The end goal of education–what do we need, Part 2 of 2

Do the skill-sets of our degrees apply to the real world?

This post is a follow-up to the previous post regarding education and its goals.  A liberal arts education has long been praised for its development of the ethical adult human being and, especially more recently, criticized for its lack of emphasis on career training.  It remains an essential ingredient in debates on education policies and approaches.  What follows is a response to the report recently posted at The Chronicle of Higher Education regarding a poll of hiring decision-makers.  The poll reveals that employers are increasingly skeptical of the value of broad college educations.   To read the article for yourself, follow the link by clicking of the title, below.

Employers Say College Graduates Lack Job Skills, The Chronicle of Higher Education

(To see the results from the actual study follow this link:

academic,education,faces,graduations,mortarboards,people,schools,special occasions,students,tassels,universities

In a recent study of over 1,000 industry hiring decision-makers conducted by the American Council for Independent Colleges and Schools, employers revealed a lack of confidence in prospective employees.  The study posed the questions to a variety of industries and the results suggested that graduates seeking employment were lacking in areas such as: interpersonal skills, teamwork, problem-solving, job-specific knowledge, written communication skills, work experience, technical ability, education, business savvy, professional references, and math skills.  At the same time, they find the same pool of applicants to be under-skilled in areas such as using new media formats, filtering information according to needs, connecting to others in a deep and direct way, thinking of novel solutions that are outside the box, computational thinking, operating in different cultural settings, and other skills that are projected to be of increasing necessity in the future.

My first thought, considering these lists, is that many of these skills should be addressed and managed in a typical liberal arts education.  The fact that these skills are not developed or are not perceived to have been developed raises some interesting questions.  One thing that is not clear from the study is how the hiring personnel are evaluating these skills in prospective employees.  In my own experiences with career counselors, I have been greatly underwhelmed by the support they give to students who are constructing their first resumes.  Students often have more skills than they know and often do not know how to share these in written formats for would-be employers.  (Many adults are equally incompetent.)  They furthermore have difficulty expressing themselves well in interviews–which may reflect a lack of practice in their classes.  So, the question remains, at what point do HR departments make these evaluations?  Is it after some time on the job or after an interview?  Does the fault lie with the education or career services?

Let’s allow for the possibility that the broad liberal arts educational approach is at fault.  Is it simply the case that these skills are not included or emphasized in curricula?  Do students too often complete a course without having to give an independent oral presentation, present a written case or project, complete group work as a team, use new media for their assignments, filter an excess of information, engage in unfamiliar cultural settings, draw conclusions from data, create novel solutions in problem-solving, or develop their literacy skills across multiple disciplines?  It is possible, of course, that this is precisely the problem and yet I can think back to my own education in which I was required to do activities that covered each of these areas.  But, I should include a caveat to my own experience: I was not always aware that I was developing those skills during those activities.  In fact, it was only later that I realized the dual-effect–that of learning content whilst developing these skills–of many of my assignments and much of that came through training in education or coursework specifically addressing the subject of teaching.  My teachers and professors could have told me about such features in their curricula, and some did, but it is the sad habit of too many students not to reflect much about why an assignment is constructed the way that it is–especially if they are complaining about it.

Is it possible that the fault could be remedied in simply holding a dialogue at the end of a course that reflects on the skills developed?  This was a practice that Close Up developed for its week -long programs in Washington DC, one which I attempted to incorporate in different ways at the community college level.  I think the practice bears reviving or considering at the very least, especially if it is set up in such a way that the students are prompted to identify the value of their own work assigned by the professor.

The answers remain mysterious, but further inquiry is healthy.  ACICS, for one, the organization which conducted the study, thinks a greater emphasis on job skills needs to be implemented into post-secondary education.  Interestingly, the study’s respondents are split on that point.  For my own sake, I wish I had taken advantage of more internships during my education.  These support the development of skills, professional contacts and references, and occasionally stipends during the college years.  They may also educate the student in what he/she does not want to do professionally.  Internships should probably be encouraged and rewarded more often than they are in educational institutions, but students should also know that they serve as their own reward–and, they do not have to wait until college to start interning.

One of the most telling slides from the .pdf of a PowerPoint provided by ACICS summarizing the key points of the study was the last one provided.  After 68% answered that they expected some post-high school education (requiring a range from trade schools to graduate work), the final question in the presentation asked the following question:  “And, what, in your opinion, is more more important… The type of degree(s) that job applicants have completed.  [or]  The specific skills and ability that job applicants possess.”  10% answered that the degree was most important and 90% selected skills and ability.  The answer seems to be that a high level of education is expected, but the content is left unspecific outside of skills and ability.  How can content be taught and learned without skills and abilities being developed?  Or, is content really unnecessary so long as students have good written, oral and interpersonal communication skills, good computer and media skills, good problem-solving skills, etc.  Can these things be taught without a liberal arts education?  Doesn’t the field of study suggest certain skills and abilities?

Another question I have to ask is whether or not businesses across the industries have cut entry-level positions and internal job-training over the years.  Is it fair for accounting firms, pharmaceutical companies, tech corporations, property managements, etc., to expect vocational and career competence in all of these desired areas plus professional-level inter-personal skills, new media competency, cross-cultural experience, etc.?  Again, I think more graduates have these attributes than they themselves realize, but I also think there is a desire to hire someone proven, with multiple years of experience, while also paying entry-level salaries.  This factor may be reinforced by a lack of in-house, company-specific, industry-specialized training.

Some of the onus may lie with students who are increasingly addicted to technological means for interaction that may retard the development in other areas or who are disinterested and apathetic about education and their futures.  Additional responsibility lies with schools at all levels.  High schools fail to prepare students for the next level of education.  Universities  over-stuff classrooms, limiting the professor’s creativity, professors take the easy way out, or scholars fail to take the teaching part of their posts seriously.  Having said that, with all the truly excellent scholars and high school educators out there who take a true student-first approach, it is hard to weigh them down with the greatest culpability even with all the duds who “teach” along side of them.

There is one final consideration that I want to share.  The bulk of the poll-takers have been at their jobs for 10+ years: 9% 1-10 years, 28% 11-20 years, 34% 21-30, and 29% 31+ years.  A simple question must be asked about the culture of the generation who is sifting prospective employees: are they too far removed from the younger generations to be able to properly vet them and accurately assess their compatibility with the job requirements?  Is this older generation of hiring managers able to identify the connections between these newer needs assessments and the abilities of this younger generation emerging from academic institutions, today?  I think it is hard to answer that or to develop a study that can assess the necessary qualities, but I will leave it with this thought:  Many of the cutting-edge companies, whose employees and leadership embody the skill-sets covered in this study, who are forging exciting new ground in different industries have been in business for fewer years than many of the individuals who took part in the study.

The questions seem to increase in considering the study.  Assessing job-readiness is more difficult than might be expected and polls are tricky things to use in evaluating the abilities of both employers and prospective employees–although they may accurately take the temperature of HR personnel.  But, regardless, the results or supposed results of such studies will be used to debate and determine education policies and government involvement in education at multiple levels.  So, by all means considerate it carefully, whether you are a voter, educator, or administrator.


Leave a comment

Filed under Editorials on education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s