United States / Academics
How the Changing Job Market is Pushing Universities to Evolve

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by Kiera Outlaw
Jul 26 2019

Universities prepare students to become upstanding citizens and productive employees. Students learn the fundamental skills and, in some cases, obtain work placement experiences to better prepare them for their preferred role in a business. Once hired, the student typically continues their education by receiving training and development from their employer to complete the transition from school to work. 

This dynamic worked for years...until it didn't. 

Today's work environment and employer expectations are different. For instance, small-to-medium businesses (SMB) are grappling with rising costs and struggling to remain price competitive. As a result, SMBs lack the time and budget required to train new graduate employees, preferring instead to hire more experienced candidates. Likewise, larger businesses are reluctant to hire fresh graduates, typically because entry-level positions are becoming increasingly automated in most industries. Take the accounting industry - in the past, incoming graduates would spend their time performing basic tasks such as simple tax returns. These types of tasks have become increasingly automated. Larger firms are therefore looking for more experienced candidates that can add more value to the business, rather than increased costs. 


The Expectations Gap

The American workforce received an influx of fresh graduates in 2018, with over one million college students graduating. Although some industries have ample job openings, students still need universities to prepare them for the new expectations in the workforce. 

1. Experiential learning with a multi-disciplinary approach

While understanding the fundamental tenets and disciplinary knowledge of their field is important, students now need their universities to focus on experiential learning supported by a multi-disciplinary educational approach. Experiential learning is learning through first-hand experience, such as internships, study abroad and service-learning projects. The strategy of combing experiential learning with a multi-disciplinary approach tackles the conundrum of preparing students for roles that are yet to exist. With this strategy, students become lifelong learners that can conceptualize their experiences and turn them into skills that benefit the company.

A multi-disciplinary educational approach allows students to gain a deeper understanding of a range of subjects and skills, which they can then apply in their new role. Long gone are the days of being a specialist – an employee that operates in a silo of their own understanding and skills for a set position. Companies now need employees to be individual specialists – an employee with a combination of skills and expertise that allows them to be an effective team member due to their deeper understanding of how their role fits in the business’ goals across multiple departments.

2. Critical thinking using information and data

To prioritize critical thinking, universities need to move away from lecture-based teaching methods. University level students are no longer children. They are essentially customers purchasing a service to prepare them for the workforce and the real world. In the real world, businesses are looking for problem solvers and critical thinkers to help them manage the complexities of the current economy. As a result, universities must prepare students by strengthening their problem solving and critical thinking skills. Moreover, students need to understand how to access and interpret large amounts of information and data to develop strong cases for their findings and arguments.


Bridging the Gap

Preparing students for the jobs of the future will require universities to make some changes. 

> Adjusting curricula

Universities must first adjust their curricula and reinvent their teaching methods. Moving away from lecture-based teaching methods and moving toward more personalized and project-based learning (PBL) will better prepare students for roles in the new economy.

  • Personalized teaching simply involves tailoring a student's educational experience, such as the challenges, lessons, and even instructional style, to meet the student's individual needs. 

  • PBL turns education on its head as educators are no longer instructors, but rather collaborators and coaches assisting students in navigating complex projects. 

> Collaborating with employers and research partners

Understanding what employers require of upcoming graduates and where technology is headed in each field is the only sure-fire way to prepare students. Universities can partner with employers to strengthen programs and department facilities, creating state-of-the-art programs that provide students with real-world applicable education to better prepare them for their future roles.

Universities can also establish relationships with research partners, giving students access to the resources that employers use in their day-to-day activities to make more informed business decisions. Providing students with access to these resources gives them a leg up to enter the company with relevant experience.

Graduates need access to practical tools and resources to prepare them for dynamic careers in the new economy.

Universities must bridge the gap between students’ lack of experience and employers’ expectation that students can hit the ground running. Universities need to form business partnerships with both employers and resource providers to turn out graduates that can improve business productivity and competitiveness, as opposed to graduates that cost employers more money without providing comparable benefits. To bridge that gap, universities can start by developing professional experiences embedded in the curriculum and simulating authentic workplace challenges and projects to provide students with real world experience.  

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