Are Your Students Career Ready? New Initiatives Close Competency and Skill Gaps

THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM "ARE your students career ready? new initiatives close compentency and skills gap" ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN the Volume 16, fall 2018 issue OF THe Leadership exchange magazine.

Are your students career ready? It is a question with differing answers. The national dialogue about whether students are career ready has a different tone depending on the source. The employment community’s answer is an emphatic no. The higher education community’s answer is a resounding yes. This difference is accentuated in the 2014 Lumina Study “The American Public’s Opinion on Higher Education and U.S. Business Leaders Poll on Higher Education: What America Needs to Know about Higher Education Redesign,” in which 99 percent of chief academic officers rated their institutions as “very/somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work.” In contrast, only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agreed that “graduating students have the skills and competencies their businesses need.”

Myriad reports and national press coverage also point to this contrast. Regional and national elected officials and consumers of education are increasingly focused on the value of a college degree and its ability to ensure a more immediate return on investment through meaningful professional-level jobs secured before or shortly after graduation in a field of interest to the student or related field of study. Behind this focus is an expectation, or even a demand, for higher education to validate that graduates are career ready. Several bills have recently been introduced in the U.S. Congress, which could provide consumers with access to data provided by higher education institutions that can be used to evaluate and compare the average starting salary of graduates, percentage of graduates employed within six months of graduation, average amount of debt, and graduate success beyond the first job. These bills include language focused on accountability, transparency, and the value of a degree. Although the language does not specifically reference career readiness, the intent of this legislative activity is clear.

Three National Narratives

The convergence of these dynamics reveals three national narratives from three distinct constituents that call on colleges and universities to address the career readiness of students. Employers are looking for how higher education can ramp up development of what they often refer to as “soft skills.” Consumers expect their institutions of choice will deliver a campus experience resulting in students that are career ready. Elected officials are seeking to enact legislation that ensures transparency and validation of graduate outcomes.

One can make a valid argument that when employers, consumers of education, and elected officials refer to a lack of “soft skills” in students, job candidates, and new hires, they are referring to a foundational set of competencies honed through academic, cocurricular, and experiential learning engagements that ultimately prepare individuals for lives of meaning and purpose. It is important to note a contrary argument often embraced by some in the higher education community: the idea that academia is denigrated when curriculum addresses competencies. This point of view suggests such competencies are vocational in nature and too focused on education solely as preparation for a career. However, when one examines the core tenets of general education curriculum across institutions, there is substantive alignment with competencies, particularly for critical thinking, problem solving, and oral and written communication that are often foundational learning outcomes. These skills are central to competency frameworks articulated by a variety of associations, including the Association of American Colleges & Universities and the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE). Additionally, teamwork, collaboration, leadership, and intercultural fluency are among the learning outcomes embedded within the general education curriculum. Therefore, the argument can be made that higher education institutions that pursue efforts to implement competency initiatives within their curricula complement their institutions’ approach to delivering a robust general education. Such efforts can lead to higher levels of institutional effectiveness and better graduate outcomes, thus closing the competency proficiency and skills gap. 

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