Colleges and the Jobs Agenda
September 28th, 2011
Jeffrey Selingo recently wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Colleges Should Play a Central Role in the Jobs Agenda”, asking the question, “In the long term, what can colleges do to better prepare their students to succeed in jobs that have yet to be created?” He proposes three solutions:
- Offer fewer majors – Selingo perceives that universities create majors based on the current hot jobs and would be better off creating “gateway majors” to help students learn how to learn for jobs that don’t yet exist.
- Provide more help in picking a major – Selingo perceives that students do not have enough information, experience or time to wisely choose their major and that universities should provide all of these so that students can make a more informed decision.
- Conduct workplace surveys – Selingo perceives that universities do not ask employers how their graduates fare in the workplace and even if they did, he wonders if they would share this information with the faculty to inspire curriculum re-design.
I am pleased to report that we are currently implementing Selingo’s solutions at Wake Forest:
- As a liberal arts university, we don’t offer hot vocational majors based on the popular careers in the market. We encourage students to major in the discipline that they find most interesting and one where they are excited to do the work required to perform successfully. We must continually address students’ and parents’ mis-informed belief that your major equals your job. When over 90% of employers say that they are willing to hire the best student regardless of major, it’s troubling to see so many students choosing majors based on their uninformed assumptions about the career prospects for particular majors. As an example, one of our major consulting firm employers has assessed that their best (fastest-to-promotion) employees are English and Physics majors.
- To help students identify majors that best fit them, first year students are introduced to a self-assessment tool, Focus 2, during their first week on campus. This tool provides information that can be shared with their academic advisor for informed decision-making. Our Office of Personal and Career Development website is also introduced to first year students and to faculty advisors with comprehensive information on what careers people most often pursue given their major and the wide range of first jobs chosen by recent Wake Forest graduates given their major. Students are given until their sophomore year to declare their major so they have time to gather information and make an informed decision.
- We always ask employers about the on-the-job performance of our students and graduates at their internships and jobs. The consistent reply is that our students have incomparable work ethic and excellent interpersonal and communication skills. We believe that these characteristics result from the academic rigor and standards expected by our faculty, from the small classes which require students to always be prepared to converse on a given topic, and the many leadership and collaborative opportunities available in their extracurricular life. We will be piloting a more formal employer feedback system this year and will share our findings with the Wake Forest community so that we are all aware of our students’ capabilities and can address opportunities for improvement.
I like the premise of Selingo’s article, but I would add that there is much more that universities must do to help students be prepared for careers in the 21st century, many of which have yet to be created. I would add the following imperatives, all that we are building into the Wake Forest student experience:
- Students must be formally taught about and introduced to the world of work. It is exponentially more complex, competitive and dynamic than any other time in history, and the expectations of our students and their families are extremely high due to the cost of higher education. If we assume that “things will just work out” for our students and their careers in this new economy, our students will be unprepared and disappointed.
- Students must be taught to embrace and if possible, experience, an entrepreneurial mind-set towards life. This does not mean that they all have to start entrepreneurial ventures. They need to understand that innovation, creativity, value creation, discovering and communicating passions, becoming comfortable with change and remaining flexible will be the defining characteristics of people who will thrive in the 21st Century. We cannot let our students make assumptions that will handicap their initiative, for example; assuming that a particular job or organization will offer lifetime security or a guaranteed pension. We have to be ready to be self-sufficient and be prepared for some rainy days, because the future is uncertain (it always was, but many of us were probably convinced that it wasn’t).
- Students must be taught how to be ethical, principled leaders. With so many poor, immoral and unethical decisions being made in recent times, it is time for universities to play a serious role in teaching students about ethics and character. If we don’t do it, who will? And if no one does, what will become of our society?
- Students must be taught that a life of significance and meaning requires service to others and making a difference in others lives. As America has prospered, it seems like our measure of success has been about wealth creation and asset acquisition. What’s in it for me? It is time for us to teach students that the greatest joys in life come from helping others, from improving humanity. So many students perform volunteer work in high school. Some continue to do so in college. Providing opportunities for students to maintain this spirit and inspire them to continue after college and in their lives would make a difference not only for them personally, but for their local communities and in the world.
I am excited that we at Wake Forest are preparing students for life and work in the 21st Century – to be successful in the careers that have yet to be created. And most importantly, to be successful in leading lives of meaning, purpose and significance.