Can you feel it? Higher education is shifting. As employers search for candidates with concrete skills (beyond just theory), higher education must rise up to meet the demands. From college alternatives to trade programs, institutions are beginning to recognize the importance of job readiness training.
According to Gallup, just 13% of American adults say college graduates are well-prepared to enter the workforce. This means people are losing faith in higher education as a whole… It makes sense when many students graduate saddled with student loan debt and some, depending on the labor market, struggle to translate their degrees into employment and livable incomes.
Luckily, educators are starting to take notice. Thanks to the introduction of a new kind of worker (which we’re calling ‘new collar’), a closing gap between theory and practice, and a demand for more focus on soft skills, we can expect to see an increased emphasis on job readiness in higher education. Here’s why job readiness matters in 2020.
What Is Job Readiness?
Job readiness is more than a buzzword in higher ed. It’s a theory of preparing students for not just their first job, but the jobs they’ll have 10, 20, and 30 years from now. Job readiness training teaches students sustainable skills for an ever-changing job market. It makes students adaptable so they can upskill each time technology advances and the industry evolves.
New Collar Workers
A big reason why we’re seeing a shift in higher education right now is due to a changing marketplace. Ginni Rometty, CEO of IBM, is known for coining the term “new collar jobs.” She began using the phrase publicly in 2016, first in a letter to then-President-elect Donald Trump and then in a USA Today column. Since then, the term has become popularized as the education industry adapts to cater to new collar positions.
According to Monster, new collar jobs are highly specialized and can include anything from technology positions to agriculture and healthcare work. While workers don’t necessarily need a 4-year degree to do these jobs, they must acquire both vocational and soft skills to be successful. In short, “new collar” is synonymous with “job-ready.”
Why Does It Matter in Higher Education?
Job readiness matters for a few simple reasons. First, taught job readiness sets people up for success throughout their entire career, which allows them to live out their passions, find fulfillment, and hopefully generate enough income to thrive in their personal lives. It also creates a more productive workforce where workers easily adapt to changes in technology and workplace systems as they evolve. Finally, it matters for educators because higher education is an investment for students (one they hope will land them a quality job) so students need to feel like they’ve received a return on said investment. Job readiness training is one way of ensuring they get that return.
How Can We Teach Job Readiness?
Job readiness can be taught through emphasizing soft skills, apprenticeship programs, and going beyond theory to focus on practical skills. We can also teach the next generation of students effective job readiness skills by diversifying the higher education market and creating a new normal — one where students aren’t expected or pressured into attending traditional, 4-year universities but can instead choose from a buffet of higher education programs without society favoring one option over the others.
Unlike “hard” or technical skills, soft skills are universal across the marketplace and help to create a harmonious working environment. According to The Balance Careers, the list of soft skills can go on and on but they can be boiled down to 6 main attributes.
An employee who displays good soft skills is able to communicate effectively by listening well, knowing how to properly negotiate, and being comfortable speaking publicly. They should also be able to communicate across mediums, such as verbal or written communication.
2. Critical Thinking
Critical thinking skills can include things like problem-solving and a willingness to learn. Being a master of critical thinking can help foster a creative, efficient, and flexible work environment.
Leadership skills can include qualities like conflict resolution and delegation. A strong leader will be able to inspire people and give clear feedback to those they manage.
4. Positive Attitude
Someone with a positive attitude will be able to demonstrate confidence, energy, and enthusiasm with ease. They’ll have a growth mindset, determination to tackle work tasks, and openness to learning new things.
Teamwork skills allow workers to engage with empathy and intercultural understanding. They’ll be able to collaborate effectively, network, and use emotional intelligence and self-awareness to interact with colleagues.
6. Work Ethic
Work ethic skills allow workers to meet basic workplace expectations such as hitting deadlines and showing up to appointments and events on time. In turn, a good work ethic breeds positive rewards and lends well to the other soft skills on this list.
Going Beyond Theory
A common complaint among college students is their programs aren’t properly preparing them to enter the workforce. This is in part because some majors focus more on theory than practice. Industries
like sociology and psychology rely on theory and even after students in these disciplines graduate and enter the workforce, they must keep up to date on the field’s current theories.
On the flip side, jobs in tech, for example, rely more on practice than theory, so educational programs in tech need to be more practice-based in order to create successful employees. Programs taught by industry practitioners (as opposed to academics) can also help fill the gap here. Since practitioners spend time working in the industry, they are more prepared to teach students the current skills and methods to navigate the “real-world.”
Institutions could also consider cutting back on general education requirements so students can focus solely on the technical and soft skills they’ll need in their careers. Additionally, educational programs which are more theory-based could benefit from incorporating more internship and apprenticeship requirements into their curriculum.
Brandon Busteed of Gallup thinks the fix is rather simple. “What these fixes require is courage, not more data,” Brandon said. “It’s no secret what works. Real-world work experience (in the form of internships, jobs, and apprenticeships), long-term projects applied to solving real problems, and mentoring and caring from staff and faculty are just a few of the things on the shortlist.”
Higher education must find a way to deal with the challenges of a remote world. Some have theorized the COVID-19 pandemic will spell trouble for the nation’s colleges and universities. While we’re still uncertain what this means for higher education, it’s essential to reconsider the formats in which programs are being offered and how the value of traditional institutions translates when forced to go virtual.
In an interview with New York Magazine, Scott Galloway, a marketing professor at New York University, said he sees more students shifting to online programs away from brick-and-mortar institutions which are facing closures in the coming years.
“There’s a recognition that education — the value, the price, the product — has fundamentally shifted,” Scott said. “The value of education has been substantially degraded. There’s the education certification and then there’s the experience part of college. The experience part of it is down to zero, and the education part has been dramatically reduced. You get a degree that, over time, will be reduced in value as we realize it’s not the same to be a graduate of a liberal arts college if you never went to campus. You can see already how students and their parents are responding.”
The response he’s referring to? Students and their parents are filing lawsuits demanding refunds. It’s a reasonable ask considering much of student tuition money pays for the experiential side of college life — a side which just can’t be replicated over Zoom.
Prospective students are likely asking, “Is college worth it?” Just browse r/StudentLoans on Reddit and you’ll see high school seniors querying if they should put their college plans on hold and take a gap year, and asking others if the student loan debt they’d be taking on would be worth it if they’ll have to attend Zoom University.
This presents a unique opportunity for college alternatives, many of which were already operating remotely. We’ll likely see an increased interest in these educational options.
Diversifying Higher Education
College alternatives are helping to diversify the world of higher education in order to assist students in becoming job-ready. There are a plethora of STEM-focused 3-12 month programs which give students an in-depth understanding of the on-the-job skills they’ll need in a relatively short period of time. These programs are both efficient and effective in preparing students to be career-ready.
At Kenzie Academy, we also incorporate a focus on soft skill training into the curriculum. Learners practice interviewing for positions and work with our Learner Success and Placement Teams to get one-on-one coaching on career readiness. Additionally, we work with hiring partners to assist learners in the job search. So not only are they graduating job-ready, but they’re also seeing practical, outcomes-based benefits from the Kenzie network.
College alternatives are also eliminating the cost barrier and allowing people from all walks of life access to high-paying jobs, which is definitely reason enough to celebrate and champion these programs.
Students Are Counting on Us to Make Them Job Ready
Ultimately, higher education institutions must rise to the task and promote a culture of job readiness among America’s students. It’s no longer cutting it to charge exorbitant tuition rates and only teach theory, provide a good time, and award them a piece of paper. We must do more for our students and we’re heartened to see institutions promoting career readiness programming already.
With college alternatives on the rise and high demand for new collar workers, the higher education bubble is bursting, and, as a result, the future looks bright for America’s students.
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