Why Skills Matter

Not long ago, employers were happy to hire undergraduates who were simply well educated. Employers would then train new hires in the specific skills needed for the job through training courses, on-the-job-training, coaching, and so on.

Over the years, employers increasingly want to hire new graduates who already possess the skills needed for the job – often very specific skills. Why the change? It is due in part to companies, especially large employers, not wanting to pay for additional classroom training or even on-the-job training. The money saved is put to other uses, often directed towards satisfying the interests of shareholders. So be it. If that is the new reality, then higher education has to make some adjustments.

Many organizations have arisen in recent years to teach people skills that they did not obtain in college or university. They fill a gap between what higher education does and what employers want. Higher education will not, and should not displace such organizations. But, higher education can do more to give students opportunities to develop skills that employers want as part of their coursework.

A few things that immediately come to mind for undergraduate education is:

  • Structured problem-solving using methods such as PDCA cycle, root cause analysis, A3 reports, and the like.
  • Use of Excel spreadsheets.
  • Short written communication.
  • Methods for improving quality (in any activity).
  • Methods for continuously improving processes.

Can you think of others?

Opportunities to develop these skills should extend to all courses – from general education courses to those in the major and others that support it. Repetitive application over students’ 4-year experience will greatly improve their capabilities and enable them to add valuable skills to their resume in addition to knowledge of various subjects.

Faculty will need to make a strong effort to connect these skill-developing exercises to the the real world and throughout major areas of study if not the entire curriculum.

The above five items transcend what industry wants. They will be helpful for students who pursue graduate school, self-employment, business start-up, or other productive avenue after graduation. In short, higher education can do more to develop specific skills in students that will benefit them throughout their lives while still achieving its primary mission to educate people though well-rounded studies.

I hope that industry will soon expand internal training programs for new hires. But until then, we can do more.

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