By Geoff Irvine, CEO on Tuesday, February 07, 2017

The AAC&U released a survey that corroborated what everyone already knew: a huge gap exists between the perceptions of students and employers about work readiness, particularly as it relates to generational study and work skills. Today’s students believe that they are better prepared than ever to enter the workforce. However, their hiring counterparts think that the millennial generation is the most ill-prepared to date. Incidentally, this same study revealed that employers give hiring preference to candidates who have real-world experiences, but unfortunately much of what is offered today in academia isn’t terribly real world.

It’s true that real-life experiences can help students develop skills that are often thought to be lacking by employers. However, authentic opportunities to learn what is required in the real world during most students’ higher education tenure are missing or offer inadequate systems to structure, measure and assess those applied learning opportunities.

Historically, institutions have had the goal of assuring that learners are exposed to the basics in key fields of study. Tests and exams deal with the low level knowledge and skills of the discipline within silos of courses loosely strung together to constitute programs. Course-based essays can certainly be difficult, but still, they only amount to a manipulation of facts, and concepts within the course and discipline silo. Rarely, are they multidisciplinary, metacognitive or reflective. Senior year courses are, by definition, rigorous, but do they truly prepare students for the real world and offer the rigors of authentic learning?

Educators could have taken the high ground when standardization hit, a high ground characterized by a more demanding pedagogy. Standardized curriculum and testing robs teachers of freedom and the time to apply more challenging assessments. In an effort to cover everything thinly, time is also lost that could be devoted to providing meaningful, expert feedback to learners applying their skills and knowledge in ambiguous situations. Experiential learning is harder to prepare because you have to make tough decisions about how to bridge content that has to be sacrificed and to foresee roadblocks learners will hit. It’s harder for students to execute as they may be on their own, and it’s much harder to assess because it often involves teamwork and/or effort that is out of sight. Educators let standardization and its related activities such as accreditation make higher education less rather than more. Few understandably, but unfortunately, wanted to take the risks necessary when the public stakes were perceived to be high.

At the same time, the Boomer generation created an undergraduate learning environment with the goal to be seen as hardworking, solo workers deserving of personal status. For them and their successors, Generation X, group work and much of anything that made tasks harder or out of the norm were not desirable and became negative narratives on course evaluations. Preference was for learning and assessment activities students were accustomed to, the easier the better. Open-ended, authentic tasks are messy. Real authentic problems often have no “one” right answer. Further, group assignments were viewed as detestable. Motivated students feel the need to take over the work of the group to ensure a good grade. This negates the lesson that in real life,  you cannot pick your co-workers and that nearly all endeavors of any consequence are a result of some form of teamwork.

Given student resistance, educators felt empowered to stick with the status quo. End result: entrenched passivity for students and an impossible responsibility for educators to cover packed curriculum maps of information that most students quickly forgot, skills development quite aside. Coverage on content, good grades, course completion for credit hours, a degree and then a job. That was the social contract that did nothing to raise the bar.

Employers have done their part by validating educational inertia from the other end of the pipeline. They accept low value evidence of learning and skill as “good enough” and roll the dice every time they hire. Their measurement tools make no sense.  You can’t divine a candidate’s true competences in real world circumstances from a two-page resume.

Also, you can’t rely on the school the candidate attended, as graduating from a flagship institution says nothing about what a student can do under the pressure of real world circumstances. In fact, Shark Tank TV personality Barbara Corcoran, founder of Corcoran Group, the real estate giant in New York City, who sold her business for $66 million stated, “Most of the times I ever lost a lot of money with somebody, they graduated from Harvard…”

Before hiring, employers ‘Google’ a candidate to learn more about them and then they play a guessing game with references, all of whom are more or less favorable to the candidate. This leaves a lot riding on the “performance” during the interview. Clearly employers have gotten what they asked for.

As it turns out everyone is sitting on a gold mine: Generation Z. This generation has an ethereal view of technology, meaning they are accustomed to finding answers to questions across multiple digital media on their own or with friends. They are high stimulus junkies who want meaningful work to do and relish the opportunity to make an impact on their world. Gen Zers crave feedback from experts and want to work on high stakes problems in group environments, as they have been accustomed to doing with people they respect and like. In other words, hard work is fine if it’s important work and the real world is where they spend most of their 24/7-connected day with inputs coming in constantly.

This is a generation we can work with on the skills gap.

That said, higher education has one more hurdle to achieve – to inculcate habitual constructivism among their students. This is a rigorous mindset for making meaning of the complex experiences that are fundamental to authentic work and its assessment. Learners have to be able to accurately reconstruct what has happened to them, be able to identify hidden issues, challenge themselves to consider if, given new insights, would they now do things differently and, if so, take action based on a sound plan. This is the stuff of emerging leaders and independent learners. However, without the context of authenticity, reflection has no grain to grind. This is what Generation Z will require to become effective communicators and group collaborators, as well as ethical decision-makers capable of employing higher-level critical thinking that can be easily adapted to the real world.

The skills gap is treatable. There are frameworks for action. The question is will higher education and employers in partnership waste an opportunity with yet another generation?

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