Monday, August 12, 2013

Making students employable

I found this interesting article from the New York Times about What it takes to make new college graduates employable. Alina Tegund explores the issues surrounding hiring new university and college graduates into the workforce. If I may over-simplify, the core argument is that employers hire not just for the skills a candidate has but the ability of that new hire to quickly gain new skills. A few key notes from the article:
Many employers have overblown expectations for the skills of new hires, believing (falsely) that recent college graduates should be able to "hit the ground running."
Employers seem more concerned about the lack of specific technical skills than broad ones like communication.
Job candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving.
At Morris and other higher ed institutions, our great faculty prepare the next generation of students, not just for their first job but for everything that follows in their career. Technical expertise is certainly necessary to enter the private sector, and students should expect to have mastery over the technology "essential tools" that they will use in the office (such as Word, Excel, Powerpoint). And of course you need to have the skills necessary to start you in an entry-level position. That should be a base assumption for any job-seeker.

However, I also believe that "learning how to learn" is just as important. I disagree with Alec Levenson's quote in the article: "A four-year liberal arts education doesn't prepare kids for work and it never has." Liberal arts universities like the University of Minnesota Morris prepare our students very well for life-long learning. Our students learn to think critically, how to analyze not just what is presented to them but the genre and trends surrounding it.

Responding to the article's comments that "candidates are lacking most in written and oral communication skills, adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving," I agree that universities should better prepare our students in these areas. This may not always be a pleasant experience for the student; it is often difficult. But sometimes you need a "stretch goal" to grow your expertise. Allow me to close with a personal example:

My undergraduate major was physics at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. The "make or break" course in the physics program was "PHYS 301 Advanced Physics Laboratory I," known locally as "Junior Lab." On the first day of Junior Lab, I remember our instructor announcing that he would give us more work than we could realistically expect to accomplish, but we were to complete the lab sequences anyway. It was a "sink or swim" semester, where successful physics students learned to analyze the equations of motions ahead of that week's experiment, so they could determine which parameters needed the most attention to detail and which could make do with "looser" measurements. (In physics, this is sometimes referred to as "error analysis," where "higher order" terms require greater precision; errors in "lower order" terms don't affect the outcome that much.) By the end of the semester, we had mastered adaptability and managing multiple priorities, and making decisions and problem solving.

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