Jim Vanides, senior education and industry advisor to organizations around the world and Senior Advisor to the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, shares his perspective on the pathway from post-secondary education to the “real world” of today’s career landscape and emerging opportunities.
Key topics include:
Soft skills are hard, and essential
Not all learning needs require a course
Partnering with industry
For both degree programs and traditional workforce skill training certificate programs, the “real world” that awaits today’s post-secondary graduates is anything but traditional. We don’t need to look far and wide to see evidence that the Future of Work is already upon us. In response, how we learn and what we learn is transforming — but are we changing fast enough?
It is true that higher education institutions are facing financial pressures, and some would argue that demographic shifts are largely to blame. Regardless, we can remain bullish on the importance of post-secondary education and the emerging opportunities for learners. There are even new opportunities for revenue, as some higher education institutions have already discovered.
Stepping out of the “institution-looking-outward” point of view, this article brings an “industry-looking-toward-higher-ed” perspective. In doing so, six important themes begin to emerge — themes that can serve as a foundation for institutional strategies that prepare, and continually engage, learners in today’s Real World.
Industries long for the talent pipeline leading out of higher education degree and certificate programs. Some industries, such as the world of high tech, are desperate for diversity in their hiring, and baby boomer retirements loom over almost all industry segments, from teaching to nursing to engineering, and more. But that is only part of the picture.
Gone are the days when a college graduate goes off to work at a company and then retires 20 or 40 years later; even if they stay at one large company, the movement within echoes the broader trend that today’s workers can anticipate, by choice or not. With high certainty, they will have multiple jobs and even multiple careers during their working life.
The preparation for a person’s first/next job is dwarfed by the skills and attributes needed for the next five or 10 jobs.
This ought to trigger some soul-searching for higher education leaders: Do you view the goal of your mission as simply “job placement”, or are you setting up alumni for long-term career success and opportunities? Career awareness, exploration, preparation, and training for a student’s first/next job are all good, but there are new opportunities for higher education in offering ongoing learning opportunities for career advancement or career pivots.
So what does it take to be that kind of institution?
SOFT SKILLS ARE HARD…and ESSENTIAL
Industry recruiters, managers, and executives are saying over and over, perhaps more loudly than ever before, that thinking skills and creativity are not just for “those other professions.” Technical skills + core (human) skills make a candidate both more employable and more career resilient. Ask any hiring manager, and they are likely to admit that the talent they’re looking for will not be hired only for what they know, but also for their ability to solve un-asked questions and learn what they don’t already know.
Eye-catching headlines about robots taking over everything may sell newspapers, but there is a growing recognition that shifts due to automation and AI are changing views on the future of work. The growing, more nuanced point of view illuminates the need to be really good at being HUMAN — doing what automation and AI cannot do.
Communication: You have 30 seconds to make an impression, or the door slams shut.
Empathy: Successful innovations depend on a clear and specific understanding of users and the world they live in.
Problem Solving: Those who bring a unique problem-solving ability to a team are highly valued.
Creativity: It’s essential not just for our current job, but for our next job, too; some of the most rewarding jobs are ones we create or invent.
Critical Thinking: What makes us valuable and future-ready is the ability to think deep and wide, beyond quick and superficial answers….it’s about the value of not taking no (or yes) for an answer without being confident it’s the best answer.
SHOULD WE CALL IT “WORK RELEVANT LEARNING”?
Where do these essential “soft skills” get developed? One would have to look far and wide to find a degree or certificate program that wouldn’t be enhanced by providing students with real-life experiences. Work-based learning, broadly defined, is a powerful ingredient. For companies, internships are a win for the intern and the company — perhaps the best recruiting and talent-finding tool a company can have.
But internships are not the only strategy for providing work-relevant learning experiences. Project-based learning where the projects are, in fact or in similarity, from industry, create a direct link from academics to the real world. Project-based learning is great for the learner, and it can serve as a portfolio-builder that opens doors.
The antithesis of this was impressed upon me when I was in R&D, part of a cadre of engineers recruiting engineers. My favorite question was, “Tell me about a favorite project you worked on.” Students who lit up and enthusiastically described projects they found rewarding had my full attention; students who responded blankly like a deer-in-the-headlights had a very short interview.
I wasn’t only looking for work-based learning (WBL) experiences or project-based learning (PBL) assignments. Sometimes the best conversations revolved our what I call Personal Projects and Interests (PPI). What a person does in their spare time, without the extrinsic coercion of grades, can be very revealing.
My recruiter formula values:
Work Relevant Learning (WRL) that combines work based learning (WBL)
+ Project Based Learning (PBL — campus situated)
+ Personal Projects and Interests (PPI — independent experiences)
NOT ALL “LEARNING NEEDS” REQUIRE A COURSE
While most post-secondary institutions are known and accredited for the degrees and certificates that they grant, there are opportunities for “learning institutions” to offer learning opportunities to corporations and their employees. This is not a new idea, and many institutions (especially community colleges and extension universities) are already discovering these other sources of revenue.
However, what might not be on the radar yet is that for lifelong learners, career-advancers, or those seeking to pivot their careers, not all of their “learning needs” require a course.
Examples of other revenue offerings your campus could provide include:
Mini-courses (shorter than a semester)
Micro-courses (a week or less)
All of these have value to companies and their current/prospective employees.
NEVER SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR ALUMNI
From a research project I conducted for the California State University system Office of the Chancellor, it was clear that the extension universities at all 23 campuses that are engaged in workforce development found high value in staying in touch with alumni. As difficult as that can be, it is even more difficult to stay engaged with alumni.
Why does this matter? They are your best advocates, as they can be:
Coaches and mentors.
Your eyes and ears in the world of work, providing real-time insights about industry trends (to complement the Department of Labor statistics that are 2-3 year-old, backward-facing data sets).
Bridges to establishing strategic relationships with employers. Only someone on the inside can tell you what’s really going on inside, and who to talk to about what.
Essential Advisory Board members.
Recruiters (formal or informal) for your programs.
Providers of feedback as you work to continually improve your programs
This is fundamentally not about fundraising, though it may lead to donations. As such, do not let the development office own the relationship, otherwise it becomes transactional and focused on donations.
Start before they leave — future alumni can be mentors to new students, and can be student-representatives on Advisory Boards. They can, as well, share their work-placed learning experiences with students who have yet to have their own work-placed learning opportunity.
Provide your alumni with ongoing professional value and they will stay connected (see workshops, mini-courses, micro-courses, etc., listed above)
PARTNERING WITH INDUSTRY IS MORE LIKE A FRIENDSHIP
Finally, contrary to popular belief, strategic partnerships with industry are fundamentally relational and at their best, are bi-directional. Think friendship, not source of funding. How does authentic partnering work?
What NOT to do:
Ask for money on your first date.
Let your development office own the relationship.
Ignore the cultural differences (e.g. “soon” in industry means “today or this week”; “soon” in academia means “this semester”).
Be too busy to follow up.
What you SHOULD do:
Invite each other over.
Get to know each other.
Learn to care about what they care about.
Confide in each other.
Depend on eah other.
If we learn to dance together, everyone benefits — and the song will play on and on.
Jim Vanides is a senior education and industry advisor to organizations around the world that are passionate about creating extraordinary learning experiences for students. His consulting practice focuses on working with education and industry organizations to create new possibilities through partnerships. Jim’s experience includes more than a decade of leadership in Corporate Philanthropy for HP, where he was instrumental in the launch of over 1500 primary, secondary, and higher education edtech projects in 41 countries. In this capacity, Jim launched and wrote HP’s original blog on education innovation, sharing highlights from K12 and higher education projects around the world.
From the launch of his engineering career in Silicon Valley to today, Jim has been a tireless advocate for STEM(+) education and teacher professional learning, sharing experiences that help educators prepare students for the world of work and making a positive contribution to society. He serves as an advisor for the California Science Project advancing Next Generation Science Standards in California, and for 15 years has been teaching science teachers online through Montana State University. Jim is also an adjunct faculty member for the Krause Center for Innovation at Foothill College. He serves as a Senior Advisor to the National Laboratory for Education Transformation, as well as the International Journal for Innovations in Online Education. Jim holds a BS in Engineering and a MA in Education, both from Stanford University.