NACE Journal, February 2017
In recent years, concerns about whether college graduates are being adequately prepared for the world of work has become endemic among politicians, pundits, and higher education professionals. Indeed, career readiness, whether in community colleges or four-year universities, has become perhaps the defining issue for conversations about the future of higher education not just in the United States but around the world. At the core of this angst about college, jobs, and skills is a single question: Are the nation’s colleges and universities providing students with career competencies, or the knowledge, skills, and abilities that are required to excel in the workplace?
For many observers the answer to this question is a clear, unambiguous no. Consequently, some foresee the “end of college” and the need to disrupt a sector that is widely viewed as resistant to change, innovation, and progress. While these critiques have also been fed by concerns about the rising price-tag of college, advances in instructional technology, and charges that higher education is elitist and out-of-touch, one idea in particular has fueled critiques of higher education and influenced a broad attempt to re-orient the sector to focus on career readiness—the skills gap.
The skills gap idea contends that the sluggish economic growth since the 2008 recession is caused by higher education sector that inadequately prepares in the fields that employers need, resulting in a gap between work force demands and workers’ skills. It is an argument that takes a complex and messy topic—the state of the U.S. job market in a globalized economy—and singles out one actor for blame. The specific failings of higher education articulated by skills gap advocates include too many four-year degrees in majors with no clear links to the labor market (e.g., arts and humanities), a “College for All” movement that has led to shortages in middle-skill jobs, and a general lack of focus on jobs and careers throughout the educational system. Ultimately, those advancing the skills gap thesis argue that higher education has failed to provide students with the competencies that they will need to succeed in the labor market.
So what should be done to remedy this situation? The most common response to deal with the so-called skills gap has involved programmatic solutions including new academic programs for “high-demand” jobs such as nursing and computer programming, more apprenticeships and regional industry-based work force development boards, and the pursuit of alternative credentials such as badges and certificates. Another response to the skills gap entails structural reform to the higher education sector, such that administrators are given executive-like powers to fire faculty and eliminate programs, particularly in disciplines considered inadequately attuned to work force needs.
In the state of Wisconsin where I live and work, the skills gap underlays much of the state’s approach to higher education and work force development policy. Besides pursuing these programmatic and structural reforms, the state also attempted to re-orient the logic of the entire higher education system by striking the phrases “search for truth” from the mission of the University of Wisconsin system and replacing them with “meet the state’s work force needs.”
But is this approach the best way to ensure students’ acquire the competencies they will need to thrive in their careers? Is the answer to providing career competencies to re-orient the purpose of higher education to focus on jobs alone, and to pursue structural reforms like internships and career pathways? As I describe in my book, Beyond the Skills Gap: Preparing College Students for Life and Work,” based on three years traveling throughout the Badger State, interviewing CEOs, hiring managers, technical college instructors, and university faculty, the answer is unequivocally “No.”
Making matters worse, these strategies are counterproductive to the long-term interests of employers, students, and society, largely based on a misunderstanding of what career competencies really mean and a lack of attention to how they are cultivated in the classroom.
The Gap in the Skills Gap Narrative: Which Skills?
Unfortunately, one question, amidst the ubiquitous discussions of skills gaps and the need to disrupt and reform higher education, tends to be ignored and overlooked: Which skills are we talking about exactly? Which specific skills, knowledge, and abilities should students be acquiring so that they can thrive in an unpredictable and competitive 21st century economy?
In many reports about the skills gap, the competencies that colleges and universities are purportedly failing to provide are never defined. Most commonly, the skills in demand are simply subsumed under occupational categories, usually the “hot” jobs where shortages are imminent such as nursing, programming, or welding. For instance, an influential report in Wisconsin highlighted several “skills clusters” that policymakers should focus upon, but the clusters were simply industry sectors such as advanced manufacturing and healthcare, with nary a word about the specific knowledge, abilities, and aptitudes required within them.1
According to this formulation, skills are simply jobs. Thus, ensuring college students acquire career competencies becomes a simple matter of fixing bottlenecks in academic programs flowing into these careers via expansion and pathway articulation, while also discouraging young people to pursue majors in fields that have no discernable link to specific occupations. The usual suspects for these supposedly un-marketable degrees are in the arts and humanities, though the social sciences and esoteric research in the sciences are also regularly castigated as inadequately oriented to careers.
Such accounts are inadequate, and while numerous employer surveys and task forces have articulated which skills are in demand with more precision, there still remains a significant gap in our understanding of career competencies: What do people in the field—the CEOs, college teachers, and HR directors—really think about the types of competencies that are essential for success in the work force?
A growing movement in education research is arguing for more empirical research on this exact issue, or how people think and act “in the wild” of the real-world, outside of laboratory studies and expert deliberations, much like traditional qualitative and ethnographic research. Another way to think about the problem is evident in the idea of “ground-truthing” in the geological sciences, where satellite imagery is verified by people on the ground who document the existence of land-forms such as tributaries, valleys, and roads prior to their use by planning, military, or government professionals.
So in the spirit of ground-truthing the notion of skills and career competencies, my colleagues and I drove throughout Wisconsin, from the port town of Superior in the far north to the industrial city of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan, and from the central city of Wausau to La Crosse on the Minnesota border. We spoke to employers in two industries, one that represents a traditional cornerstone of the state’s economy (manufacturing), and a rapidly growing field on the cutting-edge of the life sciences (biotechnology). Since they also play a critical role in cultivating career competencies, we also spoke to teachers in community colleges and universities throughout the state. At the end of the two-year study, we had collected detailed interview data from 145 people representing 17 institutions and 52 companies.
A Closer Look at Career Competencies
The first question we asked was: What are the competencies you think are most essential for success in the workplace? For the employers in our study, the answer was clear. If they had to imagine a composite “ideal” employee, they envisioned a hard-working individual with appropriate technical training (knowledge as well as the ability to apply technical information), solid problem-solving skills, and the abilities to communicate well, work in teams, and to continually learn new things. These are the varied competencies that some people in Wisconsin’s business community hope that students are acquiring when they enter the work force.
Such a complex and multi-faceted accounting of skills and competencies are not just limited to our study respondents. The National Research Council’s (NRC) 21st century competency framework,2 the NACE Career Readiness initiative,3 the O*NET occupational categorization system,4 and researchers in labor economics such as the Nobel Laureate James Heckman5 have all emphasized the fact that the skills needed to thrive in life, school, and work span a variety of distinct competencies. For instance, the NRC’s widely cited taxonomy focuses on cognitive skills, such as technical expertise and critical thinking; interpersonal competencies, including teamwork; and intra-personal aptitudes, such as self-regulated learning. Another example is the O*NET system, which specifies the various competencies required for jobs like welding, which include mechanical and design knowledge, critical thinking, arm-hand steadiness, and problem sensitivities. The consensus is clear: The catch-all term of “skills” or of equating career competencies with occupations obscures far more than it reveals.
But upon digging deeper into our data, we identified some nuances in how these competencies are conceptualized and valued in real-world factories and research laboratories that bear further investigation.
Up-to-date technical expertise—both conceptual and practical—is highly valued: To get many of the jobs available in one of the biotechnology labs or manufacturing companies we visited, you need technical training in that field; there’s no way around this fact. Whether an applicant has experience with gas metal arc welding, CNC programming, or a working knowledge of recombinant DNA techniques, for anything but the lowest-level production work, a resume lacking training or experience in technical areas such as these would not get one an interview. However, an important issue to keep in mind regarding technical expertise is that employers seek applicants with knowledge of key concepts and principles of the field as well as hands-on, practical experience. Cognitive psychologists make the distinction between declarative knowledge (knowing about something) and procedural knowledge (knowing how to do something). Employers need and want both.
For instance, one biotechnology executive observed that while graduates from the local research university had strong “book knowledge,” they often lacked bench skills in the lab, whereas graduates from the technical college had the opposite background. While different positions required more or less of each type of training, this CEO dreamt of applicants who had a combination of these competencies. So a key issue for students, when thinking about technical expertise, is the specific mix of conceptual and practical expertise required for their career objectives. This may mean the difference between pursuing a four-year computer science degree versus a six-week boot camp, though in either case, they will be well served by receiving training that blends hands-on learning with the principles of the field.
It’s not about stand-alone skill sets. Career competencies as discipline-specific “habits of mind:” While employers in our study cited technical expertise, communication, problem-solving, and a myriad of other competencies as critical for workplace success, they also emphasized how these were not discrete, stand-alone skill sets. Instead, they are part of a larger whole that comprise a person’s habits of thinking, behaving, and problem-solving, or what one electronics instructor called “habits of mind” that he was trying to cultivate in his students. These habits of mind are patterned and habituated ways of thinking and being associated with unique cultural groups and communities of practice, such as biologists, welders, or robotics technicians.
This is partly about the importance of inter- and intra-personal competencies, as employers desire skilled technicians who can also communicate, work in teams, and adapt to new situations. But it also speaks to the fact that employers did not seek communication, teamwork, and critical thinking competencies in the abstract, as generic ala carte skill sets. Instead, they desired applicants who could communicate in a specific disciplinary or industrial context: a biological lab, a research and development team in a manufacturing company, or a welding repair shop. This is why apprenticeships and internships are so valuable—they socialize students into new communities of practice where they learn technique as well as cultural norms and ways of being in specific professional situations. Thus, career competencies are best thought of as a holistic repertoire of skill sets linked to specific fields, rather than as stand-alone competencies. Besides forcing a rethinking of what career competencies really are, this finding raises questions about the oft-cited argument to “unbundle” higher education from multi-course programs to stand-alone competency-based coursework.
The primacy of a strong work ethic: In what was perhaps the most startling finding of our study, employers ranked work ethic as the most essential career competency. We probably should not have been surprised, as numerous employer surveys have resulted in similar findings, such as the NACE Job Outlook 2016 survey, which found that 69 percent of surveyed employers seek evidence of job applicants’ work ethic.6 A representative of the Wisconsin Chamber of Commerce even spoke of manufacturers seeking applicants with a low “YOTF” quotient, which refers to “years-off-the-farm,” because people with a rural upbringing were widely viewed as hard workers, polished problem-solvers, and dependable.
However, as the notion of YOTF illustrates, some aspects of work ethic raise important questions. First, work ethic is no simple idea, and research demonstrates that it is a multi-dimensional construct that extends beyond hard work to include delayed gratification, dependability, morality and ethics, self-reliance, and so on.7 Second, work ethic is a deeply cultural construct, meaning that it is cultivated in young people by their parents who may have particular religious beliefs and approaches to work, as well as the unique socio-cultural, political, and economic milieu in which they are socialized. This means that while teachers certainly can play a productive role in developing students’ work ethic and its close cousin of self-regulated learning, the cultivation of a work ethic implicates parents, youth sports, peers, 4-H and similar clubs, and employers. Furthermore, the multi-dimensionality and diverse origins of work ethic also demonstrate that simply including it in lists of career competencies is insufficient—we need to articulate precisely what it means and how to provide it to young people, and acknowledge that this particular career competency is a complex, cultural and psychological issue that goes beyond educator and advisers’ responsibilities.
Lifelong learning: Another surprising finding was the importance that employers placed on lifelong learning. The importance of this competency, which was variously described as flexibility, the willingness and desire to learn new things, and the ability to continually learn, was emphasized as a highly desirable competency given the rapidly changing nature of work in many industries. In particular, continual shifts in technology and scientific knowledge meant that updating skills was not an option, but was a basic ingredient for businesses to remain competitive. As one HR manager said, in the past his company’s employees worked on production lines making the same diesel pump components for 20 years, but now with the increase in contract work and technologies, staff constantly rotate work stations and need to learn how to work with new machinery and people on a regular basis. One AT&T executive put it bluntly, saying that people who are not spending five to10 hours a week learning new skills “will obsolete themselves with the technology.”8
The importance of lifelong learning has long been known to researchers, as the economist Anthony Carnevale found in a 1990 study that employers found this to be the “foundational skill” upon which all others are based.9 But as with work ethic, this aptitude is hard to define with precision, raising questions about its utility in competency frameworks. Furthermore, it is developed early in life and not simply addressed through formal education—raising again the idea that issues of teaching, culture, and collective responsibility must be put on the table.
Problem-solving in ill-structured situations: Finally, the ability to solve problems, think critically, and troubleshoot was highlighted as an essential career competency by subjects in our study. In practice, this pertained to the ability to deal with the inevitable ill-structured problems that arise in the workplace, from a broken-down robotic arm to faulty software code, situations that are not easily remedied by recourse to a technical manual. These findings are consistent with the research of learning scientist David Jonassen, who found that problem-solving in the workplace tended to involve ill-structured situations, multiple constraints, collaborative work, and more than one correct answer. Thus, problem-solving in the workplace is decidedly at odds with the way it is normally thought about and taught in school, as bounded scenarios where a single formula or rule is applied to arrive at one correct answer.
Further complicating matters, our respondents used a variety of terms to describe the general aptitude of evaluating a situation, collecting information, weighing alternatives, and selecting the best option—trouble-shooting, critical thinking, and problem-solving. Since some educators and scholars view critical thinking as a cognitive skill applied to textual analysis and/or social situations rather than technical problems, and trouble-shooting as a distinct process, it is clear that the term “problem-solving” encompasses a variety of closely related yet distinct cognitive skills.
What can we learn from these findings? The first is that we need to retire overly vague catch-all terms like “skills,” because in practice it obscures far more than it reveals. Similarly, the field needs to cease using occupational categories such a “nursing” or “welding” as synonyms for the specific competencies students will need in the labor market. Why? Because the skill sets we are talking about are too complex and numerous to be easily distilled into a job title. This is why the O*NET occupational classification system was created, to detail precisely what types of knowledge, skills, abilities, and work activities are involved with specific jobs. But as long as we simply refer to “skills” or hot jobs, we remain in the dark about what it really means to be a skilled welder with any degree of accuracy or specificity.
So what are the implications of these data? Besides helping students and employees recognize with greater precision the types of competencies they can and should acquire, it foregrounds a question that is practically invisible in current debates about skills gaps and career competencies: How can we teach these varied competencies in the classroom?
Support Active Learning, Students’ Social Capital, and Workplace Training
Besides visiting biotechnology labs and manufacturing facilities, we also went to several technical colleges and universities throughout Wisconsin, where we asked faculty about the skill sets they found valuable and how they cultivated them in the classroom. Given that learning is a lifelong affair that extends beyond graduation, we also asked employers about how they approached on-the-job training. Three findings shed light on how well (or not) our current systems are serving students and employees in acquiring career competencies.
Active learning across the disciplines is key to deeper learning: In the past few decades, learning scientists and educators have been arguing for a transformation of traditional instruction from an exclusive reliance on didactic lecturing, or what some call “sit and get” where students passively sit and receive information, to a more hands-on, active, and engaged form of teaching and learning. When students actively construct their own understandings of an idea, principle, or concept—whether it is spot welding or recombinant DNA—it increases learning and retention, and also their ability to transfer newly acquired knowledge to different settings. Furthermore, some active learning techniques, such as problem-based learning, are also effective at teaching competencies such as oral communication, problem-solving, and teamwork. Fortunately, active learning enthusiasts are growing and include federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, educators spanning the entire educational spectrum K-16, and disciplinary communities as varied as cognitive psychologists, digital humanists, adult and online education, and those active in STEM education.
Yet these methods have not been widely adopted throughout U.S. colleges and universities. The Faculty Survey operated by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute found that 50 percent of respondents reported using “extensive lecturing” in 2013-2014.10 While growing numbers of faculty are using cooperative learning (60.7 percent) and group projects (45.5 percent), there remains a substantial group of instructors who are not using student-centered teaching methods. Indeed, in an observation-based study of 56 STEM faculty, lecturing with PowerPoint slides was by far the most dominant teaching method used, and 16 percent of the instructors even lectured for 40 minutes or longer.11 This is not to suggest that lecturing has no productive role to play in college teaching, but that many students continue to be taught by instructors who are not using instructional methods that are known to increase learning, retention, and transfer. But why should we expect them to, given that most postsecondary instructors receive no formal training in how to teach, and campus Centers for Teaching and Learning are often the first to be cut in times of fiscal crisis?
Two additional points regarding curriculum and instruction are worth noting. First, cultivating career competencies takes time. As one electrical instructor said, in light of his resistance to cutting a two-year degree program into a one-year technical diploma, “There is no short cut.” Consider that traditional apprenticeships in countries like Germany take between two and one-half and three years, which is the time required to become socialized into a profession. While short-term certificate and boot camps may play an important role in the postsecondary ecosystem of the future, it is questionable whether they can adequately inculcate the deeper habits of mind employers desire. Second, skills gap advocates and higher education critics are fond of dismissing the arts and humanities as pathways to underemployment and irrelevant to the world of work, but for many of our subjects, general education coursework plays a key role in cultivating students’ skill sets. This is because courses in the arts and humanities are uniquely well-suited to provide training in certain competencies like oral and written communication, and students are exposed to issues about history, civics, and culture that they do not study in technical courses.
As an administrator at a technical college told me, “Many companies will say, ‘Your two-year and four-year degrees are so bloated, why would I need someone that needs English or history,’ and they don’t understand that that’s going to make a really good employee. I don’t argue, but it’s happened where an employer comes back and says, “You were right.”
Cultivating career competencies and social capital through work-based learning: Besides instructional techniques like active learning, however, other strategies exist that increase the chances that students will acquire career competencies while in college, such as work-based learning (e.g., internships and apprenticeships), employer participation in curriculum advisory boards, and collaborative design of course curricula. The benefits of these strategies, which rely on effective cross-sector partnerships, are twofold. First, insights from authentic problems and situations make their way into the classroom, so that the abstract and academic is embedded in and illustrated by situations that students will encounter in their communities, personal lives, and workplaces. In our study, curriculum advisory boards were a common venue for employers to share up-to-date information about the types of tasks and skills needed in the workplace, which educators could then integrate into their coursework. At the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, a particularly innovative program solicited authentic problems that local policymakers and community members wanted to address, whereupon students would then pursue research on these topics as part of their regular coursework.12 At the end of the semester, students often present their findings to the “client” via an official report or a presentation—both excellent opportunities for practicing professional communication. The key issue here is that educators find ways to integrate real-world scenarios into their instruction and course activities, which ultimately has benefits for students in their learning of the material and their exposure to the world of work.
Second, strategies such as internships, apprenticeships, and opportunities for students to make contacts with local employers helps them to cultivate social capital that may help them get a job. This is because the networks that one cultivates, whether through family friends or school-based contacts, act as a conduit for information (e.g., job leads), contacts, and resources. For students from underprivileged backgrounds who lack social capital that a well-connected student may enjoy, these opportunities are even more important. For instance, the NACE Student Survey found that 65 percent of students in the Class of 2014 who completed a paid internship received a job offer before graduating.13 However, in our study we heard of instances of poorly monitored internships and employers reluctant to invest in the time and money required to properly host an apprentice. This reinforces the importance of third-party agencies who can create standards for high-quality work-based learning while also removing the administrative burden of operating these programs from employers and educators, an issue addressed by Nancy Hoffman in her book Schooling in the Workplace.
Workplace training: Employers’ responsibility to continue cultivating career competencies: Finally, one of the implications of thinking about career competencies as complex, multi-faceted habits of mind is the fact that these are not skill sets that can quickly and easily be acquired, whether in a short boot camp or even a two-year associate degree program. Instead, they require long-term immersion in a profession, where specific skill sets will evolve and sharpen over one’s career, adapting with the inevitable changes and disruptions in a field. In the event of restructuring or layoffs, which may be on the horizon for occupations particularly susceptible to automation such as truck driving or administrative support, this becomes an even more pressing issue of learning an entirely new field. In other words, lifelong learning is essential. But who is responsible for providing (and paying for) people’s ongoing professional development—businesses, government and taxpayers, or the learners themselves—is an issue that must be addressed.
Regardless of one’s position on this question, employers do unquestionably have a role to play in facilitating lifelong learning and professional growth. Yet, in our study, only 15 percent of the companies we visited offered formal training via tuition reimbursement at local educational institutions or structured courses or learning opportunities. Far more common were the 42 percent who relied on job shadowing (or what one employer called the “follow Bob around for four months” approach), which can either be an effective mode of training or an unstructured, haphazard entry into the workplace. These findings are consistent with a recent survey of 41,000 hiring managers around the world by the Manpower Group, which found that only one in five employers were investing in training and professional development.14 That said, we also encountered several companies with robust and innovative training programs, such as a plastics manufacturer that had worked with a local technical college to create an internal “university” based on online modules for technical and administrative staff. As someone familiar with the manufacturing industry in Wisconsin told us, the successful manufacturers have “figured out the lifelong learning thing.” Thus, to cultivate career competencies over the life course, we should not only look to colleges and universities; employers also need to enhance their employees’ skill sets.
Placing Teaching and Learning at the Heart of a Systemic Approach to Career Competencies
A central question for the field is how can we best support students in acquiring career competencies during their time in college? The first thing to do is to recognize that without skilled and supported teachers, who are the professionals best located to convey the complex, multi-dimensional habits of mind that are essential for success in the 21st century, achieving this goal is impossible. While structural changes in career pathways and credentialing should be part of the conversation, a sole focus on programmatic solutions overlooks what should be our primary focus—ensuring that all students have access to experiential learning opportunities across the disciplines, whether in a boot camp, community college classroom, or research university lab.
To meet this goal will require investments in providing ongoing professional development for postsecondary educators, ensuring that they receive decent wages and benefits (especially adjunct faculty), and ceasing the public denigration of the teaching profession. Around this central concern of teaching, we then need to build in ancillary supports for students such as robust career advising services and employer-educator partnerships that build career pathways. Thus, there is no silver bullet solution, contrary to the conventional wisdom of many involved in education reform, whether at the K-12 or postsecondary level. Instead, a systemic approach is necessary that supports a skills infrastructure that puts students in the best position to acquire habits of mind that will help them get that first job after graduation, and then thrive throughout their careers.
Yes, higher education has a host of problems it needs to address, including rising prices and student debt, administrative bloat, and a public and policymaker community increasingly disenchanted with the sector. But innovation and change needs to happen around a core, foundational commitment to students’ well-being over the long term, and not on panicked responses to declining revenue and evidence-free promises of the value of badges, competency-based education, and a wholesale realignment of the sector to meet the needs of employers and the labor market. This isn’t to argue that college shouldn’t focus on job training, but that there is a danger when vocational preparation is the sole defining logic guiding our thinking about higher education. When this is done, student’s best interests and needs may fall by the wayside, educators become marginalized and ignored, and the public good becomes an afterthought.
So let’s reframe the debate about a skills gap to one focused on building a skills infrastructure for students’ to acquire 21st century competencies. Doing so will help students throughout their working lives, employers by providing them with skilled and flexible workers, and society by preparing a citizenry ready to critically engage with the pressing social, environmental, and economic issues of the day.
1Competitive Wisconsin. “Be Bold II.”
2National Research Council. “21st Century Competency Framework.”
3 National Association of Colleges and Employers. “NACE Career Readiness Initiative.”
5 Heckman, http://heckmanequation.org/; and Human Capital and Economic Opportunity Global Working Group. “HCEO Director James J. Heckman and ECI Member Tim Kautz Publish New OECD Report on Skill Development.”
6National Association of Colleges and Employers (2015, November 18). Job Outlook 2016: Attributes Employers Want to See on New College Graduates’ Resumes. Spotlight for Career Services Professionals.
7Miller, Michael J.; Woehr, David J.; and Hudspeth, Natasha (June 2002). The Meaning and Measurement of Work Ethic: Construction and Initial Validation of a Multidimensional Inventory. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 60(3), 451-489.
8Hardy, Quentin (2016, February 13). Gearing Up for the Cloud, AT&T Tells Its Workers: Adapt, or Else. The New York Times.
9Carnevale, Anthony P.; Gainer, Leila J.; and Meltzer, Ann S. Workplace Basics: The Essential Skills Employers Want. 1990: Jossey Bass.
10Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The Undergraduate Teaching Faculty: The 2013-14 HERI Faculty Survey.
11Hora, Matthew (September 2015). Toward a Descriptive Science of Teaching. Science Education, 99(5), 783-818.
12University of Wisconsin – LaCrosse. “Community Portal.”
13“Soegel, Andrew (2015, May 5). Paid Interns More Likely to Get Hired. U.S. News & World Report.
14Manpower Group. 2015 Talent Shortage Survey.