Faculty are experts in their disciplines so it is understandable that most undergraduate classes and curricula in the arts, humanities and social sciences focus on academic content and not application of that content in the working world. Most faculty are not trained in, nor are they oriented toward, vocational issues outside of the academy. Students might be well prepared for graduate school, but not so prepared for a BA-level career path. Even if faculty perceive the need, they can be unsure about how to prepare students for the job market.
How to Prepare Students for the Job Market
It can be clear how students in majors that are more closely tied to professions, like business, engineering and nursing graduate with a set of marketable skills. Students in all majors, however, acquire skills that are in demand in the job market. What they often lack is an understanding of the marketability of their skills. This makes it difficult for students to recognize when a particular job might be a good fit to their skill set, and how to sell themselves to potential employers. With a little bit of effort, faculty can help students enhance marketable skills, understand the importance of particular skills for future employment, and how to present those skills to prospective employers. To accomplish this, faculty might do the following.
- Adopt a skill perspective. Instead of focusing just on the content of a course, think about the specific skills you want a student to acquire. Some of those skills might be specific to your discipline, but others might be generic.
- Make skill acquisition a stated objective in the course. Skill objectives should be listed in the syllabus, and it should be emphasized to students as an important aspect of the class.
- Use skills to motivate students. Talk to students about the skills they are expected to acquire in the course, and how they are relevant to the job market.
- Refer students to resources on campus and elsewhere. Although oriented toward psychology majors, this American Psychological Association guide, written by Clemente Diaz, has lots of good ideas that can be adapted for any major.
Generic Skills for College Graduates
There are many marketable skills that college students have that cut across many if not all majors. Of course, often these skills get acquired even when faculty are not explicitly trying to teach them, and certainly more focus might do a better job. Here are five that most students will pick up.
- Verbal Communication. Many classes offer opportunities for students to enhance verbal skills. This can be through formal presentations, but class discussions can also be helpful. This is an area where faculties can incorporate presentation opportunities into curricula by making sure there are enough courses that require presentations.
- Written Communication. Writing skill can be acquired in many ways both inside and outside of the classroom. Various writing assignments, such as term papers and honor’s theses are good ways to enhance writing. One element frequently missing, however, is specific feedback. Many students have told me over the years that the only feedback they have gotten on written assignments is a grade. Students need more, and often the best way to provide feedback is on very short assignments–even as short as a few sentences. The more specific the better. Being told writing is unclear is not as helpful as being shown why certain phrases and sentences are unclear.
- Interpersonal Skills. Very often referred to as soft skill, this has to do with the ability to interact appropriately and productively with others. This can be taught through team exercises in which students must learn how to collaborate with colleagues on projects. Exercises might involve class discussions, papers, projects, and other activities students do in small groups.
- Problem Solving. Many classroom assignments ask students to use information they have learned to solve problems, that is, come up with a solution. The sorts of problems are determined by the specific major and course, but this skill can be generalized to other contexts. Sometimes skills can be combined, as assigning problems to groups of students to enhance interpersonal and problem solving at the same time.
- Research Skill. Many of the assignments students are given require them to find answers or information. Most of the time this means doing research in the library or online, but sometimes it involves conducting their own research. Again, the specific topics are determined by the course and major, but the skills in finding information and separating fact from fiction is something that can be used in many contexts.
Teaching Skill in the Context of Content
Many faculty load their courses with content to make their classes rigorous. Covering content at the cost of teaching skills risks turning students into information dumpsters, a term coined by a student Shelby Waymire. Ignoring skill development short changes students by not providing them something that can enhance their career prospects. Overloading content results in a lack of long-term retention. Faculty should strive for a balance in adequately covering content, and using content to help students acquire skills. Providing clear skill objectives, tying those skills to future employability, and teaching skills in the context of the course topic can help motivate students, and help prepare them for the future job market.