Career Preparedness

Embedding career preparation in the undergraduate experience.

November 6, 2019

It’s higher ed’s catchphrase of the moment. Career readiness speaks to a host of concerns:

  • That a college education is excessively theoretical and disconnected from real world.
  • That students lack the skills and experience that employers seek.
  • That too many students flail and flounder due to a lack of realistic career aspirations or a practical plan to achieve their goals.

Employers and students themselves worry about college graduates’ career preparedness. A 2017 survey of 32,000 currently enrolled college students conducted by Gallup and Strada found that only a third of students strongly agreed that they will graduate with the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in the job market, and just half felt confident that their major will lead to a good job.

At the same time, a survey conducted by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that fewer than half of recent college graduates were proficient in oral and written communication and intercultural fluency, and just 56 percent were competent in critical thinking and problem solving.

What, then, should be done?

Here are four simple steps colleges and universities can take to better prepare students for future careers.

Step 1: Provide students and faculty with actionable insights into employment trends, outcomes for particular majors and short- and long-term earnings.

Colleges and universities have an obligation to provide students and faculty with insights into their graduates’ economic future. Many students enter higher education with a rather narrow view of the range of employment possibilities, while too often faculty are largely unaware of their graduates’ actual employment outcomes.

At the University of Texas at Austin, the psychology department learned that only a small proportion of graduates pursued advanced degrees in psychology. Most graduates, in fact, went into HR or a related field, where the salaries were relatively low. The smaller number who went into research-related fields did much better financially. These insights encouraged the department to reimagine and redesign its curriculum.

Meanwhile, a UT system dashboard provides information on students’ median income for every program offered on the 14 UT campuses one, five and 10 years after graduating. Someone similar information is available for Colorado, Michigan and Wisconsin.

We can help our students by offering up-to-date labor market data, information about the demand for particular jobs, starting salaries and skills and educational requirements for specific careers. Equally important, we can introduce students to alternate majors and careers for those who, for example, aren’t accepted into a nursing or engineering program.

Step 2: Embed career exploration across the undergraduate experience.

Career exploration is too important to be left to a separate career center. In fact, according to a McGraw-Hill Education survey, fewer than half of college students use their institution’s career services office. Beginning in the freshman year, courses can open windows into career opportunities. Academic advisers can integrate career exploration into their advising sessions. In addition, institutions can offer skills workshops (for example, in Excel) that enhance students’ employability.

Step 3: Better align curricula with workforce outcomes.

A college or university is not a vocational school, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t offer majors in areas of growing student and employer demand. These include such fields as arts management and arts policy, data science, research methods, risk analysis, and sustainability -- none of which conflict with a liberal arts-focused curriculum.

There is no reason why supervised internships and clinical and field experiences and project-based learning cannot become a more integral part of a student’s undergraduate education. If internships prove difficult to scale, it is possible to consider alternatives, such as service learning and civic engagement projects or problem-solving teams that might help nonprofits address a particular challenge.

Step 4: Connect undergraduates with alumni and employers.

Why not tap an institutions’ greatest resource, its alumni, many of whom would be eager to offer career advice or even internship opportunities? Or partner with employers.

Here’s one striking example: Hunter College’s computer science department has taken advantage of a Tech in Residence program, in which working professionals from leading technology firms co-teach classes and offer skills and professional development workshops. In the process, these industry representatives create new learning opportunities for undergraduates in agile development, blockchain, distributed systems and web development.

We live in a time when earlier career expectations and road maps have broken down. The advice that made sense five or more decades ago -- start at the bottom of a company, work hard and rise up the corporate ladder -- has become outmoded in an economy where few can expect to work for a single employer or in a single field.

As job opportunities have proliferated, and particular sectors of the economy expand or contract, our students need to develop a more accurate sense of the employment landscape and the training and credentials that particular jobs require.

Developing that understanding and acquiring relevant skills needs to become an essential component of a 21st-century undergraduate education.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.


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