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Tech university students in campus using laptop after lectures in the lobby in campus.

Colleges can strengthen partnerships with employers to better support students as they prepare for their future careers.

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A majority of Americans continue to doubt the value of a college degree, putting additional pressure on institutions to place students in meaningful and gainful employment.

A new white paper from WGU Labs, an affiliate of Western Governors University, identifies opportunities for higher education and workforce partners to provide betters supports to new graduates, strengthening talent pipelines.

The report, titled “The Broken Pathway,” draws on expertise from WGU Labs’ College Innovation Network, which includes Loyola University New Orleans, Central Ohio Technical College, Marshall University, Northern Virginia Community College, Rio Salado College and Wayne Community College.

Researchers identified four key challenges and four possible solutions to the primary barriers.

Barriers to Success

  • Participants in the hiring process aren’t communicating in the “language of skills.” Employers don’t identify the skills they need from an employee in job descriptions, and students can’t articulate the skills their academic program provides or how those translate into work. This creates a communication gap that makes the diploma stand in for learned skills.
  • The resources to support learners on career pathways are ineffective. Students aren’t using career centers for impactful services, according to a 2022 survey from the National Association of Colleges and Employers. The survey found 26 percent of students use the center for internship help, 21 percent participate in mock interviews and 21 percent receive networking preparation. Students receive encouragement to participate in off-campus opportunities, such as internships, for career preparation, but these can be less effective in teaching students how to connect academic programs to real-world work—if the student is able to participate in an internship at all.
  • The current learning model is one-way. Most often, the conversation about workforce development is more focused on how an institution of higher education can prepare learners to participate in the workforce. However, employers have a role in preparing graduates to launch successful careers by being responsible recipients of talent. Ongoing learning should be encouraged within a graduate’s first destination to promote lifelong learning.
  • Transitions between education and workforce are unsupported. Upon graduation, alumni often lose support from their institutions, including social capital and resources, which most dramatically impacts learners from underresourced communities or those who are first generation. Employers, seeing themselves as the recipients of talent, are less invested and not incentivized to create a bridge between learning and earning, according to the report.

Possible Solutions

  • Address local needs with scalable solutions. A majority of college students attend an institution with a 50-mile radius of their hometown, and around one-third of graduates will apply to jobs in their regions, which means workforce development can be individualized to the surrounding community. Many programs already incorporate these elements, but articulation of those skills “is crucial here,” according to the report.

Region-serving institutions, specifically, should prioritize identifying skills necessary in the local marketplace. Businesses can also play a role in curriculum development to ensure graduates are ready to work in their organizations.

Some possible initiatives could be a guaranteed interview program, an on-the-job training agreement or an accelerator inside a school for employers to create project opportunities.

  • Modernize existing services and leverage latent capacity. Many students are unaware of the existing support services at their institution, and of the existing services, very few are targeted at the transition period between graduation and work. Career centers and advising centers are often underresourced, which requires a creative approach to supporting students. One solution could be creating a peer advising system for older students to give advice on courses and careers and the workforce, extending after graduation to share advice on advancement. Alumni can also bridge this gap, providing relevant and more recent advice for learners.
  • Redesign the internship model. While internship experience can better equip students for their first job after graduation, often internships are divorced from skills and network they are meant to build, according to the report. This can be attributed to the lack of a role higher education leaders play in creating internships and employers’ limited understanding of student needs.

One way to redesign internships would focus on career needs: skills, experience and networking contacts. Redesigned internships should also consider the needs of underserved student groups, making them accessible and inclusive for all learners.

Creating an institutional focus on internship and co-op experiences can improve students’ experiences and better prepare them for life after graduation. Old Dominion University launched a centralized office focused on establishing and expanding partnerships with external organizations to provide new or additional internships.

  • Make learning continuous. Employers should see themselves as part of the training continuum, “not the end of the road,” according to the white paper. Employee training and development should extend beyond employee responsibility to find relevant learning modules or require them to jump through funding hoops to participate.

Employers can partner with institutions to develop upskilling and reskilling programs or microcredentials to help them meet current industry needs.

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