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Our Graduates Are Underemployed… So What Are We Doing About It?

The EvoLLLution | Our Graduates Are Underemployed… So What Are We Doing About It?
By better integrating technology into the educational experience—both inside and outside the classroom—postsecondary institutions can support the digital literacy necessary for success in the modern labor market.

A few weeks ago, a colleague and I were discussing a recent study, which found approximately 43 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed in their first jobs. While this is an alarming number, my colleague was more surprised to hear that underemployment was lower for graduates with liberal arts degrees. I didn’t share in her surprise, but it did make me wonder: Is this discrepancy in underemployment rooted in specific curricula, or could it be a product of the soft skills students develop during their time spent in and out of the classroom?

If it is the latter, how do we identify these soft skills? How do we make sure our students attain them? Furthermore, is soft skills development dependent on a particular major, or can soft skills be acquired across disciplines?

Soft skills development can be interwoven into curriculum and learned through experiences outside of the classroom, according to research and first-hand accounts from students, faculty and administrators. Scanning the environment of the important relationships that exist between stakeholders in higher education and the job market, a few key trends emerge: accelerated technology adoption, digital literacy, critical thinking, and creative problem solving.

Helping Graduates to Build Digital Literacy, Critical Thinking, and Creative Problem Solving

It is important to keep in mind that the current generation of students we are educating came of age during one of the most severe economic downturns of our time. Without question, career readiness and job placement are top of mind for nearly every stakeholder in higher education. According to the annual UCLA CIRP survey, 85 percent of incoming students rate getting a good job after graduation as a reason to go to college. Similarly, over 75 percent of parents want colleges to prepare their children with real-world skills to secure jobs after graduation, a Noodle survey of incoming parents found in 2016. Given these expectations, it should come as no surprise that in a recent survey by Inside Higher Education, 61 percent of provosts felt pressure from boards, presidents and donors to focus on career-oriented programs.

In addition to student and parent expectations, employer needs are another critical part of this equation. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers 2017 Job Outlook report, employers have ranked critical thinking and problem solving as the most important career competencies for three years running. Additionally, over half of all employers rate technical and computer skills as essential attributes of new hires.

When all of these factors are examined together—students’ and parents’ heightened concerns about job placement, employers’ desire to hire digitally literate critical thinkers and creative problem solvers, and institutions’ rapid adoption of new technology—an important question emerges: Is it possible to use technology strategically to promote digital literacy, critical thinking, creative problem solving, and soft skills, regardless of degree type?

According to both students and higher education leaders, the answer is yes.

Using Technology to Build Soft Skills and Digital Literacy Inside the Classroom

Andrea, a senior majoring in Literacy, Learning and Leadership at the University of Arizona, described digital literacy as “being able to collaborate, communicate and create through digital platforms for greater accessibility, more opportunities and infinite possibilities.” According to a recent report from LinkedIn, the most promising jobs in 2019 require digital literacy skills and by adopting technologies inside the classroom, students can better prepare to enter the job market.

In job interviews, potential employers have asked Andrea about her comfort with technology.

“I have been able to talk about collaborating with groups in online courses and using Adobe Creative Cloud to visually represent themes and concepts in ways that excite the viewer,” Andrea says. “These tools have changed how I learn, what I learn and what I produce—and I am eager to incorporate them in my future career.”

Bianca, a May 2018 graduate in General Studies at the University of Arizona, said using collaboration software and applications such the Creative Cloud gave her an advantage securing a job after graduating. “I was able to apply my creativity to projects both in my jobs and inside the classroom using Creative Suite,” she said. “As a result I not only think more creatively, but I am able to add more value to the projects I am doing, which helped me to land a full-time position after I graduated.”

Higher Education Institutions Adopting Cloud Software to Drive Digital Literacy  

Administrators who have embraced digital literacy also see widespread benefits. Todd Taylor, an English professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said, “When students need to solve problems, they need digital tools to do so. They think more deeply about the subject matter. For example, when sociology students decided to create podcasts, they started their work by thinking about the most effective ways to communicate information using this medium—and that enhances their learning as well as their work and its impact.”

The use of digital tools can also serve as an important mechanism for achieving broader institutional goals. Amir Dabirian, vice president for Information Technology and CIO at California State University, Fullerton, used Creative Cloud to improve students’ experiences and help his school make progress in key areas.

“Our high-impact practice courses promote experiential learning to actively engage students in their coursework,” Dabirian said. “By embedding Creative Cloud in three of these courses—English 101, First Year Experience and Business Administration 300—we’re increasing digital literacy and making progress toward our goals of improving retention, closing the achievement gap, enhancing learning and raising the graduation rate.”

Helping Institutions Find the Right Digital Tools for the Future

There are currently only a handful of examples of how universities across the country are striving to enhance the undergraduate experience through the broad use of technology. However, there are many more examples of classrooms being redesigned with technology to integrate active learning, spaces being revamped to include virtual reality and maker workshops, and investments being made in 3D printers and other cutting-edge tools.

Simultaneously, universities are working to quickly provide faculty with the education, training and infrastructure they need to seamlessly incorporate digital software, tools and skillsinto their curricula. And yet, at a time when resources are constrained and everyone is interested in increasing the employability of college graduates, what is the answer?

Institutions with a demonstrated track record of success in building student’s digital literacy have employed an integrated approach. This approach includes examining and upgrading learning spaces as well as evaluating and investing in digital tools that students can use for learning in class and for creating class projects and assignments. By strategically investing in the technology tools that promote digital literacy, institutions can significantly increase development of the evolving soft skills students need to be competitive in the job market.

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