The Importance of Listening to Industry Advisory Boards in Higher Education, Part 1
By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University
Some business observers see a disconnect between the quality of graduates produced by institutions of higher education and the needs of private and government organizations. One way to stay abreast of this situation is for representatives of both sides to meet regularly and discuss the issues and possible solutions.
The APUS School of Business recently held its annual Industry Advisory Council session. I believe it was a success because we listened to each other and came up with a list of action items to address and report on at a future meeting.
The day started with a panel discussion by representatives from different programs within the School of Business.
What Did We Hear?
Some of the issues we discussed were the same ones I have heard for 15 years. For example, some of the “regular” topics that made the list included:
- Critical thinking skills – How do you ensure that your graduates can take what they learn in the higher education classroom and apply it to the work environment? Is there an immediate transferability?
- Communication (oral and written) skills – How do we help raise students’ confidence in their presentations and minimize “stage fright” and “freezing”?
- Teamwork and collaboration – Do we produce graduates who are always competitive with one another, or are we assisting them in appreciating and applying tools and techniques that encourage a harmonious work environment?
- Managing change/adaptability – Are graduates ready to lead change, especially as it relates to innovation and technology? Can they lead their staffs to “what’s next” in the industry?
- Conflict management – Are our graduates prepared to integrate with current staff and respect difference of opinion in a healthy manner?
This time, however, those issues had a different slant. There was more detailed, specific information about how we are missing the mark. It was the new higher education topics combined with the old that especially caught my attention.
For example, there was a sense of urgency in areas such as job candidates being knowledgeable about the organizations to which they apply for work.
Recently, I read a post on LinkedIn from a recruiter who was frustrated with applicants who went into a job interview knowing nothing about the company they hoped would hire them. The recruiter believed that a candidate should be prepared to show the interviewer specifically why he or she is the best candidate for the job.
An interview is like a date. Instead of trying to impress one another, both parties should attempt to find out as much as they can about each other; part of that task is having an understanding of what the position entails. Therefore, doing research on the company beforehand will prepare candidates to ask the right questions and listen for the right answers during the interview.
Students Need to Know about the Company before They Go for an Interview
College instructors and employment counselors should coach their students on how to find out as much information about the entity as they can before they go for an interview. Rather than focusing on the specifics of the job, students should know how to ask questions that show they have done their homework and know a good deal about the organization. An interviewer might not hire that applicant for the specific job vacancy, but he might recognize that the applicant is a better fit for another position in the organization.
Do we teach our students how to go into a new environment and assess the situation with direct and indirect information? Most organizations believe this is an area we can improve upon.
Over the years, I have been asked, “I was qualified, so why didn’t I get the job?” My response always is, “For the most part, everyone who is invited to an interview is qualified. My question is: How did you present yourself as different, unique and the best fit for the job being advertised?”
Very few students know how to respond to that reply. You can be qualified for a job, but will your personality, goals and work ethics help you to assimilate into the environment? Can you maintain your uniqueness while embracing the collective environment?
In the past, traditional organizations were structured by career ladders based on a corporate compensation and classification system. Employees had a visual, printed example of what they needed to do to get ahead and climb the corporate ladder.
We Have to Adapt Our Skill Sets to the Changing Work Environment
However, with the introduction of technology and the changes in values and expectations for the workplace, there is no time now to develop such concrete plans and try to follow them. The world of work as we know it today can change overnight. That’s where adaptability comes in. We have to take our skill sets and adapt to the changing work environment.
Do we teach our students how to do that or do we focus on a single career track? Are we assisting students to look at the “big picture” and preparing them to map out steps they need for their journey through life? Are they comfortable in knowing that there are many paths along the way to their destination?
The average worker will have five different jobs in the course of a career. Those five jobs might not be at the same company, so why should we expect one organization to be responsible for an entire career? We all need to take charge of our own destiny.
Combining the Two: Looking at the Whole Person
I am grateful that the IAC members supported a longtime theory of mine. As members of the higher education community, we are responsible for developing the whole person and preparing our students to progress in the world of work. To do this, we have to place equal value on academic support areas such as career counseling, advising and internships/opportunities to gain practical experience. Why? In an employer’s mind, we are responsible for providing more than just the required degree.
My question to the Industry Advisory Council panel was: How can institutions such as APUS actively develop graduates who meet the needs of their employers within their first 90 days of employment?
The response was, “It’s easier to teach technical skills, but harder to teach the soft skills.”
What does that mean? Companies can train employees on the specifics of their job; they want us to produce graduates who are capable of taking their academic foundation in higher education and using that foundation to learn the specifics of the job when they get into the organization.
The business world wants graduates who can be creative, innovative, team players, individual contributors and adaptable. They want students to seek positions based on who they are. That means we have to assist them to truly know themselves.
In summary, organizations are looking for job candidates who have a good sense of self and are willing to step up to the plate. It’s up to us in higher education to make that happen.
About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.