What does it really mean to prepare students for the workforce?

Higher ed and business leaders explain what workforce-readiness really means outside of jargon and buzzwords.

It used to be that preparing students for a job post-graduation meant knowing how to dress for a job interview and developing critical-thinking skills. And while problem-solving talent is still valued, today’s competitive market requires much more from recent graduates.

Therefore, today’s colleges and universities often discuss “workforce-readiness” or their “career pipeline”—but what does that actually look like on campus and within disciplines?

Cutting through trendy-speak, academic and business leaders say preparing students for the workforce means everything from a strong e-portfolio to harnessing business partnerships for undergraduate student work opportunities.

It Means Cultivating Adaptability

1-Michael_Crow_CMYK_300dpi RTBy Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University

It is paramount that we prepare our students not only for the challenges they will face in their early post-graduation jobs, but also to adapt to the constantly shifting demands of an ever-changing economy. That’s why we are not interested in teaching students simply one narrow focus; any machine can complete a task without comprehending why. We strive to create “master learners” who possess the critical thinking skills and breadth of knowledge that comes from understanding not only how to perform a given task, but the reasoning behind it.

This mindset has led to our creation of many multidisciplinary programs which more closely link our students’ experiences with the real-life needs of the world that awaits them after graduation. Our students take courses in general education and those specific to their majors, but also electives which we hope make them excited to learn.  Our goal—training the next generation of leaders—depends on having graduates from ASU who are primed for a lifetime of learning.

This passion for learning is as vital for advancing within a given career field as it is for being a complete person—that is, a person who is capable of understanding the concepts that will shape the way they approach the rest of their lives. This is not only good for individual students: If our universities focus on producing master learners, dedicated to the betterment of our society as a whole, we will have a major impact on the outcome of humanity and the world.

The Chronicle of Higher Education gave Michael Crow the title “higher ed agitator” for his redesign of what a university is meant to do, saying: “If a college aims to produce more graduates and make research breakthroughs, Dr. Crow says, it should be designed so that a policy of near-open access enhances the prospects that professors will cure cancer or build flying cars.” In Crow’s 14 years as president, ASU’s enrollment has more than doubled, its graduation rate has risen by half and its research enterprise quadrupled.

(Next page: 3 other examples of workforce-readiness in higher education)

It Means a Set of Skills across All Disciplines

Letha B Zook_300By Letha B. Zook, PT, EdD, University of Charleston in West Virginia

At the University of Charleston we prepare students with knowledge of disciplines and professions and the skills of living and learning. All graduates are to demonstrate mastery of our Liberal Learning Outcomes (LLOs), no matter their chosen discipline or profession. These LLOs prepare graduates with the skills employers demand; including: written and oral communication, critical thinking, citizenship, creativity, inquiry and ethical decision-making.

We believe that by establishing an intentional curriculum with progressive assignments and experiences to develop each of these skills, the student matures into an exceptional employee.

Foundational-level LLO experiences and assignments start in the first year outside the students’ academic program, while midlevel and advanced levels are part of program curricula. Students are made aware early in their studies that these skills are essential to their success in the workforce. As they advance through the curriculum, they are asked to use these skills in the context of the knowledge gained in their discipline. This practice challenges them to apply skills in a variety of ways before entering the work place and prepares them to adapt to the demands of that new environment.

Dr. Zook is the Provost at the University of Charleston in West Virginia.

It Means Curating an Academic Career Online

heather_hilesBy Heather Hiles, Cengage Learning

According to a study by the National Association for Colleges and Employers (NACE), employers look for talent online, especially through social media.  Students, on the other hand, view social media as a private affair.  There’s a major disconnect.  Institutions can play a role in bridging the gap through encouraging the use of digital portfolios, which can increase connectivity in job searches and job placements.  e-Portfolios challenge the traditional resume and open the door to a more holistic approach to cataloging achievements by providing a space for users to aggregate all digital evidence of what they have created, achieved and mastered.  A digital portfolio brings the job seeker to life through the use of smart, user friendly technology and provides a connection point between employers and job seekers.

Those soon to be entering the workforce need help in presenting their best self. Employers are looking for evidence of ability, passion, skills and knowledge, and today’s students want to show what they know in a way that goes beyond a transcript or static resume.  Digital portfolios allow the evidence to speak for itself.  Users are able to record their pursuits and create interactive narratives around the skills and knowledge they gain through projects and collaborations.  These narratives can then be shared and leveraged for future opportunities.

A portfolio is more powerful than a thousand words.  It is the best mechanism for differentiating people and what they can do.  I encourage anyone serious about breaking through the clutter to start curating their academic careers and collecting evidence of their skills and abilities in a portfolio.  It’s one of the most enduring ways of communicating and customizing what you know to multiple audiences in both private and public ways.

Heather Hiles is the senior education advisor for Cengage Learning and founder & CEO of Pathbrite, which offers a cloud-based Portfolio Platform, whereby users can aggregate and showcase all digital evidence of what they have created, achieved and mastered.

It Means Work Experience while in College

Dave KiefferBy David Kieffer, Ohio State University

Ohio State provides many opportunities for students to prepare for the workforce, with academics as the first focus and most obvious preparation. However, there are also several other ways that Ohio State provides opportunities for preparation.  Opportunities for undergraduate research provide students with hands-on experience and an outlet for professional creativity.  Over 800 research projects are selected to compete in the Denman Research Forum and Spring Expo each year.

Work experience is a must.  Just last week I had a software executive I work with say that he did not hire new graduates without relevant work experience. Our students are encouraged to work in their fields in off-semester internships, and on and off-campus jobs during the semester provide many students with work experience.

Ohio State provides students many ways to connect with employers.  In addition to the Career Services offices on campus, as previously highlighted in this publication, Ohio State’s Office of the CIO is striving to build partnerships with employers to provide more quality opportunities for student employment on and off campus.

Social and club experiences for students are terrific opportunities to pursue individual interests while building leadership and working skills that can be directly applied to careers.  These student-led organizations are tremendous outlet for student creativity, community outreach, mentoring, and leadership preparation.

The vast resources of Ohio State can be an incredible support system for students preparing for the workforce –and I’m sure I have missed some!  In my own experience as an employer, there is a remarkable difference in work readiness between students who have taken these opportunities versus those that have relied solely on their academic work to prepare them. We continue to look for new ways of engaging students in support of their academic and professional journeys.

David Kieffer is the senior director of enterprise applications at Ohio State University.

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