Despite the gray thick sky, our hike across campus filled me with interest as I noted the old mixed with new-sometimes even within a single building. My guide was a recent graduate who supported the Georgetown University Graduate Student Career Symposium. Upon entering the mod Healy Student Center, we walked through an airy high ceilinged hall where students sat at banquettes with computers in front of them, and buds plugged into their ears. The large social room was arranged for the Employee Advisory Committee Panel with four seats equipped with water and microphones. Tables surrounded the seats for the multidisciplinary gathering of deans, assistant deans, department chairs, and other administrative leaders poised to engage in our lunch discussion. This was the first meeting on the topic at Georgetown University, and founding chair, Caleb McKinney and co-chair Owen Agho were excited to see how the panel would be received.
A conversation about how to train students to be better prepared for the workplace is timely.
During my daily work as a recruiter, I speak with lots of education and labor researchers. Recently, I had a discussion with a researcher who works on both education and workforce topics. The researcher felt that the educational system wasn’t broken as many claimed, but needed to evolve to meet the demands of our 21st century economy. She added that we needed to rethink what our goals are for continued education post high school. Most students, she stated, don’t have the luxury to earn a liberal arts degree because they need skills to become gainfully employed. This discussion about the value of liberal arts education versus earning a technical degree is not new, but when she presented it this way, I had to pause and think.
Throughout the day, my conversation with the researcher stuck in my mind. When the panelists shared similar thoughts with the administrators, I knew we needed to give this idea more attention. Later in the day it was confirmed again, when I interacted with the grad students in my session on interview prep, the students shared similar worries about their ability to land that first job. Educators, researchers, students, and business people all had the same concerns. I realized the gap between education and jobs needed to be bridged.
It seems to me, we need to consider a better collaboration between our educational systems and our evolving economies so we can prepare workers to have the skills for the jobs that exist today and in the future. An evolution of the entire ecosystem might be just what we need.
My fellow panelists included, CEO and Founder of Benevir Biopharm, Matthew Mulvey, PhD and Georgetown grad; Senior Specialist from Cadmus, Scott Teper, MPH, doing consulting in biomedical surveillance; and Director, Talent Acquisition and Planning, Celeste Chatman with the think tank, The Urban Institute. We tackled several questions from the administrative group. The goal of the discussion was to share insights from the business world on what we needed/wanted to see from recent graduates. Basically, the educators/university wanted to make sure their students were prepared to meet the needs of their future employers. Here is a sampling of the conversation.
How do we know if our students skills are meeting the needs of organizations like yours?
Celeste described a new program Urban recently launched that let students see inside an organization by visiting and shadowing a professional. Georgetown was one of the institutions who had been invited because their graduates demonstrated exceptional skills. She said it was a win-win. Urban got to meet students and evaluate if they are a good fit for them in the future, and the students got to gain insights into what research jobs are like.
Matt added that his organization looks for PhDs who have specific skills related to the development of pharmaceuticals. They hope to hire other professionals for more diversified roles once they expand.
Where can students go to find out more about positions and companies that might have options for them?
I responded that the best way I knew how to do this was through internships or informational interviews. These opportunities allow students to see what a job is really like through experience or with contact by a real professional who can share their insights. When you network in the field, students are able to ask questions about a role, ask about what skills are most important, and find out what credentials they need to be successful. Networking is the best way to find the right position.
Celeste added that this is a major reason why they created their shadow program.
What are some of the biggest mistakes students make when looking for jobs?
Celeste commented that students want to be the president instantly.
I added they don’t understand that they have to learn and do what is required by the most junior person in an organization.
Scott said his concern was that new graduates don’t understand the connection between compensation and business finances. He said there are sometimes disparities in salary within government contract firms despite equal skills (not bias). This happens because a particular contract can only be charged at a certain rate. Newbies often compare salaries and get upset without a good understanding of the business aspects that shape compensation.
There were nods of agreement from the attendees. There were many follow up questions, and we shared valuable insights into how a business might look at new grads. If the students could learn to not focus on themselves, and think more about how they could add value to an organization, all the panelists agreed it would be invaluable in their job searches.
DO WORK/EDUCATION DIFFERENTLY
If we take these ideas a step further, maybe we need to think more about how to change the education and workforce paradigm.
What if we consider different ways to gain skills based on what opportunities exist in the marketplace and balance them with individual interests…
- Post high school training could be a certificate program learning mechanical skills, or health technician skills, or financial skills. Any of these skills would increase an individual’s value and earning potential in less time and cost (than a 2 or 4 year program), but would still elevate earnings and provide a career path.
- An Apprenticeship could be another option with a cabinet maker or fine jeweler, and the results could lead to a well trained and productive artisan.
- Consider if a two year nursing program is better for an individual than a four year program. Both programs are required to pass the same licensure exam, but require different amounts of time and cost. (please note there is an earning potential difference)
- Examine a four year program and make sure it has a strong core curriculum that requires solid writing skills, technology, analytic skills and math, regardless of major. These core skills prepare each future employee to have the basic work skills needed across any organization.
- Earn an advanced degree to specialize (MS or PhD), but consider what you want to do, what are the loans you can bear based on future earnings, and the skills you need to perform the role you want to be in.
- Delay further education….volunteer in the field for a 1-3 years. Military service, AmeriCorps, Peace Corps, Teach for America, Habitat for Humanity, etc., there are many ways to gain experience and learn more about what you want to do.
CHANGE YOUR APPROACH
When you are exposed to the world, and see the challenges plus the skills required, you gain a better understanding of what you need to know to be employed. With more maturity, we may find our post high school students looking at their educational opportunities in a different way.
I’ve often advised young adults or professionals in mid career, who want to make a change, to go talk to someone in a job that is appealing. Learn about how they earned their position, what they studied, and how they might do things differently. In other words, go out and experience a real job, internship or informational interview. Talk to professionals and work backwards. Find out what skills you need to succeed, and then go get them.
Googling or taking profiling tests to identify skills/interests, can only get you so far. Why invest time and money into a short term training program, a certification series, or an advanced education program, to find you can’t get the job you thought you wanted or even pay back your student loans?! Do your homework. Be an active participant in your future.