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College Knowledge vs. Job Skills

There's a relatively new study out that says many employers believe colleges aren't adequately preparing students for jobs. In other words, college graduates lack real-world job skills. Hmm. If I were a parent (or a debt-burdened student) forking over tens of thousands of dollars every year for my son or daughter to "get a degree to get a job," this study might get my knickers in a twist. What's going on here?

The study's introduction spells it out: "The findings showed that many hiring decision-makers believe that the post-secondary education system could do a better job preparing students for the workplace." According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, as reported in LinkedIn headlines, "The group surveyed more than 1,000 employers in various industries last month about whether job applicants possess the skills to thrive in the workplace. More than half of employers said finding qualified applicants is difficult, and just under half thought students should receive specific workplace training rather than a more broad-based education."

This raises the argument between college liberal-arts-based curricula (among others) and more vocationally-based programs, or even community colleges and trade schools. Let's look deeper.

The Chronicle goes on to say:

At a news conference announcing those findings, Rep. Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who is chairwoman of the U.S. House of Representatives higher-education subcommittee, urged institutions to heed employers' calls. "Colleges and universities are pandering to the students and giving them what they want, instead of what the employers want," she said. "I don't think you have to make a distinction between getting skills and getting an education. We need to do both."

According to the survey results, less than 10 percent of employers thought colleges did an "excellent" job of preparing students for work. Nearly 30 percent said finding the right applicant has grown harder in the past few years. On all hiring criteria included in the survey, such as adaptability and critical thinking, applicants were performing below employers' expectations.

The study proclaims:

Giving greater definition to the types of skills employers demand of graduates from post‐secondary education institutions, the Institute for the Future (Palo Alto) and the University of Phoenix Research Institute identified six specific drivers of change in workforce development and discrete skill sets that align with the future workplace. In Future Work Skills 2020, (2011), IFTF discusses drivers as “big disruptive shifts that are likely to reshape the future landscape" and are deemed to be “most important and relevant to future work skills." The skills sets range from sense‐making and novel and adaptive thinking to cross‐cultural competency and computational thinking. They represent a unique but compelling inventory of knowledge concentrations that cover abroad array of cognitive and social skills. More importantly, they reflect an understanding that any curriculum development must begin with an appreciation for the types of knowledge and skills attainment that are expected of the successful completer of the course, program or credential.

Note the phrase, "any curriculum development must begin with an appreciation for the types of knowledge and skills attainment that are expected of the successful completer of the course, program or credential."

From where I sit, this implies that perhaps a significant number of colleges' curricula, courses, even down to their intentions, do not have the goal of recognizing the relationship between the college knowledge being dispersed and the reason the enrolled students are there: to obtain gainful employment and, ultimately, a meaningful, rewarding career. College shouldn't be about ivory tower idealism sealed within an academically intellectual bubble with four-day party weekends starting on Thursday night.

In my book, in the battle between college knowledge and real-world job skills, my vote goes to job skills. It's cool to be able to deconstruct a premise or a movement, but in most cases, knowing how to (at least) compose a sentient business letter or being able to point to Egypt on a map has more intrinsic material value.


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