The Great Divide: Post Secondary Education and Workplace Readiness

By Talentadmin on

The enormously popular book, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus, captured America’s attention by offering a metaphor for why men and women struggle to communicate and understand one another — they are from different planets, each socialized and acclimated to their own world. This celestial metaphor also aptly captures the dynamics of two large earthly institutions, education and workplace employers, both of whom are separated by a similar divide, an intractable gap where one does not truly understand the needs and communication style of the other.

college kid

In a recent meeting with small liberal arts college this question emerged as their top priority: “How can we get companies to better understand the value of a liberal arts education?” Articulating one’s brand and value proposition is certainly important, especially for a college with an excellent reputation for producing talented students. Unfortunately, this question comes from Mars. Fixating on a value proposition that rests on one side of the divide does little to bridge the gap or help graduating seniors secure jobs. The more transformative question for educators is, “What do employers want and need?”

Interestingly, in preparation for the meeting I had reviewed the results from the college’s strategic planning survey in which both Alumni and Board Members identified the gap between students’ preparation and workplace readiness as a priority. Neither faculty nor students had prioritized this issue, instead focusing on academic excellence. Of course both are important. The point is not whether one topic is more pressing than the other, but that each stakeholder was touching a different part of the elephant. To the extent that this scenario is typical — and I believe that it is — we must communicate differently to connect disparate views and address the larger picture.

The pendulum has swung from an age of information to connectivity, production to innovation, following procedures to thinking and making judgments in the workplace that drives our economy and vital services (e.g., healthcare, education). We now need graduates who are agile learners, who can think critically, solve problems, and collaborate. New employees need to communicate effectively, work responsibly and proactively, and leverage the benefits of technology. Numerous nation-wide employment studies have reiterated the need for these key skills, and educational institutions can certainly deliver newly minted graduates who possess them, but a deeper dialogue is needed to move from possibility to reality. To move the conversation forward, here are three steps aimed at shifting how each institution — each planet if you will — views the world of work.

  1. Adopt a common language to describe the competencies students must develop and employers need. These competencies must be demonstrated in a manner that is valued by both education institutions and corporations. For example, critical thinking is a competency that everyone agrees is important. In higher education that competency might manifest itself in a logic or critical thinking course taught through a philosophy department. In the business world, critical thinking is manifested in the customer service representative who can assess a customer situation, evaluate relevant information, and make a good decision that balances the interests of both customer and company. Currently, too many students are stunted, unable to transfer basic knowledge into real-world application. Educators and employers need to work together to define the continuum of successful performance, for key competencies such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and dependability.
  2. Create experiences in the classroom and in career services that resemble the workplace. For example, the flipped classroom mimics the workplace far more than a synchronous, lecture-based classroom. In today’s work settings managers don’t have time to provide a high level of structure or instruction, instead they provide project goals and background information and then rely on employees to learn and work on their own (or in teams). Much like the flipped classroom, meetings are used to discuss needs, communicate progress, and resolve barriers.
  3. Strengthen the exchange program between education and corporations to create cross-cultural fluency. Educational institutions need more career service staff with substantial corporate human resource experience and faculty who have worked outside of academia. Business can create internships for academic and career service professionals, so that educators have an opportunity to see how competencies play out in a work setting. In turn, educators can help employers spot emerging trends, which often arise on campus. Business schools lead the way in this arena, having historically sought out corporate colleagues. Consider the impact on Harvard students who learn management practice from Professor Bill George, the retired CEO of Medtronic; they know that his lessons are informed by experience.

Recently, Temple’s Fox School of Business initiated an innovative pilot project designed to bridge the gap. Students in five sections of Professor Steven N. Pyser’s BA 3102 Business, Society and Ethics course completed an on-line critical thinking program as part of their course requirement. The program, Critical Thinking University, teaches and measures learning of basic critical thinking concepts through multi-media based business relevant scenarios, case studies, and group discussion. Class time was reserved for active learning, small group dialogue around business cases infused by discussion and integration of critical thinking concepts. Participation and learning was also studied by looking at student communications through Twitter and Facebook posts to mimic employee communication patterns. Finally, successful completion resulted in students being awarded a critical thinking competency certificate, which they could include in their professional portfolio. The career services department, Center for Student Professional Development (CSPD) closed the loop by helping students market their key competencies — including critical thinking — during the internship and job search process.

With a little innovation, educators and workplace employers can move closer together. By sharing a language and changing socialization patterns, one can acclimate to the other, and the divide will shrink. More importantly, this shift will help both sides meet their shared goal of preparing the next generation for success in the workplace.

Image courtesy of imagerymajestic /

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