When the prospect of starting up a new research center focused on issues related to college student employability came up in the Spring of 2016, it wasn’t clear that the world needed yet another “Center” studying this well-worn territory. But as the articles, blog posts, and policy analyses about issues such as apprenticeships, skills gaps, under-employment and Millenials travails in the labor market appeared on a daily basis, one thing leapt out at me – rarely, if ever, were pundits and policymakers pronouncements based on the experiences and perspectives of the students themselves.
The issues facing college students upon graduation, whether from community colleges or 4-year universities, are plentiful: Are there good, well-paying jobs available? Can their student debt be paid off? Do they have sufficient networks and information to make informed decisions? If they have to stay local, what are the options for launching a successful career? Do they have the right skills and dispositions to make it through the job interview and land that dream job?
For the answers to these questions to be “Yes,” a whole lot needs to go right for the student. While the availability of good jobs and wages is an issue beyond the reach of colleges and universities, dependent on the vagaries of global, national and regional forces, there is much that higher education professionals can do to ease students’ transitions into the world of work.
The college classroom can be designed as a rich learning environment that conveys not only technical expertise but skills variously (and unfortunately) known as non-cognitive, soft, or 21st century skills like teamwork, communication and problem-solving. Programs can offer well-designed work-based learning opportunities like internships that give students opportunities to make professional connections, test-drive a career, and earn some money while still taking classes related to the work. And academic and career advisors can prepare students for the world of work by helping them prepare CVs, teaching them interviewing skills, and working with them to research career opportunities.
Of course, college isn’t just about landing a job, though that goal should never be far off the radar screen of people who work with students. College is also an opportunity to broaden one’s intellectual and social horizons, be confronted with new ideas and experiences, and to engage with issues and ideas that can make one an informed citizen and voter. The conversations about skills gaps and student employability have all but obliterated these reasons for attending college, and that is a grave and ironic mistake. Ironic because the reasoning skills that are developed through a deep, intellectual engagement with a topic – whether it be electrical repair or the history of China – are competencies that employers value and reward.
Another problem that I perceived with the state of conversations around college, skills and jobs was that many of the analyses and policy prescriptions lacked any meaningful insights or data from students about their experiences in the classroom, career advising office, or the labor market. While rigorous analyses of labor market data shed light on important trends and phenomena, they treat students as cogs in a machine, data points in a spreadsheet, with their voices and experiences invisible.
Having been out in the field talking to students, employers and teachers as a field researcher, I knew this to be a grave oversight, because the rich stories and insights you hear firsthand from people offers texture, detail and realism to what are often abstract debates. But perhaps most importantly, ignoring students’ voices seemed problematic based on the idea of “user-based design,” which is a concept regularly used in marketing, industrial design and public health. Essentially, the idea is to design a product or service with the user’s behavior and proclivities in mind, testing out prototypes with focus groups to see if their needs are really being met.
If we truly wish to design classroom experiences, internships and apprenticeships, and career services programs that really meet student’s needs and smooth their transitions from college to work, we need more insights into how students of all ages and backgrounds are experiencing these aspects of college. This is especially the case for populations that are generally overlooked by policymakers and researchers – first-generation students, students of color, refugee students, and low-income students – that not only need and deserve recognition but also are attending college (and becoming workers) in growing numbers.
It is this idea of conducting and supporting research based on student’s voices and experiences that motivated the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions and that led to its creation in the Spring of 2017. So welcome to our Center, and join us at our regular events at UW-Madison, engage us as a research collaborator or grant awardee, and draw upon our expertise as we generate reports, blog posts, and policy briefs on the critical issues facing college students as they venture out into the world of work.