Phil Gardner was first introduced to me at a Cooperative Education and Internship Association Conference in Boston. If you’re unfamiliar with Gardner’s work, he is to collegiate employment research as Warren Buffet is to financial services (while he may reject such a characterization, I think the academics who rely on his work will thinking it fitting). Both have an apparent gift for locating future trends, and exposing fault lines in current patterns of thinking. While many analysts (whether in financial services, or other areas) may get lucky, and make a handful of forward-looking predictions that come to fruition, their predictions are often burdened by backward-looking assumptions (i.e., assumptions consistent with the current, dominant orthodoxy). Part of what makes Buffet’s, and indeed Gardner’s work impressive — prescient even — is his ability to divorce himself from those assumptions.
In 2009, when I saw Gardner, he was campaigning, urging career centers, experiential education coordinators, and students to throw out the old assumptions which had, for years, defined thinking as it concerns the relationship between education and employment. He asked us to reconsider our approach to preparing students for the workforce in light of those structural economic shifts precipitated by the 2008 downturn. His message was simple and uncomplicated: the labor market into which the 21st century student is stepping is unlike anything that preceded it. Classroom learning, while still serving as a testing ground for students — an environment in which they learn to think critically, coherently, and cogently — can’t always effectively impart those skills employers expect students to possess. Although knowledge of a discipline is still important, employers expect students to not only come prepared to make substantive contributions to the bottom line, but also to come to the workplace further along in the professional development process than they had previously. Gardner reasoned that employers’ expectations for entry-level workers have shifted; now expecting entry-level employees to start with the same set of skills that they would have historically developed long after their initial hire. For newly-minted graduates, the bar is higher now, and Gardner, rather prophetically, asserted a need to change existing models of education and instruction to account for this.
Administrators, curriculum designers, and the captains of higher education certainly have a part to play as it concerns reimagining this model. Students, too, have a part to play, however, and must use higher education as a mean by which to become workplace ready, something that involves more than learning how to think and dress. More specifically, students should keep the following in mind as they pursue their education.
- Throw out the box. Remember that idiom about your location vis-Ã -vis the box? Forget the box, and where you are in relation to it. Find a new box. The 21st century is the century of the dynamist — forces for change, and innovation. While it is important not to innovate blindly, it is also important that you begin to think creatively and imaginatively when generating solutions for the problems that face you. Want to be successful in the workplace? Use your classroom learning as an opportunity to, like Buffet, find patterns and connections where others only see chaos and desperate points on a graph. Understand where your field is now, and where it will be five years from now.
- Don’t just go through the motions — be an active learner. Don’t wander, passively, through your education, completing coursework without considering how it might benefit you in the future. Rather, complete your work with a clear sense of how the skills you are learning in the classroom will be applied in the workplace, and work to cultivate those skills. Doing this requires that you have a stake in your education — that you become an active, participatory learner.
- Whenever possible, supplement classroom learning with experiential education. As I mention above, employer expectations have shifted. They don’t have time to ease entry-level recruits into their new positions. Those recruits should turn up to their first day on the job ready, and what’s more, able to contribute. Because of this, it important that you get your feet wet — that you learn the professional ropes, and develop a strategy for navigating the workplace. The best means by which to do this is through experiential education, something which will yield dividends in terms of professional conditioning, but which will also help you to understand how classroom learning can be practically applied.
- Understand your labor market — where it is currently, and in what direction it is headed. Are you famliar with Moore’s Law? No? Well, that law’s namesake, Gordon Law, helped to define the rate at which technological innovation (more specifically, innovation in information processing) occurs. In short, Moore’s Law articulates something we all now know intuitively — that technological change, in the 20th, and now the 21st century, happens fast. As more career fields become defined by, and incorporate technological solutions, those fields, and how practitioners within those fields ‘practice’, will undergo rapid change. Before you cross the commencement stage, understand where your field has been, where it is at, and where it is going. Then, act accordingly.
- Becoming ‘workplace ready’ entails a life-long commitment to career readiness and learning. Your education won’t end when you cross the platform at graduation. Remember that Moore’s Law thing? Everything is changing. Staying at the forefront of a career field requires that you keep your sights locked on an ever-changing target. Rather than something bygone and irrelevant, your education will have equipped you with the tools and skills you need to keep learning. In short, don’t stop learning.
Bridging the education-employment gap demands change, as it concerns how educators educate, but also how students learn. “The times they are a-changin’,” Bob Dylan once wrote. Don’t get left behind.
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