Postsecondary Trending Now: Skills that Employers Value

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I’m an idealist. I truly believe that college offers more lifelong value than simply preparing students for a job. I value the personal and civic benefits of both K-12 and higher education. I’m fascinated by the fact that college graduates reap health and quality of life benefits, too. (My source: How College Affects Students by Pascarella and Terenzini)

But I’m also a realist. Postsecondary education may not be equivalent to job training, but career development is an important part of any student’s college education. Everyone expects to get a job, or secure a better position if they already have one, when they earn their degree. It’s part of equity—college should be an asset for low-income students, helping them develop the knowledge, skills, and abilities to enter a profession with greater earning potential than they would otherwise have.

To that end, it seems to me that socially responsible institutions of higher education align their degree offerings to the needs of both employers and students.

It doesn’t have to be a perfect alignment, and there are many educational pathways to a viable career, but higher education should know and understand what employers need and what skills help students succeed in careers.

I’m an idealist and a realist, and it’s with these lenses that I look at reports like the Social-Emotional and Affective Skills Landscape Analysis by Savitz-Romer, Rowan-Kenyon, Zhang, and Fancsali. This report compared the perspectives of higher education administrators and employers about the relative importance of these skills and how students and employees develop them.

What are Social-Emotional and Affective Skills?
The report divides social-emotional factors into three categories:

  • Approach to Learning, like growth mindset, commitment to achieving goals, and metacognition 

  • Intrapersonal Skills, such as personal responsibility, self-efficacy, and ethical behavior and decision-making 

  • Social Skills, including cultural awareness, managing interpersonal conflicts, and communication 

Exhibit 2 from their report displays the full list of skills, knowledge, and dispositions studied.

Three Research Findings
I want to focus on three of the findings that the researchers discovered through a survey of employers and higher education administrators:  

  1. Higher education administrators placed greater emphasis on Approach to Learning skills and behaviors whereas employers were more interested in Social Skills.
  2. Very few employers offer training or other ways to support the development of these skills.
  3. Most interventions that colleges offer are located within the division of Student Affairs or first-year experience programs, and most serve first-year students and focus on success in college, not in the workplace.

The college administrators are making choices that make sense—the first year of college is the biggest stumbling block to a degree, and so few students get a degree, that their emphasis on Approach to Learning skills and first-year students has direct benefits on student success.

The trouble with these findings, though, is this argument made in the report:

The literature scan suggests that these skills are best developed in the context in which they are to be applied, such as the classroom or the workplace.”

This raises an essential question for me: How might social-emotional development be better integrated into students’ degree programs to help them be successful in both college and career?

Integrating Social-Emotional Skills with Academics
One of the challenges behind integrating social-emotional and academic development is the way we talk about it. In "It’s Time to Trash the Terms “Non-Cogs” and “Soft Skills,” NGLC’s Andy Calkins presents an argument for new language that is more accurate, less comparative, and less antagonistic. Andy asserts that the term “Agency” works best here, whereas the landscape analysis settles on “Social-Emotional Skills” and “Affective Skills.”  These terms also create the possibility of integration.

Some NGLC grantees are embracing the link between academic and social-emotional development through next gen learning strategies. Here are just two quick examples:

  • At Rio Salado College—where nearly half of the student body studies online—the RioAchieve program provides students with a completion portal that tracks their progress toward degree completion alongside their personal goals for college and career. Students are assigned a personal advisor and peer mentor who can intervene when they get stuck or exhibit behaviors that are not aligned with successful student behaviors (engagement, progress, etc.). With strong supports for developing Approach to Learning skills, Rio Salado opens up the opportunity for students to develop Intrapersonal and Social Skills through their coursework.
  • In The Importance of Social-Emotional Learning in K-12 Schools, Thrive Public School’s Nicole Assisi and Shelli Kurth walk through how the school builds critical skills that K-12 students need to thrive as they move toward postsecondary studies: Fostering student voice, Building resilience, Generating self-advocacy, and Teaching self-regulation.

Innovating for Social-Emotional Development
The U.S. Department of Education announced a second round of “First in the World” innovation grants this month (applications are due June 26).

With $60 million up for grabs for the “development and testing of innovative approaches and strategies to improve postsecondary education attainment,” I’m betting that some educational innovators will look to the advice in this report and focus on strengthening students’ social-emotional skills.

It’s a perspective that is at once both realistic and idealistic—that’s just what innovation needs to be successful.