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College graduates are the least happy segment of the work force today — according to a new Gallup survey, workers with high school diplomas, industry certificates, or technical degrees all report feeling higher levels of engagement within their careers. According to the survey, the difference is due not to dissimilar expectations of the workplace, but to the fact that college graduates are much less likely to feel that they are doing what they are best at. 

Today, our society has a laserlike focus on preparing our students for college, and then graduating them to be participants in our economy.  College students desire to be purposeful contributors in their workplace, and American employers are looking to hire job-ready college graduates. So why is there such disconnect between academic success and job satisfaction? 

The problem is a simple lack of skills and professional self-awareness: the Gallup findings suggest that it is an issue of students not feeling qualified to do the work they are asked to do or understanding how skills learned in college apply to the workplace context. The solution may be an “XBA”- supplemental immersive training to provide students with a portfolio of business competencies and professional traits as well as a sense of direction founded in clear self-assessment. Skills, attitude, and sense of direction are all part of the equation, and critical to job engagement and success.

Understandably, college classrooms are about imparting knowledge and critical thinking to students, not teaching them how to do things and what it is they want to do.  With increasing demands on employers, they no longer have time and resources to invest in on-the-job training. 

So what can be done?

Higher education institutions are starting to realize they can partner with high-quality specialists in this area. They can solve this problem together.

First, we can help students develop the self-awareness to better understand what they are good at, and how those skills and knowledge apply to specific career choices. This mean helping students more clearly assess their own strengths and weaknesses.  Gallup has repeatedly found that success and happiness at work come from doing what you like and what you are good at, so both are important. Someone who believes herself to be a strong writer, for example, may find that her communications ability can translate to developing compelling PowerPoint presentations to effectively meet the needs of a team better than if she tried to do spreadsheets or analysis all day, even though she should know how to do both.

XBA programs also prepare students to be more proactive and excited about driving their job search and finding the right fit, so they can use their career centers better, make better use of internship summers to hone their choices and better manage the interview process to convey what they know how to do and where they can make the best contribution.

This field is still emerging, but XBA programs like the Fullbridge Program (which I co-founded) simulate the work environment to provide undergraduate students and recent graduates intensive training to develop both skills — such as business analysis and research, strong written and oral communication, the ability to innovate and solve problems and work in teams -- and traits — like self-awareness, awareness of others, being forward-thinking, persistence, and a positive willingness to contribute.

Similarly, Dev Bootcamp is a nine-week immersion that gives recent graduates the hands-on experience they need to be successful computer programmers. The Shillington School also seeks to enhance a student’s formal education by enabling students to master industry skills in the field of graphic design.  Think of this as the 21st-century innovation equivalent to the semester abroad, something that is considered an essential part of the college experience, but made available to students at all tiers of higher education and family income.

Here is the good news: This work is beginning to take shape. Top liberal arts colleges, research universities and community colleges are beginning to partner with these XBA partners. State leaders, employers, and higher education leaders are actively developing new ways to assure that community college and university students are graduating ready to contribute to the work force. President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan have emphasized the important role community colleges can play in preparing students for career success; and the Department of Labor is working with innovative higher education institutions that are providing skilled job training.

By adding practical skills and competencies to what students have learned in school, we can help young adults find greater happiness in their work, which is highly correlated with success, which in turn benefits us all.

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