Introducing INTO CareerFirst: Building better futures with students and universities

Job hunting has never been easy, but a confluence of factors—from accelerated digitalization across sectors to pandemic-induced economic contraction—has made for a fundamentally changed and challenging global career landscape today.

It’s a transformation that weighs on the minds of many, but none more so than the soon-to-be university graduates who must navigate the most complex, competitive job market in recent memory.  For international students in particular, landing a dream job means managing cultural differences, physical distances, immigration issues, and a range of other obstacles while navigating this new normal.

Enter INTO CareerFirst, our new, all-encompassing employability programme—the first in market to offer comprehensive support tailored for international students.  Launching in October of this year, CareerFirst will pull together a network of mentors, coaches, and industry experts, state-of-the art learning technology, and curricula developed in partnership with academic colleagues and leading employers to give students the skills, connections, and experience they need to achieve their post-graduation career ambitions.  Michael Lynas, Vice President, INTO CareerFirst, offers insights into how the programme will complement academic studies, integrate seamlessly with services already on offer at higher education institutions, and benefit both international students and the US and UK universities at which they study.

What was the impetus for INTO CareerFirst?  How have international students’ experiences informed INTO’s pivot toward employability in 2021?

Students face an exceptionally challenging job market, and a lot of things are making it more complicated. 

Take first the proliferation of new technologies.  The World Economic Forum estimates that, by 2025, 85 million jobs will be displaced by automation, and 97 million new jobs will have emerged in the digital world.  That means students must do more to demonstrate the things that set them apart from machines—interpersonal skills like teamwork, leadership, and resilience.

At the same time, massive challenges have been wrought on the global economy by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to increased unemployment rates and decreased graduate recruitment by top employers worldwide.  Add to this the fact that, by 2030, we expect there to be 300 million global graduates, compared to just 137 million in 2013.  What it all means is a more competitive job market for students, in which they must do more to stand out from the crowd and respond to what employers need.

When we set out to develop INTO CareerFirst, the fundamental question we kept in mind was, “How can INTO support universities to help international students get the best possible start to their life and their career, and the best possible return on their investment in international education.”  We know international students have additional needs when it comes to employability and employment support.  We established CareerFirst to help students get that support.

How does CareerFirst complement universities’ career services and integrate seamlessly with all institutions do to help students meet their post-graduation goals?

University career services are doing an important job, and they’re doing it well.  INTO CareerFirst is designed to complement what’s already on offer on campus, with an eye to providing extra support for international students whose needs are, in many cases, more complex than those of domestic students.

For students who want to remain in their study market, it is, in a lot of cases, more difficult to secure employment for a range of reasons, including reluctant employers and visa complexities.  For those who want to return to their home market, they have the advantage of an international degree, but they are physically distant from those countries.  CareerFirst adds to the ecosystem of services at universities that help international students go wherever they want to in their career.

If we at INTO can use our extensive networks in students’ home markets and tailored, one-on-one support, we believe we can level the playing field for those international students, give them the edge they want, and increase the return on investment from their international education.  At least, that’s the proposition we want to test—that students would be willing to invest in more personalized, curated support to go further and faster.

Who built CareerFirst, and how will it be facilitated for students from around the world studying at US and UK universities?

INTO CareerFirst has been built by education experts with a passion for designing something especially for international students.  We have conducted in-depth research with hundreds of employers around the world to understand what they need and combined it with our deep understanding of international students—what they want and how to get the best out of them.  To deliver a brilliant experience across all the phases of CareerFirst, we have also partnered with a range of expert organisations that bring decades of experience supporting students to find their dream jobs—from skills training providers to internship providers.

Perhaps most importantly with CareerFirst is the high degree of human support we will give students—a little like having a personal trainer at the gym.  This is what makes the programme special and drives results.  Every student will have three personal career trainers as they go through their journey to employment: their CareerFirst Mentor, who is there to champion them and support them every step of the way; their CareerFirst Coach, who provides expert career guidance; and their CareerFirst Industry Expert, who gives them the inside track in their chosen industry and region.  Students will be able to choose between three programme options—Essential, Enhanced, and Advanced—to ensure they get the level of one-on-one support they need. 

The team can’t wait to get started with our first cohort of students later this year!

With which employers has INTO partnered to make CareerFirst happen?  How will you leverage those new relationships to support students?

Because we care about helping students get the careers they deserve, integration with employers is essential to INTO CareerFirst.  A recent Harvard Business School study showed 37% of employers valued work experience the most when considering a potential candidate, compared to 11% valuing a four-year degree more.  That doesn’t mean degrees aren’t important.  It means employers rightly ask what students have done to go over and beyond and get that tangible experience in the workplace, alongside their degree.

There’s a series of different ways that students will engage with employers.  First, we are offering modules and certificates with leading employers, which students can put on their resume.  In the tech world, for example, students can increase their capabilities with organisations like AWS and Salesforce.

Second, we have developed employer projects across a range of more than 13 industries, with organisations ranging from start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises to large corporations and governments.  These will be projects set by employers, for which students work on a team basis to solve real-world problems, develop relevant skills, and interact directly with experts from those organisations.   Some of the organisations that students can expect to work with on those projects include Deloitte, EY, PwC, KPMG, McKinsey, and Western Union.

Finally, there will be internship opportunities, which will be the pinnacle experience of the programme.  Through our partners, we will help students intern at big organisations such as Capgemini and Credit Suisse, and much smaller, niche organisations such as Bitcoin.com, a Japanese start-up focused on bitcoin access.  It all depends on what’s relevant to their long-term career goals, both in terms of geography and in terms of industry.  No matter what, we want the internship to be highly engaging and highly relevant.

What is the job assurance scheme on CareerFirst’s Advanced programme?  How does it stand out from job guarantees offered through other programmes?

There are some organisations that guarantee students jobs with specific companies.  That’s not the path we’ve chosen to go down, and that’s why we deliberately don’t call it a “job offer guarantee.”  The job assurance offered on our Advanced programme is really about us saying that we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is.

The crucial difference is that we’re giving students the tools they need to find a job for themselves rather than, three years from graduation, identifying a company and telling them they will work there or get their money back.  It’s not about placing a student somewhere or guaranteeing something.  It’s about believing that, through all the work students will do alongside their academic studies, and with the skills they’ll get, the experiences they’ll get, the connections they’ll get, and the specific support with the interview and assessment process they’ll get, they will have what they need to land a great job.

We know families are spending a lot of money on their students’ international education, with the number one goal of finding a job.  With INTO CareerFirst, we want to give them assurance that, if they invest in CareerFirst’s Advanced programme alongside an international education, they’re doing everything they can to give students an edge in the job market.  If, for some reason, students don’t find a job within nine months of graduation, we will return 50% of the investment they’ve made in the CareerFirst programme and continue to support them through their job hunt.

Why should CareerFirst encourage universities to partner with INTO?  What is INTO’s vision for supporting universities through CareerFirst?

Our hope is that, through serving students and improving outcomes in terms of the thing they care about most—getting a great job after college—we will make that international education even more compelling and drive greater enrollments for our trailblazing partner universities. 

In essence, it’s that simple.  If a student is choosing between two universities, and one of them has a stand-out career development offering with INTO CareerFirst, we believe the student would be swayed by the quality of that offering.  Over time, that would mean the institution sees greater enrollments.  It’s important to consider from that angle.  Although there are risks for the university sector at the moment, there are huge opportunities as well.  INTO has a history of partnering with universities to add value to students.  We want to build on that legacy with CareerFirst.

To learn more about INTO CareerFirst, click here.


Michael Lynas is Vice President of INTO CareerFirst.  Before joining the CareerFirst team, Michael helped establish National Citizen Service, the UK’s largest programme for 16- and 17-year-olds that helps develop skills for life and work.  Previously, he served as senior policy adviser to the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street from 2010-2013, and before that in strategy consulting for Bain & Company.  He studied social and political sciences at Trinity College, Cambridge, and holds a Master in Public Policy degree from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

JP Deering

Author: JP Deering

Partner Development and Corporate Communications Coordinator JP joined INTO’s partner development team two years ago. Before joining INTO, JP taught English and composition to international students at the University of Kentucky. Now, he manages INTO’s corporate blog and social media, writes about international student mobility trends, policy, and the goings-on at INTO’s university partners in the US, and handles outreach to potential partner universities and corporate engagement at major conferences.

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