Recently, I sat in a meeting with a group of business executives in the cybersecurity field to discuss recruitment of students at my college. I asked what skills they were looking for in new hires, and how we could best prepare our students for careers in this industry. Their answers were a little surprising. In fact, one exec told me that GPA or course transcripts are secondary in the assessment of candidates. The field changes so quickly, they told me, that new hires have to be consistently trained and updated anyway. Academic knowledge has an expiration date. Instead, they like to focus on aptitude – what has this new graduate done outside the classroom that shows he or she can cope with the rigors of the workplace? Have they developed leadership skills? Interpersonal skills? Can they communicate effectively? Are they a team player?
Another exec added that they see so many new hires lacking in these skill areas that his company spends months bringing them up to speed, investing millions of dollars in training and losing valuable time just to develop workers with basic competencies. These sentiments are echoed again and again. Each week articles appear about woefully underprepared college graduates who are not workplace ready. The recent pair of surveys by the AAC&U highlight this issue, finding that “students are notably more optimistic about their preparedness than employers about the readiness of recent graduates in these areas.”
This idea of “soft skills” is certainly not new to higher education. We have long recognized that our graduates require a deeper understanding of the world than the material covered in their textbooks. This was exactly the goal of liberal arts education, in which critical thinking, writing and life skills were equal to disciplinary work. With the decline of liberal education, students need colleges and universities less and less. Anyone can visit YouTube, or a blog, or a MOOC, and learn subject matter from the best and most accomplished lecturers in the world. Add to these new ways of credentialing knowledge and experience, and it is clear that the value of an in-class education is changing.
I am, however, confident that face-to-face education still has a place, and that we are at an unparalleled time in Student Affairs to take the lead. Our value has always been in developing “essential skills.” Student club officers manage meetings. Resident advisors deal with complicated interpersonal situations. Tour guides are articulate and personable. Athletes work together to accomplish a shared goal. In short, involved students get things done. The skills they learn through on-campus engagement opportunities are often exactly those most desired by employers. Essential skills are the future of higher education, and their incorporation into a more formal curriculum is only a matter of time. We don’t need to fundamentally shift our work in a new direction. Rather, we should seriously consider how to best reframe what we do by organizing and describing it more effectively. More than just a co-curricular transcript that reports their involvement, we have to find ways to ensure that students can learn and demonstrate – dare I say, credential — attainment of these skills. Of course, this is not a new idea for our colleagues in community colleges and technical education, but for those of us who work in traditional public and private colleges, this is an opportunity to bring tremendous focus to our work. By connecting essential skills to the demands of the workplace, we will be able to create a narrative that starts with recruitment and travels through the student life cycle into alumnihood. We will be able focus our programming, events and partnerships around building these skills, and we will be able to explicitly describe our work for students, administrators, faculty, parents, and employers.
Like many of you, I speak with parents during freshman orientation. Imagine how powerful it would be to say definitively, “At this school, we teach more than just subject matter. We teach success. And we make sure our students have the skills that will allow them to achieve that success.” Imagine being able to assure employers: “Our graduates will come to you ready.” As they cross the stage at graduation, these fledgling alums will have not only received an education in criminal justice, or English, or cybersecurity. They will also have credentials in leadership, cross-cultural communication, and stress management that will take them through many transitions in the work place and in life.