by Chris Mayer

Preparing students for the workforce must be part of the core mission of colleges and universities, especially in an era when the nature of work is rapidly changing. Curricular and pedagogical changes, as well as stronger connections to alumni and employers, can help colleges and universities achieve this part of their missions. This article explores four key components of preparing students for their future workplaces:

  • Skills
  • Curricula
  • Pedagogy
  • Employer and alumni engagement

Colleges and universities must do more than provide students access. They have a responsibility to help students succeed, and this responsibility includes preparing students to find meaningful work and lead fulfilling lives. The responsibility for student success after graduation, specifically in the area of employment, is occasionally met with resistance by some who worry about reducing higher education to vocational training. While it is true that higher education—especially undergraduate education—is more than preparation for work, there are several factors that support the inclusion of workforce preparation as part of an institution’s mission: the crippling burden of debt from student loans, students’ desire to find meaningful work, and the needs of employers.

Skills for the Future of Work

To effectively prepare students for the workforce, it is important to understand trends associated with the future of work and what they mean in terms of the knowledge and skills students need after graduation. Technological advances have changed the nature of work by allowing employers to increasingly automate processes and tasks. The impact of this increased automation is unclear.

Some predict that significant numbers of jobs will be automated in the near future, causing those jobs to disappear; while others propose that it will primarily be tasks that are automated rather than complete jobs. Even if it is not complete jobs that are automated, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report predicts that the percentage of tasks performed by machines will increase from 29 percent in 2018, to 42 percent in 2022. This suggests that most employees will be working alongside machines or employing automated processes in the future, which will require learning how to collaborate with machines and fulfill the responsibilities of newly created or restructured jobs.

Future of Jobs

The skill sets required in both old and new occupations will change in most industries and transform how and where people work, says the World Economic Forum in its Future of Jobs report.

This makes digital literacy extremely important for those entering the workforce. A Royal Bank of Canada report, Humans Wanted: How Canadian youth can thrive in the age of disruption, suggests that employees will soon need to be digitally literate in the same way they have needed to possess regular literacy up until now. The ability to manage human-machine collaboration will also be important. An Institute for the Future and Lumina Foundation report, AI Forces Shaping Working & Learning in 2030, suggests that facilitating collaboration between humans and machines will require the ability to understand how machines work, make decisions, and interact with other machines and people.

In addition to digital literacy and the ability to work closely with machines, it has become evident that employees will need people skills to thrive in the workforce. These skills are also referred to as essential skills, soft skills, and 21st century skills, and human skills. Common qualities found on lists include: leadership, communication, creativity, critical thinking, ethical reasoning, systems thinking, adaptability, learning and unlearning, emotional intelligence, cultural agility, empathy, collaboration, cognitive flexibility, entrepreneurship, curiosity, and navigating unstructured and novel situations. Developing these skills is important because many routine and manual tasks can and will be performed by machines in the future, and employers will seek those with strong human skills that cannot be replicated by machines for the foreseeable future.

Preparing Students for the Future of Work

Given the importance of both competence with technology and strong human skills, colleges and universities should ensure their curricula, pedagogies, and experiences are coaching students for the future of work. While it will not be possible to completely prepare students for their first job, students should graduate with at least the foundation to be competitive for employment and the ability to continue to learn while in the workforce.

Infographic by McKinsey

Infographic by McKinsey

Curricula and Pedagogy

There are many resources that can help ensure that curricula and the entire student experience are setting students up to be successful in the workforce. Reports by the World Economic Forum, McKinsey, and Strada Institute for the Future of Work/Emsi all offer in-depth analysis of the type of skills employees will need to thrive in their future work. These analyses can and should inform curricular change efforts and other important initiatives that impact student development.

Also helpful are lists of learning outcomes and qualities designed to strengthen the connection between higher education and employment. The Essential Employability Qualities (EEQ) profile developed by the Quality Assurance Commons is one example. The EEQs are similar to many of the learning outcomes currently in use by colleges and universities, but they include new qualities not reflected in current lists of learning outcomes.

The EEQs are:

  • Communicators
  • Thinkers and Problem Solvers
  • Inquirers
  • Collaborators
  • Adaptable
  • Principled and Ethical
  • Responsible and Professional
  • Lifelong Learners

The last EEQ, lifelong learning, will be especially important in the future of work. The pace of technological advances, job restructuring, and reorganization of businesses will require workers to continually learn and adapt. The World Economics Forum Future of Jobs report estimates that by 2022, more than half of employees will require significant reskilling or upskilling. Even if this estimate is high, the fast pace of change will require people to complete additional training and education if they want to remain relevant. Most people will not have the opportunity to completely immerse themselves in training or education to develop new, or enhance existing, skills and knowledge. They will have to learn while working, possibly even after they have assumed new responsibilities.

This will often require learning online and individually. Additionally, the future will require shifting from the goal of T-shaped individuals who possess broad knowledge, skills, and expertise in a single field (e.g. major), to what is described in the Robot Ready report as skills for a 100-year work life. In this model, individuals attain multiple types of expertise at various points in their lives, which necessitates lifelong learning. Higher education must inspire students and develop their ability to learn throughout their lives, so they are able to thrive in the workforce.

Many colleges and universities are also offering students learning experiences like bootcamps, by partnering with non-traditional education providers. This allows students to gain the benefits of traditional undergraduate education while also developing skills that will make them more marketable immediately after graduation. Instead of disrupting traditional higher education like many thought they would, boot camps seem to be enhancing higher education by partnering with colleges and universities and providing students the opportunity to simultaneously complete undergraduate degrees and training needed for their first job.

In addition to the goals of the curricula and student experiences, how they are delivered is also important. Students must work outside of the classroom, so they have opportunities to apply what they have learned to real-world problems and are prepared to employ their skills in their job responsibilities once they graduate. Students should also have experience working with some of the processes and technologies they will use in the workforce. This will require colleges and universities to identify and integrate relevant processes and technologies into courses and other student developmental experiences.

The Coding Boot Camp at UNC-Chapel Hill

The Coding Boot Camp at UNC-Chapel Hill

External Perspectives

Another approach to ensuring graduates are prepared for the workforce is through strong connections to alumni. Alumni will be able to offer their thoughts on how well prepared they felt during their first few years of employment following graduation. To improve the likelihood that they will respond to alumni surveys, institutions should emphasize to students the importance of the feedback they provide once they graduate. Surveys should be specific enough to inform curricular and pedagogical change efforts designed to address gaps and sustain strengths identified by alumni. Depending on the survey results, it might be helpful to convene focus groups or contact willing graduates by phone to discuss their responses.

Employers are also great sources of information. Surveying employers can begin as early as during student internships. Once students graduate, institutions should contact those employers who hire their graduates for their opinions of post-graduate performance. As with alumni questions, these surveys must be specific enough to identify knowledge or skills strengths and gaps demonstrated by graduates in the workforce. Finally, incorporate employer input during change efforts and external evaluations. It would also be helpful to have representatives from different employment fields as members of groups designing curricular and student experience changes, as they can offer their thoughts on the characteristics employees will need to demonstrate in the next five to ten years.

Embrace Preparation for Employment as Part of Core Mission

Colleges and universities have a responsibility to prepare students for employment after graduation. Fulfilling this responsibility requires those who design and implement student experiences to learn what skills employees will need in the future to succeed and to ensure students have opportunities to develop those skills.

About the author:

Chris Mayer is Associate Dean for Strategy and Initiatives and an Associate Professor at the United States Military Academy (West Point). He teaches courses in the areas of moral philosophy, the ethics of war, political philosophy, and the philosophy of religion, and his research focuses on ethical theory, the ethics of war, and higher education. He serves as an evaluator and workshop leader for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and was a Teagle Assessment Scholar with the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College from 2011-2018. He has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Virginia, an M.A. in philosophy from Virginia Tech, and a B.S from the United States Military Academy.


Blumenstyk, Goldie. “Coding Boot Camps Come Into the Fold With Campus Partnerships.” Chronicle of Higher Education. April 3, 2017.

Clark, Hope, Ben Hamamoto, Rachel Maguire, and Sara Skvirsky. “AI Forces Shaping Work and Learning in 2030: A Report on Expert Convenings for a New Work + Learning Future.” Palo Alto: Institute for the Future, 2018.

McKinsey Global Institute. “Jobs Lost, Jobs Gained: Workforce Transitions in a Time of Automation.” New York: McKinsey & Company, 2017.

Stakehouse, John, Jill Brra, Anna Klimbovskaia, and Andrew Aulthouse. “Humans Wanted: How Canadian Youth can Thrive in the Age of Disruption.” Toronto: Royal Bank of Canada, 2018.

The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher and Post-Secondary Education. Essential Employability Qualities.

Weise, Michelle R., Andrew R. Hanson, Rob Sentz, and Yustina Saleh. “Robot-Ready: Human+Skills for the Future of Work.” Indianapolis: Strada Institute for the Future of Work and Emsi, 2018.

World Economic Forum. “The Future of Jobs Report: 2018.” Cologny/Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2018.

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