The QA Commons is mindful of the dramatic and transformational impact COVID-19 is having on all institutions of higher education. As an organization, we are adapting our services to support preparing graduates for the workplace that is now changing more precipitously than ever.
This article was originally posted on Medium
Written by Ralph Wolff, Founder and President of the QA Commons and former President of the WASC Senior College Commission.
Earning a degree used to be the start of a clear path to the American Dream. It signaled you would get a job, likely be a company person for many years, then retire. Those days are long gone. Today, employees 25 to 34 stay in a position an average of 3.2 years. This was true before the COVID-19 pandemic and we were facing a likely recession with unemployment rising weekly. This year’s graduates will enter a job market with fewer opportunities and more competition as people try to rebuild. Possible new waves of coronavirus create unprecedented instability in the job market. The last recession showed us that students graduating into a recession feel the economic consequences of entering a rough job market years later. Now, more than ever, we need to ensure graduates are prepared to be successful in this unknown world.
Higher education must focus on ensuring the long-term employability of graduates. Graduates who are able to find, create and sustain work and learning within multiple settings will become the gold standard. Given our changing workplace needs — and the likely increase of telecommuting positions now and in the years to come — collegiate programs producing such graduates will be successful in a time that many institutions are closing. This as true as well for upskilling, certificate and apprenticeship programs.
Here are three reasons why employability is the outcome to which higher education must be held accountable, even in a time of distance learning:
Over 90 percent of employers believe soft skills are as important as hard skills. And yet, three out of four employers report difficulty in hiring graduates with the soft skills they need. Further complicating this disconnect are recent graduates, 87% of whom feel ready for their first big job.
This is the disconnect created when we think of the pursuit of a degree as separate from preparation for life after college. English majors must be able to discuss and debate Shakespeare not only in a critical essay but also through productive debate and persuasive presentations. Engineering students need to learn how to collaborate with others and problem solve in an inclusive manner. Opportunities to learn these skills must be embedded within the academic programs multiple times over the years to ensure students are not only introduced to the skills but also have a chance to practice and develop proficiency before entering the workforce.
Applied and experiential learning activities in collegiate programs will be an essential differentiator for graduates entering into a job market marked by fewer available career opportunities.
A college degree no longer means a person is prepared for success in the workplace. Employers and hiring managers recently reported preparing for a world where competencies, rather than degrees, are the most important part in filling a job.
Forty percent of recent graduates said they would have changed their major, their institution or not gone to college at all for lack of career preparation and skill development.
The call for competency rather than simply relying on a degree, and the recognition by graduates that collegiate experiences are not preparing them well for workplace, highlights the need for outcomes that include soft skills along with content.
If a degree program isn’t preparing its students for success after graduation, what value is higher education offering?
It is impossible for a college or university to ensure graduates leave with all the content necessary for a specific field. With this in mind, we must focus on ensuring graduates are adaptable and eager to continue learning — these are necessary to be successful in today’s work world.
The current COVID-19 pandemic created a sharp pivot into remote work for businesses, academic establishments, and individuals — many of whom were not prepared for the sudden shift. This is a time that has really highlighted the need for adaptability in all fields.
Technology is both changing what jobs are available as well as where, when and how we can work. As we are all learning now, through this unplanned nationwide experiment, adaptability matters.
In an uncertain world, where only 27% of graduates work in a field related to their major, new graduates will need to be successful regardless of the circumstances. Not only will graduates need to adapt to these changes, so too must the programs and institutions preparing them. More than moving classes online is needed. Curricula need to embed essential employability qualities throughout, academic programs and career services need to eliminate the silos between them, and the gap between faculty and employers bridged. We owe it to our students to make these changes now and to demonstrate that our graduates are truly prepared for the new workplace.
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