire to grow into. And so I think that's really one of the greatest things about being in a role like this in student services, is the fact that you can introduce a number of constituents to each other, right?
I'm also the faculty advisor for our collegiate section of the Society of Women Engineers. And it's always fun to bring our professional members to those student chapter meetings because again, people will go into roles and in fields where they feel that there's community.
As a high school coach, there's a saying that my coaching staff always uses. It's, "Boys battle to bond, and girls bond to battle." And I think that really resonates not just in sports with our teams, but also in work-life.
Girls want to build that community in order to make strides and advances, and that's no different on the volleyball court or in the conference room. And so really, as we think about, how do we play a little bit of a different role in coaching? I think again, we have pushed the pipeline so hard.
We're very proud at the University of Washington to tout that over a third of our student population identifies as female. That's higher than the national average. That's higher than what's present in industry now.
So now, our job. We've done the attract. Now, can we do the retain? That's the biggest thing that I see in this role. How do we start to build that? How do we use that network to make sure that we do retain that one third of students who are going to get those stem degrees and keep them in industry?
You use the words attract and retain. I'd love to learn what methods outside of something like the first Destination survey is UW, or specifically the College of Engineering, doing.
How are you using data to attract, retain and really help your alumni grow throughout their careers?
Obviously, it's showing the numbers, right? It's being transparent with how you got them and where they live. And I think again...students have a general tendency to believe what they see on the internet, through their friends.
Being able to put that data in front of them as quickly as we can is really important. One of the biggest things that speaks to how good an educational program is, is the fact that alumni give back.
There's never a time in which somebody who's not proud of their institution says, "Yeah, I don't want to speak, I don't want to give back and I want to donate." And so really, that measure of success for our alumni is in their desire to give back.
I will say in the seven years that I've been at the University of Washington, maybe this is a little bit different because I am a female. I've been involved with a female student organization, and I keep in touch with those students. Being able to show them, fulfill the circle, and say, "OK, here's what it does look like, and here are some of the challenges; but here are also some of the successes that people have experienced outside of UW," and allow them to give back.
From an attract standpoint, I think we need to start as early as possible. A lot of female students, they stop doing STEM, probably in their early or late elementary, early middle school careers. STEM is too hard. Math is hard, right? So the ability for us to give back and send our female engineering students back to the middle schools, back to those underrepresented communities, back to where we see a lot of first-gen college students potentially coming through.
Being able to plant that seed and nurture that seed to get them to the point where UW is really an option for them. If we can get them to that point, we'll take them the rest of the way in career services.
Speaking of "taking them the rest of the way in career services," is a great segue.
We noticed in your last annual report that the most recent senior class utilized engineering career services more than any other class. Talk to us a little bit about that engagement and how you might see that as a win or an opportunity as you continue to encourage students to leverage the resources you provide.
Absolutely a win. Anytime you have traffic, that's a good problem to have. But obviously that comes with plenty of opportunity, as well.
As an industrial engineer, I'm always looking to optimize the system and look for efficiencies. I think this is really one of the places that we, in our, I'll say, the toddler stage of the career center, after our first seven years of existence, what our focus is going forward.
It's in the name of the office. People hear "careers services" and they're not super excited. An 18-year-old is like, "Well, I don't have a career until I graduate. I don't really have to worry about that." And so one of the things that we're trying to do is: We really believe and know that we're one of the few student services offices on our campus that can follow a student for all four years.
You think about an engineering advisor who maybe takes them through their first year; and then they move into their department, and they get another adviser to walk them through their academic plan for the next three or four years.
But we are one of the few student services offices that can say, "OK, let's talk about, what do you want to do when you grow up and what types of problems do you want to solve?" Help them get into the department and then help them get into internships, do research, join student clubs to develop some transferable skills, even negotiate that salary post interview process.
And so part of it is yes, seniors know that career centers, they're going to help you get a job very similar to the career center I had as a college student. You go, you pick the job also off the wall, you turn in your application materials and you hope you get a call back.
But I think career services just in the name (and this is one of the things that we're looking to possibly change) this is really about an office of professional development. This is about the personal journey in creating someone's brand.
When you see that Starbucks logo, that Apple logo, that McDonald's logo, you have an elicit reaction. And we want students to think of their name, their resume, their picture on LinkedIn as that logo. What does that brand represent?
And so again, that's not something that can happen transactionally. That doesn't just happen in one appointment with 30 minutes with one of our staff members. That happens over a period of time that involves self-reflection, exploration or even just informational interviews and career conversations to understand what's out there and what's available to them.
As much as I love seeing my seniors, the opportunity at hand for us is, how do we get to students earlier in the process and say, "You know what, you've done all this work to be a really good math student and a good science student, a good STEM student. You've now chosen engineering. What are you going to do with it?"
I love that draft name. I actually have started to hear some folks around higher ed frame career services as Office of Professional Development, and I know a few of those here and there; and I really think it does provide a very modern approach to not only what we want our students to do with their careers as they move forward. But also, absolutely, I think you're totally right. Frame the mindset, even for staff or faculty engaging with you. So, yeah, I love that idea.
Yeah. And even some of the assessments we do, we are currently running a class for our first-year students. It's really kind of an exploratory course, something that they don't normally get. But it's not about engineering, necessarily, it's about who you are.
When we do things like a CliftonStrengths assessment or a dependable strength exercise or even a Myers-Briggs personality test. That data comes in, like any good engineer, they want to get all the data and figure out what it means.
This whole thing about this professional development journey is hopefully showing students that, gosh, if I want to work at Boeing, I don't just have to be an aeronautical engineer. If I want to go into computer science my only option isn't at Microsoft. And being able to again take students through that critical thinking process, which I think, to be honest, this generation has come into an environment where things are at their fingertips. A plus B equals C. If I have a question, I look it up on the internet, and I find it fairly quickly.
We have lost a little bit of touch with this kind of reflection piece to where students can actually again communicate their brand to their next employer.
That's not a transactional kind of information exchange. That's going to happen over time. That's what we're really shooting for in the center.
We recently hosted an episode of DataU and our guest was Justin Nguyen, who is the founder of Declassified Media.
His whole thing is to make college career readiness content not boring. And he's younger. He's what you consider Gen-Z, and his advice to universities, his final thoughts, were universities and career centers need to be more fun.
So in what ways would you say that the career center at the College of Engineering at UW is doing that?
I think a lot of it is just showing them where the value is. When I first came into this job, somebody told me, being in career services is like being part of a salad bar. It's free with your meal, but it's optional. Vegetables are good for you. You should go see them, but they still don't come and see us.
So I think part of it is really just being able to articulate the value that we can provide to students in those four years. Sure, we're going to have jobs for you. We're going to have employers that talk to you. But how do you be more fun? You're out in classrooms, you meet students where they are.
We actually have on our Instagram, we now have a feature with one of our career coaches called, "Curtis Says," and it uses his Bitmoji; and it's just a quick piece of advice for the week.
So if we're able to utilize the ways in which Gen-Z currently communicates and shares information...we know this generation is so intently focused on getting advice from its close circle of friends. They depend on their friends, they depend on their their families for advice, more so than other previous generations. And so again, if we're able to get to that friend who says, "Gail has some really great advice about negotiating that salary," or, "Hey, have you looked at this Instagram post?"
Not that we're going to TikTok, but certainly as we use social media and those short snippets of valuable information that even if it just plants a seed and sticks for 30 seconds, hopefully maybe two months from now, they might think, oh gosh, where did I see that statistic on how many students actually stay in the Puget Sound area after graduation? I think I saw it on this Instagram post.
Hopefully, those kinds of things will stick. So obviously free food is also a good thing. Freebies, giveaways. But in this time of COVID, I think where we're trying to get students to critically think about their future is hopefully connecting them with people who can tell them, as opposed to just us saying, "Hey, it's really good for you to be an engineer." Connecting them with folks who are in the industry close to their graduation. We talk a lot about graduates of the last decade or GOLDS who can say, "You know what? I was in your shoes just a couple of years ago, and here's how I navigated that."
As a new career center, I'd love to learn what you used as a model. Are there any other institutions that you looked to as they put together a career center or student success center that you saw as being innovative, creative, actually one that students want to use, resources that students want to engage with?
We know that career centers, that's one of the toughest challenges, to get that traffic, to get the engagement.
So is there a model that you used or some sort of mentor when you were developing early on what your strategies look like from the College of Engineering Career Center?
Any good engineer is going to gather a bunch of data.
There are a number of engineering career centers across the nation in pretty prominent universities, Ohio State, Michigan, Arizona State. They have engineering-specific career centers. My alma mater, particularly, actually had a career center that was campus-wide, but there was an engineering-specific career advisor. Talking with her a lot, understanding the lay of the land.
I was, again, very fortunate to be 18 years on the other side of the career fair table, shaking hands, running interviews, screening resumes, and so the perspective that I was able to get from being an employer certainly was helpful.
But as we looked across at the models, again, I think one of the things that we saw was...being in, I'll say, in an advancement structure. One of the things when we opened the office back in the day was that we reported directly to advancement. We know that money that comes into the college for research, for professorships, for names on labs is coming from corporate donors. Being able to connect that outcome with those donors was the first step in growing the Rolodex, if you will, of the career center.
Clearly, we are one of the more prominent engineering programs in the area or one of the larger ones, so when people think about going to Seattle for engineers, they generally think about going to UW. And so, again, being able to connect and build our own brand, per se, as the career center here locally was important. And the way to do that was through advancement and through our fundraisers and through our corporate and foundation relations teams.
As we have now evolved seven years later, now that we've got our own feet under us, really thinking about, how do we meld the student experience?
Now we have actually, just recently during COVID, we've actually shifted under academic and student affairs. That change in the model has really given us some lessons learned in thinking about our broad customer base, but also, what do our students need? If at the end of the day students didn't come to class, we would be out of jobs.
And so really being able to think about that was something we did think of at the beginning, but certainly is more prominent now and especially post-COVID. And we know our employers are chomping at the bit. They will always hire, but are our students ready?
That's one of the things that we're dealing with currently is, how do we get out of two years of virtual space, and how do we get our students to now interact in person and talk professionally about themselves when they haven't necessarily had the luxury of doing an internship or been part of a student club because they've had to be virtual
Our biggest focus area now is, how do we take care of students for all four years? I believe we've come up with a really great brand. One of the things I always tell my students after they get their job and they show up to work for the first time is, send me your first business card. And I've got hundreds, if not just short of 1,000 business cards in a drawer, I didn't even think they did business cards anymore. But I've got those collected in a drawer because again, that keeps me focused on what what we're here to do.
I think the next things, obviously, as I mentioned here in the short term, are how do we help students navigate this world post-COVID? We know that this is a ripe market. This is probably the best hiring environment that I've seen in the seven years of being in this role.
But our students aren't ready, and they are generally afraid to go to career fairs a little bit more so than they were in the past. Obviously, engineers aren't necessarily known for being strong communicators. But now that they're having to compete against a class of 21 grads, class of 2020 grads who are still looking for work, even people who were recently laid off.
Although we tell them the market is good, they still have to compete, and that's a really scary word for somebody who's got an engineering degree and invested as much money as they have to go out and try to find work in the real world.
We feel like we can get students through the University of Washington experience with an understanding of who they are, understanding their options, the clarity in which to think about those options and make strong decisions.
We know that students again will come back and give whether it be coming to talk about their experiences, whether it be talking and sharing resources from their company, sponsoring projects, et cetera. And so really how we've now gone through all of the pieces of the process. This next stage for us is, how do we work together to make sure that those students and those alumni can give back prominently?