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Preparing Incoming Students to Enter the Workforce

Preparing students for the current and future workforce means providing them with the soft skills new hires typically lack and higher education institutions tend not to focus on. 

As employers cautiously reopen in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are increasingly recognizing another unfolding crisis decades in the making: Our college graduates are ill-prepared for workplace success.

Over the years, education policy advocates, politicians, and parents have consistently pushed the benefits of obtaining a college degree without promoting the cultivation of the complete skillset required to build a successful career. As graduates obtain complex language, programming, engineering and other hard skills in classrooms, many lack the human or soft skills necessary to succeed in the modern workplace. (While human skills is our preferred term, we will refer here to soft skills, as it is more generally understood, for now.)

Our laser focus on obtaining bachelor’s degrees has left many college grads without the critical soft skills—teamwork, problem-solving, time management and interpersonal skills—typically earned from summer jobs and early work experience. According to data from the Pew Research Center, only 18% of today’s generation Z teens were in employed in 2018, compared with 27% of millennial teens in 2002 and 41% of gen Xers in 1986. This troubling statistic, when coupled with the pandemic, reflects the utter devastation of soft skills development. After a year of record-breaking unemployment, quarantines and lockdowns that have driven students away from real-world workplace experiences, employers and students are facing a soft skills crisis.

As the economy becomes increasingly service-driven, employers are placing greater emphasis on soft skills. They find that workplace competencies like leadership, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence more strongly indicate the ability of a new hire to work with others and grow in their role. Though hard skills and technical knowledge are important prerequisites for a job, soft skills are critical to ensuring success after the hiring process. In an often-cited work by Harvard Kennedy School and Harvard Graduate School of Education professor David J. Deming notes that rapid advances in technology have resulted in the growth and prominence of social skill-intensive occupations. He also finds that the labor market is increasingly rewarding workers with well-developed social skills.

Because college classrooms are ill-equipped to help students learn these soft skills, Kaplan and Lambda Chi Alpha initiated a collaborative program to help address the growing disconnect between college and the workplace. We introduced a career-readiness training program that will provide fundamental, marketable skills with digital credentials that will help prepare today’s college students for the working world. The program is designed to transform the lives of young college graduates through courses like “managing with self” and “working with stakeholders” that will help bridge the gap between college classroom learning and real-world experience, offering proof of work-readiness skills to employers.

As a result of this pandemic, we firmly believe that now more than ever American institutions must evolve to help meet the needs of our future workforce. A leader in academic innovation, Kaplan is growing from its traditional test preparation role into workforce preparedness programs. Likewise, Lambda Chi Alpha, one of the largest fraternities in North America, is forging a new role for its brotherhood beyond the bounds of the traditional fraternity by intently focusing on career building and skills development. As our economy slowly climbs out of the pandemic’s effect on business, it is incumbent upon all of us to ensure that our college graduates, whose skills acquisition was slowed and cemented in a year of self-isolation, are repositioned to succeed.

A 2019 survey conducted by Kaplan showed that 79% of parents agree that the role of college is to teach students marketable skills, but this comes with the misconception that colleges alone provide the experience and skills needed to succeed. With the pandemic and technology transforming our workplaces and a growing demand for soft skills, every institution can and must pivot to meet the needs of our ever-changing economy. Together, with a conscious, concerted effort in soft skills development, we can ensure the continued growth and success of the American economy and our society as a whole.

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