When I was growing up, my dad was an administrator at two technical colleges in Wisconsin. Understanding that his college’s job was to prepare students for the world of work, he knew he needed to have a strong understanding of the evolving needs of the business community that would one day hold the keys to his students’ careers. As a result, he took an active role in developing that understanding.
At a very micro level, my dad proactively held meetings on an ongoing basis with employers in a variety of industries to try to understand the skills and competencies they needed their employees to have for specific jobs, both then and into the future. He took the information he received from these meetings back to his faculty and worked with them to design a curriculum that would ensure their students were armed to be successful producers in the workforce.
My dad wasn’t alone. This was, and still is, a common practice at community and technical colleges throughout the country. Technical colleges view it as their mission to draw a straight line between learning and jobs. But, for a variety of reasons, this practice has been adopted on a more limited basis at most 4-year institutions. Having direct experience in 4-year colleges and universities, I can attest that many administrators and faculty don’t view this as their role.
I have a Ph.D. in Finance from a highly regarded Big 10 university. During my time as a student, I received limited training in the world of work for which I thought I was being prepared. There were no field trips to the New York Stock Exchange. We didn’t have guest speakers from brokerage firms come in and talk to us about what abilities or traits they valued in employees.
We were being groomed to be researchers. We weren’t being conditioned to connect our work to the ‘real world’ and weave real-world experiences into our curricula. Sadly, this is a common theme when I talk to other people about their collegiate educational experience, no matter their chosen field of study or work. There are indeed institutions and fields that buck the trend, but they are the exception, not the norm.
While universities need to be doing more to ensure they’re giving students an education that will prepare them for professional life after college, we as business leaders have a responsibility to drive this change as well. If we know what we need in an ideal employee, but universities do not, what are we doing to transfer that knowledge? Businesses have been talking about the skills gap so much that it’s almost become cliche. But what are we doing to drive the conversations that need to happen to ensure universities are helping us solve it?
As business executives, we know our people are our most valuable resource. The best business plan, the best product, and the best leader will fail without the support of a great team. That’s why it’s critically important that we take the initiative to reach out to the institutions educating our future employees. We need to ensure they understand clearly what their students need to become productive contributors to our teams.
University administrators like my dad, who have a keen interest in designing curricula that map to expected job outcomes and develops the top performers of the future, are rare. As business leaders, we must ‘turn the tables’ and reach out to counterparts at our institutions of higher learning to ensure our communities and future employees remain relevant and strong.