Preparing Students for the Workplace

At the recent Eduventures Summit in Boston, we were asked to reflect upon a question in preparation for the for-profit leadership panel but it was never addressed, even though it may well be among the most important: How are we preparing our students for the workplace?

Today’s employers are seeking skills and mindsets in new employees that few institutions seem able to provide their graduates. Is this gap widening? Narrowing? Why, or why not? How do we, as institutions of higher education, respond to this skills gap? Are degrees the only solution? Is there a shorter-term credential at perhaps a lower cost? And how do these choices impact the business model of higher education?

There is no simple answer to these fairly complex questions. However, there are approaches that address the underlying question: how are institutions meeting the requirement to both prepare students/graduates for the workplace and continually support their lifelong learning and development in advancing their careers and the workplace? To that end, national data exists regarding student and employer perceptions of workplace readiness of graduates. For example, the 2015 Hart Research Associates study for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that written and oral communications, critical thinking and the ability to apply knowledge to real-world settings are among the skills most highly valued by employers. So how does APUS fare in these areas?

 

Employer Competency APUS Alumni Employer Survey Results 2016 National Survey of Student Engagement APUS Senior Results APUS End-of-Program Student Survey Results
Critical Thinking Skills 70% Agree 87% Agree 96% Agree
Writing Clearly and Effectively 52% Agree 84% Agree 96% Agree
Effective Oral Communication 58% Agree N/A 94% Agree
Apply Learning to Real- World Work 51% Agree N/A N/A

 

What is interesting is the contrasting response of employers to students and the 10%+ differential between seniors responding to the National Survey of Student Engagement and those who complete the required end-of-program survey during their last undergraduate course. These discrepancies are similar to Gallup Studies reported at a Council for Higher Education Accreditation meeting I addressed in a previous blog. Clearly, there is room for growth among our students and our need to better understand what employers are seeking in terms of levels of competence in these and the other areas as described in the Hart Study. It’s uncertain if the gap is widening or narrowing, but I certainly hope it is narrowing as we still have a ways to go. So how do we address these gaps and affect change?

First and foremost, we must partner with employers to review and evaluate learning outcomes and establish desired outcomes both for the workforce of today and the future. For example, our School of Business and other schools convene annual Industry Advisory Councils (IACs) for which the workforce skills gap is a major agenda topic to ensure that our academic programs meet the needs of their respective communities. We solicit business leader and expert input on the curriculum, courses, program relevance, learning outcomes, career outlook and usefulness of the degree or offering to the field. As a result of this IAC, Dean Chad Patrizi and his faculty have implemented additional assessment in several business and management courses for soft skills, including presentations and video role playing (online), verbal and phone communication skills, collaboration in role play forums, and simulations to develop conflict resolution skills. In short, the School of Business has identified these skill and knowledge needs in collaboration with business leaders and integrated them into the curriculum.

We must diversify learning opportunities and offerings. Degrees are but one answer to professional and career entry and advancement. Professionals must look beyond degrees and one-time education toward constant retooling of skills that come from training, education certificates, mentoring, and other career-related services that educators may or may not have traditionally provided to support job readiness. Diversification of learning offerings includes providing competency-based learning, whereby a student can build upon learning that is already demonstrated in work and in life. For example, for our Momentum™ model and approach, we reviewed and integrated the published industry standards of organizations like the National Retail Federation to be better able to assess career and job readiness for these students and provide a program both academically rigorous and professionally sound.

Students and employers alike desire mechanisms to demonstrate relevant learning, including job-specific skills and knowledge. To this end, APUS partners with Portfolium to provide our students a platform to demonstrate their acquired skills and knowledge. Portfolium is a comprehensive ePortfolio system designed to pair what employers are seeking in entry-level positions to what students are gaining in academic skills. It allows students to share artifacts from their learning journey, work and volunteer contributions that highlight those skills for which employers are searching. Submissions are tagged by skills searchable by employers. Since its recent March 2017 launch, the APUS network has attracted nearly 18,000 student and alumni users, collectively showcasing nearly 80,000 skills.

Learning outcomes need to be relevant and comprehensive. Several years ago, APUS adopted the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) Framework as our institutional learning outcomes and adapted it by adding digital literacy. The value for APUS and students is that it represents over a decade of research on skills and knowledge competencies needed of graduates of associate, bachelor’s, and master’s programs. These outcomes are embedded across the curriculum and in all courses and individual “signature” assignments, which can then be loaded into Portfolium as artifacts or evidence of learning.

Providing stackable academic credentials is required for work readiness and ongoing career development. We are creating ways for our students to gain market recognition for knowledge, skills, and abilities garnered along the way to obtaining a degree and/or after receiving it. Micro-credentials and digital badges are key. The unique feature of a micro-credential is the overarching assessment that demonstrates student learning. To this end, APUS is creating and will soon begin offering digital badges as an essential element of our emerging micro-credential strategy.

Finally, I want to share yet another great example of how we are both partnering with public and private sector organizations and providing a stackable credential: our recently-expanded partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation and Security Administration (TSA). APUS academic leadership, in collaboration with experts at TSA’s Institute of Higher Education, built upon one of our core homeland security programs to design a special TSA-only Undergraduate Certificate in Fundamentals of Homeland Security. TSA participants receive 18 credit hours upon completion of this certificate, which can then be applied to degree offerings at APUS. This innovative, stackable credential is a model for program development to meet emerging business and government job skill and knowledge readiness requirements.

Overall, the Eduventures Summit provided an invaluable opportunity for dialogue and reflection on key topics in higher education in general and also for the for-profit sector. Preparing for a panel provides the opportunity to reflect on the questions and the ways we are currently serving our students and how we hope to serve them in the future. Clearly the question of preparing students for work and for life as global citizens is key to both advancing our supporting mission and that of all institutions of higher education.

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