APU Careers & Learning Everyday Scholar Online Learning Podcast

Are Students Prepared for the Workforce?

Podcast by Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director, Communication, Philosophy, Religion, World Languages and the Artsand
Dr. Ashley Finley, Vice President, Research, Association of American Colleges & Universities

Equipping students with the knowledge, skills, and work ethic needed to succeed in the workforce is one of the most critical tasks of universities and colleges. But is there a gap in preparedness between what employers want and what students are learning? In this episode, APU’s Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to Dr. Ashley Finley, Vice President of Research at the Association of American Colleges & Universities, about an annual report that aims to illuminate what employers want from graduates. Learn the key takeaways and new revelations from this 15-year report, including what employers say they want regarding student skills, aptitudes and mindsets like work ethic, empathy, resilience, persistence and more.

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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And today we’re talking to Dr. Ashley Finley, Vice President of Research at the Association of American Colleges & Universities. And our conversation today is about the AAC&U report, “How College Contributes to Workforce Success.” Welcome, Ashley.

Dr. Ashley Finley: Thank you, Bjorn. It’s great to be with you.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Yeah, no, I’m excited about this. I am totally nerding out, a fan boy because I have loved this report for 10 years. I’ve used it in various articles I’ve written. And so let me jump into the first question is, can you give us a brief history of the report, “How College Contributes to Workforce Success?”

Dr. Ashley Finley: Sure. And thank you for that. I mean the best endorsement of any kind of research is that it’s actually used. So I’m extremely excited and grateful for you taking the time to chat about it today, and for using it in your work, and that we can get some of this information out there.

The research that we’ve been doing at AAC&U around employers started about 15 years ago. We did the first report in about 2007. It really began as a proof of concept. We knew at that time that colleges and universities were developing broad learning outcomes, we knew that they had made these kinds of commitments to student learning, and quite frankly, we wanted to test the boundaries of how applicable those learning outcomes were in our parlance to what happens in the rest of the world. So we did our first study was really this idea of do employers get it. And 15 years later, we’re still testing that proof of concept. And for 15 years, we’ve been able to say, “Yes, employers do get this.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I love that about if employers get it, because at the end of the day, college, of course, should be transformational. In an idealistic world, an 18 year old goes to college, they discover the world themselves, they learn incredible knowledge, and then they go on a changed person, join the workforce and do something amazing.

Now with that said, there is a disconnect sometimes, where employers will say, “Hey, we’re getting all these college grads, but they don’t quite have the skills.” And so, as a follow up question, have you found that some colleges are a little apprehensive or push back a little bit on this report?

Dr. Ashley Finley: I won’t pretend to have knowledge of what every college or university thinks, but I can tell you that in my experience, in my time being at AAC&U, and the response that we got, even from this report in particular, it’s been largely positive.

I would say just the opposite of what you were suggesting, Bjorn. It feels like a validation for campuses that are working on general education reform, are thinking about how they’re revising or considering what a liberal arts degree does, what happens in the arts and humanities and the social sciences, and even into the pre-professional program. So it feels, they see this report as not just a validation of the outcomes that matter, but even the experiences, those transformational experiences that are happening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s wonderful. I remember being in some meetings where some faculty, for some reason felt like there was a disconnect between like, well, “We teach students pure knowledge and then they have to go out and do whatever.” And in those meetings I’ve always thought, “What are you talking about? We have to prepare students, we had to get them the skills and competencies, and number one, we have to connect what they learn here to what they’re going to do eventually out in the real world.”

And to me, “How College Contributes to Workforce Success” is just such an invaluable report. Because it does connect, and I really do like all the different aspects of it. And so onto the next question, what are some of the highlights of the most recent report? And what was different in this report from previous years?

Dr. Ashley Finley: So let me add something just quickly to what you just said about how faculty perceive the report and I’ll come back to the takeaways. I really hope that it’s not thought of as an either or. I hope in many ways that faculty understand how this is an endorsement and reinforcement of what they do. Knowledge will always be important, knowledge will always be a key priority for higher education. But we have to in the 21st century, understand that we are out of the knowledge-delivery business.

It is the responsibility of colleges and universities now to help students make sense of all of the vast amounts of knowledge that are already out there to help them parse it, to help them frame it, to help them discern what is true. I hear you very clearly on that, and that is part of the ongoing conversation I hope this report generates on campuses and among faculty.

The takeaways that we have, there’s a really nice graphic on the website of the nine key takeaways and I won’t trip through all of those. I think maybe a more synthesized version of it is there’s the takeaways that we have that validate what we have known over the years, and then there’s the truly kind of new ones.

So we continue to validate the notion that employers care about broad skills, like critical thinking, effective communication, teamwork, quantitative reasoning. So we continue to validate that, we continue to validate that employers don’t draw demarcating line between breadth and depth, that they want both a well-rounded education and some technical skills that the graduates need to have on the job kind of skills training. We know that continues to be the case, and there’s still, unfortunately there continues to be a gap in preparedness, a difference between what employers say they really value and think is important, and the degree to which new college graduates demonstrate those skills in ways that both encourage them to succeed and then to advance.

Key takeaways that we found brand new this year that we’re really excited about. So that we want to continue to say what we validate and continue to find. This time around, in a nod toward how increasingly important it is to recognize dispositional qualities and mindsets and aptitudes, we asked employers specifically about things like work ethic, empathy, leadership, resilience, persistence.

We know these things matter in a classroom, and now we have the evidence. We asked about these aptitudes and mindsets and they’re rated just as highly as the other kinds of broad skills that we were talking about. So, a huge endorsement of how much mindsets and those aptitudes matter and how much we need to care about recognizing those within the classroom.

And then this is the big one we can talk about it as we go through, but we found significant differences among employers. We can’t continue to talk about employers as one homogenous group. We don’t talk about students that way anymore, we can’t talk about employers that way anymore. We know that there are now significant differences in employer’s age and even educational attainment to some degree, but overwhelmingly the big trend was about age.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I really like how you talked about employers and talking about just how diverse they are, because employers, once they hire college grads, they’re obviously not a monolith. There’s just so many different factors that go into who hires college grads. Small businesses, large businesses, state institutions, federal, regional, city, state, just so many things that go into it. And what they need from college grads of course, is all over the place.

When you’re working with the employers, what does that like? Are they just surveys? Are there relationships you’ve built up over the years? Can you kind of walk us through that? Because that’s a very interesting part because essentially, we know college and I think for a lot of us, we have worked in the private sector outside of college, but there’s just so much out there, and there’s just so much diversity when it comes into what employers need.

Dr. Ashley Finley: Great question. And I’m happy to be able to say that we partnered with Hanover Research on this study. So we actually did two phases. One, was an initial qualitative portion that we did interviews with 16 employers. And we really use that as an opportunity, in part, to field test some concepts. So that was the first place where we really started to field test this idea of dispositions and tried to kind of, if you will dust up language that might make sense to employers that either does or does not make sense to us. So for example, we floated the concept of belonging within those qualitative interviews, and the employers were kind of like, “I don’t know what you mean by that. We don’t know about belonging.” We did ask about it in the survey, we just changed the language a bit and didn’t call it belonging.

But what also came up in those qualitative interviews was a concept like emotional intelligence. Totally get it. I’ve heard that in the real world, but it hadn’t occurred to me to actually put that in the survey. And we also tested some concepts around industry partnerships. And so that became a kind of baseline, almost like a pre-test a little bit. And we use that to help inform some of the newer questions that we put on the survey. And then that survey went out to about 500 hiring managers and CEOs.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent. And now let’s see if I can remember, and I apologize. Your background is in sociology is it?

Dr. Ashley Finley: It is.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: It is. So you’ve got a lot of experience with stats and research questions. And so writing a good question is extraordinarily tough. Really asking employers what language they use is so important because that’s one of the things that I’ve encountered, is teaching students what I call the language of HR. The terms and the concepts they’ll use when they get out of college is very important, because in college we’ve got great terms, we’ve got great concepts, but those terms and concepts aren’t always used outside of college.

But there is a kind of a common HR-speak. And so I just loved that you did that. Do you find that those terms could be used more in college or do you find that there’s a difference? Or what’s your perspective on that?

Let me respond to the general thing you’re asking, and I’ll give you a really specific example. We did want to be thoughtful in how we framed the survey and how we frame the questions. For the first time we actually took terms like quantitative reasoning and information literacy.

And I went to the national associations or other kinds of resources to actually embed the definition of those things within the survey. So we really tried to step back as much as we could to characterize what we were talking about, rather than use a term. It’s humbling, but it’s exactly right. Your point is spot on in that we have a lot of, what we might call, insider baseball with the language that we use. And we have to be able to communicate that out more.

The example I want to use, I was just working with a university recently, within the last few weeks. We were looking very carefully at their whole curriculum within a program, and it was lovely. It was developed wonderfully. They had these wonderful scaffolded courses in terms of the curriculum, great ideas in terms of how you’re actually developing students’ skills over time.

And guess how they talked? They talked in terms of courses, they talked in terms of what was literally a code of letters that preceded courses like ABCD 101, ABCD 202. This is how they talked about the curriculum, and guess what? It’s how students talked about the curriculum. And we talked about how just changing the language from, instead of calling it ABCD 101, maybe you call it “critical thinking.” Maybe you actually call the things what they are in terms of the skills, rather than the courses, because that language has no interpretation beyond this university.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I absolutely love that example. That leads me to the next question. Why is it so important for colleges and universities to teach students skills and competencies that employers want from new college grads?

Dr. Ashley Finley: The point that you’re raising that’s so important in this conversation is to reinforce that they are doing those things. We know they’re doing those things. It’s about making those qualities of the learning experience, much more explicit than they typically are. They tend to be implicit and they tend to be behind the knowledge and content that gets delivered in a course.

So part of the conversation that we have with faculty all the time at AAC&U is how do you shine the light in a slightly different way? The knowledge is the vehicle to get at these skills. And so it’s supposed to be a source of empowerment for faculty to recognize the myriad ways that they’re contributing to students’ development over time is through the skills. But empowering them to have the language to talk about them, I’m going to say it, to assess them, and to what we hope is actually empower students with the capacity to talk about those skills.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Makes me think of just one example that I can think of from my life, cultural communication or understanding diversity. So I went through music education, which is basically classical music. And so you take something like music theory. And it’s taught as this is the music theory, but one thing that you don’t quite realize, and I didn’t realize, is that this is music theory of Western classical music.

And when you go through those years and years of music theory, you realize, “Oh, okay, this is the music theory of just Europeans.” And there’s nothing wrong with that, but you’re really just learning a small sliver of what is the potential music theory of the world.

In my courses and my programs and I’m not blaming them at all, but I didn’t learn any middle Eastern music theory. I didn’t learn any Chinese music theory, I didn’t learn any classical Indian music theory, I just learn Western classical. And again, that’s great.

However, if we do want to live in a world that is connected, which we do, there’s absolutely no going against that, it would have been nice just to know a little bit about Indian classical music or Asian opera, or how certain folk traditions use scales and microtones.

And so it’s then on the student to learn all that stuff after school, which it easily could then be communicated during school. And then instantly you’re learning more about cultural communication. And then something like cultural communication is just like, “Hey, I’m talking to people, I’m talking to everyone.” That’s just one of my examples. Can you think of anything from your own life that you didn’t quite learn in school that, say, could have been learned today?

Dr. Ashley Finley: Well, I think all the time about actually just picking up on your example. I think all the time about how not equipping ourselves with the language, delays the realization. So just quite literally picking up on what you were just talking about in terms of diverse perspectives, cultural understanding, intercultural competence, there’s lots of different kinds of terms for it.

Even as a graduate student, one of my specialty areas as a sociologist was Latin America. And so I’d spent time in Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, did my dissertation work in Mexico involving the dataset that was developed from Mexico. And it took years later in a recognition that, that was about intercultural competence. It had never occurred to me that part of what I was doing in that research among the actual sociological theories and concepts and evidence that I was building, was actually thinking about who I was and developing my skills in terms of intercultural competence.

It’s because I didn’t have the language for it. And there was never any capacity to have to reflect and think about that. So that is part of what I hope that we’re doing with something like this kind of research is equipping colleges and universities, particularly faculty and administrators, to think about what does it mean to give students this language that we know translates that we know helps them in the outside world. Help giving them the tools of having the words to express what those skills are, instead of just, “I took a bunch of courses and I had a bunch of experiences.”

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Giving them the words to really communicate what they’ve learned. And it’s tough because I remember when I was younger, I took a bunch of classes and what did I learn? I don’t really remember. I learned a lot. It is to me, it’s on the behest of colleges and universities to prepare our students, so when they get out there, they can hopefully do well in that first interview. And I’m talking about more traditional age students here. In college today, and for a long time, college students are 18. They’re 25, they’re 30, they’re 40, they’re any age these days.

But I even have students today who are say 35 preparing to get out of the military. And so they’ve seen more of the world than I’ve done. I’ve had jobs that are completely different than I’ve done and more difficult. And yet they’re like, “I don’t know what I’m going to do when I get out of the military.”

And I’m like, “You have so many skills, so many competencies that if you just connect the dots and learn the language, you’ll be able to easily communicate that to a potential employer.” Now, before we go on, Ashley, you wanted to talk about diversity in the report, correct?

Dr. Ashley Finley: I did. I wanted to pick up on something you mentioned a moment ago about what it meant to bring diverse perspectives into how students learn, and then certainly how we navigate the world. There’s a subtle thing that could get missed in this day. I hope it doesn’t get missed, but it is subtle.

And that is even over the number of years that we have asked about teamwork, it’s important to underscore that when we asked that question, how important is it to you to work in diverse teams? So what we know consistently is that employers value, not just student’s ability to work with others, but it is with diverse others. And this is also a place where I want to highlight how important the age difference was in what we found in this particular study.

That employers under the age of 40 were far more likely than employers over the age of 50—and this was one of the most consistent trends we saw in the study—were more likely to value community-based experiences, orientations towards social justice, fostering a sense of global learning, and we know this is a generation of employers who are likely to be the oldest millennials and one of the most racially and gender sensitive generations in a long time. One of the more socially justice-oriented generations in a very long time. So this is a very important point to highlight and just how much more important we think that might become over time.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s excellent because, I’ll just say, in certain portions of the media, there is, I would say, an unfortunate perception of higher education when it comes to diversity and social justice and stuff like that. And to me, again, that’s just a communication misstep.

People need to be able to be in a position and talk about things and communicate their ideas. And it’s a different podcast. I’ve had many podcasts with political scientists and we rail on how people decide to use information for their own good and use the rhetoric of fear. I always say that, it’s the rhetoric of fear.

But being able to really, like you said, work in diverse teams is so important. And it reminds me of how, in our lives, we inadvertently live in communities that sometimes are homogeneous. We don’t mean to, or sometimes, and then we go to work and then there, of course is diversity everywhere. And then we come home, unintentional homogeneous community. And then one of the craziest things as is in, if you go to church, oftentimes churches are either one or the other, and sometimes churches are the least diverse places out there.

As you navigate life, you’re able to be exposed to people and then you’re not. And so there’s so much that everybody has to do just to learn and to experience, and just even saying stuff like “my own lived experience.” And that’s so important. And just to understand that other people’s lived experiences, aren’t like yours. Sounds simple. But it’s amazing how often people discount other people’s perspectives because, “Well, this is how it is in my life.” Well, you’re one person which is great and you’re unique, but another person has a different perspective. And so, how do you see that employers are highlighting that? Or do they ever talk about that?

Dr. Ashley Finley: I’ll frame this in just a couple of ways. One is your point on the unintentional homogeneity reminds me of just a, I don’t want to say it’s a sort of a given sociological fact, but “like tends to like,” that’s the first thing you learn as a sociologist. We group together with people who are like us. The unfortunate artifact of the American higher education system is it actually is built to be homogeneous.

If you tell me your kid is in first grade, I have an approximate estimation of the age of your kid. And if you tell me the zip code you live in, it wouldn’t take me long to figure out the approximate median income of that neighborhood. The way that we do education in this country almost builds that, it builds homogeneity from the ground up and all the way through, in a way that you could look around you by the time you actually have the sense to do it and say, “I’m actually going to have to work pretty hard to find diversity in my current world.”

And I think the reason I wanted to come back to that is because I think it raises the stakes for colleges and universities to take seriously what it means to build diversity within the canon. What does it mean to recognize and back up and say, “Do I really have multiple perspectives from multiple groups coming into play?”

And of course these are huge equations for equity, these are huge acknowledgements of the strengths and the backgrounds and the cultural identities that students bring with them into the classroom. We seek those things to validate students and to help them find their own questions and their own contributions within those settings, to see them in different ways.

What I am seeing more from employers, and this is also some work that we are doing with a very large corporation right now, and just kind of beginning some early planning phases, but we know that employers care more than ever about equity.

I think anybody who watched the Super Bowl ads, I mean, I think what we are seeing, and I think it’s absolutely motivated by this oldest generation of millennials who are beginning to vote with their dollars. We are seeing more and more the consciousness of companies and industry within a world: What does it mean now as an employer to be socially conscious, to be sustainable, to give back?

This is the forefront of what I see time and time again. So I think it makes all the sense in the world that we saw a really interesting age breakdown with that kind of community engagement to begin to reckon with the idea that I think we’re living in a time where that kind of social activism and social and civic engagement is going to play out just as every bit in the economy, as it is in politics.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Life changes, everything changes. As people get older, the world they grew up in, changes in the younger generation comes up and the world is different. And it’s one of those things where in previous interviews I’ve had, say with political scientists, they’re pretty pessimistic about things. And I always describe myself as an optimistic nihilist, where so optimistic about the world. Well, I’m a little bit of a realist too.

But in that sense, when I look at America and there’s so many wonderful things about America, where we’ve come, what we can do. But I also say, “it’s okay to acknowledge the past about what happened to really come to grips with it. And most importantly, so we can all move forward. And so we can really understand where people have come from and what they went through.” And this leads me to the last question is, with so much having changed in higher education over the past generation, how do colleges and universities have to adjust over the next 25 years?

Dr. Ashley Finley: A few things do come to mind. And I really am playing off what we have learned from the pandemic, the fiction of what it will be to be post-pandemic, most likely, right? I think about this in terms of, “Are we ever post-9/11?” In the sense that there are policies and procedures that have never gone away after that. I suspect we’re in some version of that now.

Early on, 18 months ago, we had a webinar at AAC&U with a group of college presidents just right in the midst of the transition to online and what are we learning and how are you coping? And there was a really important comment made from one of these presidents who said, “I think that we aren’t doing new things. This has catalyzed issues that we already knew were there that we just didn’t want to have a conversation about, or that we thought we could put that conversation off.” We are at the forefront of having conversations in ways that we have to have them now. And campus has been forced to have them.

A few things. I think higher education will be less insular, I think we’re stunningly there continue to be very insular in how we talk, how we educate students. But we talked a lot about language in this conversation. Where does that insularity begin to go away in terms of the partnerships that we’re developing, the ways that we begin to communicate to an external world.

And simply how does higher education tell its story? The equation has never been more important to get right to solve, perhaps. That higher education now has to be the less insular in the way that it actually is able to tell the story. It’s got to be way less siloed. And this, I mean from almost an internal perspective. I think what the pandemic has forced in many ways is levels of collaboration unseen on campuses, just unseen.

It’s been a conundrum of instructional designers for years of how to engage faculty in online learning and changing their pedagogy. Well, guess what, they were swamped. They’ve been swamped for the last year at a level of scale they couldn’t have predicted. There’s just kinds of layers of collaboration around credentialing, across academic and student affairs. How we are talking about student wellbeing in ways we’ve never talked about before, because we cannot ignore it.

So those kinds of collaborations I think, are going to force a reduction in siloing that will ultimately be for the good. Third thing, no question, we’ve already talked about it in our conversation today. It is simply not an option to ignore equity anymore. And the brutal reality is I think most campuses could. It was an inconvenient truth that equity existed, but it could simply be put aside, that’s not the case anymore. I think more than ever, campuses will go after it, they will use evidence to address it, and they will get serious about communicating the ways that they’re addressing it.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are all excellent points. And I don’t know if I can do justice by responding to any one of them. But it really makes me think of, and this is just an example from my own life, is my first son was born in 2012. And so, in that year, I remember reading an article saying those the first year that kids born of two white parents are now the minority. And so moving forward in 2012, the majority is minority and the combined minority is the majority. So just using those terms.

And so that changes, demographic shifts that are occurring in America, also occur and other countries. It really makes us think in 25 years, there’s going to be a swath of jobs that do not exist anymore. They’re going to be taken over by AI. Besides, some of the people who retire, perfect timing, there’s going to be other people who can’t retire. So what are they going to do when the machines take their jobs? And so college has to address that. As far as anything else, any other final words on a great conversation that we had today?

Dr. Ashley Finley: Let me pick up on the last one, because I think it comes up a lot is, what’s the fourth revolution going to look like for the world of industry? What does it mean to have AI effectively take over so much of what we do? And I hear that.

There’s a wonderful, wonderful article written handful of years ago, called “Dancing with Robots.” A terrific take on what does that mean exactly. What does machine competency mean? And effectively what it means is if a task can be broken down to an algorithm, basically to a series, if you can take a big task, and break it down into a series of small tasks, you can create AI.

But at the end of the day, nothing will replace the problem solving capabilities, the compassion, the emotional intelligence, the sophistication to work through and apply in new ways what it means to do a job or to perform a task, and to evolve.

And this is the great challenge with higher education. Is to think about how do we effectively create the students who can reckon with those unscripted problems? Who can work their way through problems with embracing diverse groups and embracing diverse viewpoints, to integrate their knowledge with the kinds of skills and aptitudes that they have.

And I will, I’ll make another plug for it, to have the mindset, to know that they can persist through failure. That’s going to be hugely important as we move forward. The Latin root of virtue is “vir,” which is strength. We often think of virtues as being soft, squishy things, but the root of them is strength.

And what your last comment just reminded me of is what it will actually take. Take the whole employer report. At the end of the day, that’s not just on faculty, it’s not just on administrators. It’s talking about teams of advisors, it is talking about engaging student life, it is really thinking about what does it take to bring this together in a way that students are actually going to understand the cumulative effect of what they’re learning is going to do.

And then the essence of it is to give them that level of strength, to equip them with the understanding, not just of how the world works and how they can contribute to it cognitively, but who they are in that world. That sense of purpose. That sense of being.

And in many ways, when I look down the road, I think colleges and universities will put a huge stamp on their ability to support students for simply understanding what has been the root at we’ve talked about in higher education for so long? Which is helping students understand what their sense of purpose is, who they are.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And I absolutely love that. And thank you Ashley for talking today. Again, I love the report. It’s such an invaluable report. I hope all faculty and administrators read it and read the previous ones too. To see where they’ve come, to see where we are, and so we can use it to really change and transform how we approach and we really structure education in higher education, because it’s extremely important.

And for us to be successful for the next generation, we have to change and we always have to change. And that’s the one constant thing about life is, life is change. And so today we’re speaking with Dr. Ashley Finley about the AAC&U report, “How College Contributes to Workforce Success.” My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer. And thank you for listening.

Dr. Bjorn Mercer is a Program Director at American Public University. He holds a bachelor’s degree in music from Missouri State University, a master’s and doctorate in music from the University of Arizona, and an M.B.A. from the University of Phoenix. Dr. Mercer also writes children’s music in his spare time.

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