Skills Development and Academic Preparation: Balancing Perceived Conflicts in Higher EducationVistasp Karbhari | Professor in the Department of Civil Engineering and Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, The University of Texas at Arlington
A recent survey from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal reported that 47 percent of Americans surveyed thought that four-year degrees were not worth the cost “because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.” Further, a recent report from McKinsey stated that “almost 40 percent of American employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need, even for entry-level jobs. Nearly 60 percent complain of lack of preparation, even for entry-level jobs.” Given these and other reports—as well as an increasing legislative and gubernatorial focus on skills gaps, debt and the perceived failure of some academic majors/disciplines to result in jobs that can enable paying off of debt—one could well draw the conclusion that the traditional model of higher education, focused on the development of an educated citizenry, is past its prime–if not broken altogether.
Today’s world is driven by the convergence of two significant trends: the rapid development of technology, and the equally rapid development (and improved accessibility) of information and knowledge. In this world, the linear progression of (1) go to college; (2) graduate; (3) learn job-based skills at one’s first job; and (4) become a productive employee, no longer suffices. There is an increasing demand for graduates to arrive at their first job with the disciplinary talent, job-related skills, and “soft” skills needed to hit the ground running from day one.
While one might argue that the roles of academia and the corporate world as related to preparing graduates for the workforce are different, there is no doubt that changes in the economy and the rapid evolution of new career paths have created a demand for merging academic talent and workforce-directed skills. In many ways, the traditional academic model of preparing students for careers is not attuned to a workforce where technology continues to revolutionize how we work, and where the most in-demand careers did not even exist a decade ago.
Higher education needs to re-envision the social contract between academe and the communities it serves. It must address a rapidly changing workplace while ensuring that graduates continue to be learned citizens who are not just the workforce of the future but who will determine the future of the workforce. It is no longer enough to have academic knowledge at the end of a degree. Rather, what is needed in today’s global economy is the intersection of knowledge and relevant job skills.
This requires, at a minimum, a greater focus on aligning two aspects that have heretofore been treated as separate aspects of the curriculum meeting distinct purposes: the teaching of academic knowledge, and preparing graduates for the workforce and/or as entrepreneurs. Simultaneously, there is a need for a much better integration of technology awareness and competency with the precepts of a traditional liberal education across the curriculum.
Rather than try to provide disciplinary skills, a liberal education core, and talent development through different aspects of a student’s experience, we need to integrate them into a single effort that ensures each student is not only prepared academically, but also prepared to join (or develop, in the case of entrepreneurs) the workforce as an immediately productive member. Imagination and creativity, strategic thinking and social responsibility, along with the abilities to communicate and analyze/problem solve, need to be integral to every path of higher education. We can no longer afford to separate disciplinary knowledge from social skills and professional preparation.
Academe needs to focus on four key aspects:
- Increase opportunities for students to gain a well-rounded education intertwined with professional skills;
- Respond at a significantly faster pace to the needs of the job market and be better aligned with changes in technology and the workplace;
- Create more flexible and personalized pathways for students to convert knowledge and learning to skills that result in earnings capacity; and
- Change the “stove pipe” structure between academe and the workplace to enable greater alignment between the curriculum and the skills needed in the workplace.
This will require the development of a dynamic and changing academic environment that maintains a fine balance between knowledge and skills, and highlights interpersonal capabilities, complex systems thinking, problem solving skills, and disciplinary/professional competency.
Workforce skills are highly contextual and must be developed through true experiential learning both within and outside the classroom. The process of teaching and learning has to fundamentally shift from a largely transactional paradigm involving knowledge transfer to a truly collaborative one that promotes learning by doing.
Advanced simulations and virtual and augmented reality (VR and AR) provide tremendous opportunities for developing those skills needed in the workplace. Already used in professional training in fields like nursing and the defense forces, these tools facilitate near-to-real experiences that allow students to apply academic knowledge to real-world scenarios.
Nursing students at the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), for example, use AR, VR, and augmented reality to transform their classroom knowledge into skills at a Smart Hospital, a national demonstration center for healthcare provider simulation education, simulation research, and the development of healthcare innovations. Using state-of-the-science human patient simulators, hospital equipment, and additional technology, our faculty provide learning experiences that allow students to gain proficiencies and confidence in healthcare procedures and processes. Rather than being treated as a separate aspect, simulations are integrated throughout the curriculum to enhance the learning, retention, and application of knowledge by our students. Providing care to simulated patients allows students to practice nursing skills and make clinical judgments in a safe environment, while subjecting them to the stresses and emotions that accompany real-world medical situations. This gives them the skills as well as the knowledge they need in the working world.
Similar developments are now being considered for other career paths as well. The case study approach, valued in the education of business graduates, takes on an entirely new meaning when it encompasses not just knowledge transfer but action in a simulated environment that mimics the pressure, team work, immediacy, and stresses of the workplace.
Similarly, while summer employment and internships have value, there is a much higher payoff in developing true partnerships where students are not just exposed to the workplace, but are also integrated into the ethos of the employer. The unique internship program offered by UTA and Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is an example of this. It includes a program taught by DART executives, integrating classroom knowledge with exposure to operational and organizational information. As another example, students pursuing art degrees in UTA’s visual communication design program can participate in the only program in Texas partnered with the International Corrugated Packaging Foundation (ICPF). In this program, students follow a curriculum in the structural design of corrugated materials, participate in structured internships with packaging companies with projects integrated into the curriculum, and take part in national and international competitions. These students follow their passion in art while developing highly desired workplace skills in packaging, making them desirable job candidates after graduation. The development of many more programs that align academic curricula with job skill development will be critical to meeting the needs of tomorrow.
The last century saw the evolution of teaching from being disciplinary and discrete to inter-, multi-, and trans-disciplinary. In the 21st century, the focus will need to be on effectively integrating skills development into academic curricula.
Universities no longer have the luxury of being purveyors of knowledge for its own sake. We are, and have always been, a critical part of the chain that develops, maintains, and transforms the workforce. We need to not only educate the workforce of the future–we need to be an integral, rather than isolated, part of developing the future of the workforce.
Many of us have emphasized the need for universities to enable access to education at an affordable cost. We now need to make “employment readiness” an explicit part of our mission. Knowledge for its own sake will always be valued, but knowledge combined with career-ready skills will be the driver that ensures we meet the mission envisioned by the Morrill Act of 1862: enabling a practical education, alongside a general one.
As Peter McPherson recently wrote, “the debate between a broad education and employment readiness offers a false choice.” These two need not be in conflict, and today more than ever before, we need to weave both mandates into a new social contract. Doing so will ensure that we empower our students to be not only learned citizens, but also assured gainful employment as in a constantly changing workforce.
 C. Dunn. “Americans Split on Whether 4-Year College Degree is Worth the Cost,” NBC News, September 6, 2017: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/first-read/americans-split-whether-4-year-college-degree-worth-cost-n799336
 M. Laboisseere and M. Mourshed, “Closing the skills gap: Creating workforce-development programs that work for everyone,” McKinsey & Co., February 2017: https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/social-sector/our-insights/closing-the-skills-gap-creating-workforce-development-programs-that-work-for-everyone
 P. McPherson, “The False Choice Between Education and Employment Readiness,” Inside Higher Ed, February 7, 2018: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/02/07/enrolling-and-graduating-more-students-isn%E2%80%99t-enough-colleges-must-prepare-them-work
Author Perspective: Administrator