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4 reasons why a generational skills gap exists today—and isn’t closing

Can colleges and universities close the generation skills gap they helped create?

The AAC&U released a survey that corroborated what everyone already knew: a huge gap exists between the perceptions of students and employers about work readiness, particularly as it relates to generational study and work skills.

Today’s students believe that they are better prepared than ever to enter the workforce. However, their hiring counterparts think that the millennial generation is the most ill-prepared to date—still. Incidentally, this same study revealed that employers give hiring preference to candidates who have real-world experiences; unfortunately much of what is offered today in academia isn’t terribly “real world.”

5 Reasons Why a Generational Skills Gap Exists

1. Curricula Still Lacks Real World Lessons

It’s true that real-life experiences can help students develop skills that are often thought to be lacking by employers. However, authentic opportunities to learn what is required in the real world during most students’ higher education tenure are missing or offer inadequate systems to structure, measure and assess those applied learning opportunities.

Historically, institutions have had the goal of assuring that learners are exposed to the basics in key fields of study. Tests and exams deal with the low-level knowledge and skills of the discipline within silos of courses loosely strung together to constitute programs. Course-based essays can certainly be difficult, but still, they only amount to a manipulation of facts, and concepts within the course and discipline silo. Rarely are they multidisciplinary, metacognitive or reflective. Senior year courses are, by definition, rigorous, but do they truly prepare students for the real world and offer the rigors of authentic learning?

2. The Environment is Antiquated

The Boomer generation created an undergraduate learning environment with the goal to be seen as hardworking, solo workers deserving of personal status. For them and their successors, (Generation X) group work that made tasks harder or out of the norm were not desirable and became negative narratives on course evaluations. Open-ended, authentic tasks were considered messy.

Yet, real, authentic problems often have no one right answer.

However, due to many Millennial students’ entrenched passivity and occasional resistance to new forms of learning thanks to years of status-quo learning in K-12, educators felt empowered to stick with Boomer generation teaching: coverage on content, good grades, course completion for credit hours, a degree and then a job. This is the social contract that does nothing to raise the bar.

(Next page: Causes of the generational skills gaps 3-5)

3. Leaders Missed an Experiential Learning Opportunity

Educators could have taken the high ground when standardization hit—a high ground characterized by a more demanding pedagogy. Though a standardized curriculum and testing often robs teachers of freedom and the time to apply more challenging assessments, as well as covers subjects too thinly, educators could have tried to apply some standards for learning and/or accreditation for experiential learning.

And though another argument is that experiential learning is harder to prepare, due to tough decisions about how to bridge content that must be sacrificed, as well as the difficulty in assessing student work outside of class, perhaps more educators in academia could have taken a risk in trying to use standardization for closing the generational skills gap.

4. Students Don’t Understand Why They’re Learning

Higher education has one more hurdle to achieve–to inculcate habitual constructivism among today’s students. This is a rigorous mindset for making meaning of the complex experiences that are fundamental to authentic work and its assessment. Learners have to be able to accurately reconstruct what has happened to them, be able to identify hidden issues, challenge themselves to consider if, given new insights, they would do things differently and if so, take action based on a sound plan.

This is the stuff of emerging leaders and independent learners. However, without the context of authenticity, reflection has no grain to grind. This is what Generation Z will require to become effective communicators and group collaborators, as well as ethical decision-makers capable of employing higher-level critical thinking that can be easily adapted to the real world.

5. Employers are Validating Higher Education’s Inertia

Often employers accept low-value evidence of learning and skill as “good enough” and roll the dice every time they hire, knowing that you can’t divine a candidate’s true competences in real world circumstances from a two-page resume.

Also, you can’t rely on the school the candidate attended, as graduating from a flagship institution says nothing about what a student can do under the pressure of real world circumstances. In fact, Shark Tank TV personality Barbara Corcoran, founder of Corcoran Group ( the real estate giant in New York City), who sold her business for $66 million stated, “Most of the times I ever lost a lot of money with somebody, they graduated from Harvard…”

Gen Z Wants to Help Close the Generational Skills Gap

As it turns out, everyone is sitting on a gold mine: Generation Z. This generation is accustomed to finding answers to questions across multiple digital media on their own or with friends. They are high-stimulus junkies who want meaningful work to do and relish the opportunity to make an impact on their world. Gen Zers crave feedback from experts and want to work on high-stakes problems in group environments, as they have been accustomed to doing with people they respect and like.

In other words, hard work is fine if it’s important work, and the real world is where they spend most of their 24/7-connected day with inputs coming in constantly.

This is a generation we can work with on the skills gap. The skills gap is treatable. There are frameworks for action. The question is, will higher education and employers waste an opportunity with yet another generation?

eSchool Media Contributors