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The Trials and Challenges That the Next Wave of Students Will Face

The future is bright for students about to enter the workforce, but the workforce has also evolved to value the whole employee and better meet financial, personal and professional needs.
The future is bright for students about to enter the workforce, but the workforce has also evolved to value the whole employee and better meet financial, personal and professional needs.

Employers want their workers to be prepared for the workforce, armed with certain skills, of course. The hard skills they learned in college or university are key to their success, but the soft skills developed along the way may hold more weight than once thought.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What can institutions do to better prepare students about to enter the workforce?

Robert Bruno (RB): The best steps institutions can take are to be clear about the realities of joining the workforce. To look for opportunities to explain the psychological, emotional and physical stresses of working for a boss. To lay out the employment power relations, the need to balance work and non-work, schedule expectations, the realities of carrying a workload and the demands it places on a person. It would be good for the student to try and get as close to the experience they will have when they enter the job market, so a job is not purely an abstract, speculative or theoretical concept. Certainly, some college students have some work experience. But it would be very helpful to explain to everyone what it’s like to be an employee and what the employee-employer relationship is predicated on.

Evo: Who do you think should be responsible for that?

RB: It must be the institution. I don’t think the class professor alone can be expected to be responsible for all this insight. It’s the department’s role, and it should be built into the program and course of study. It can also be woven into webinars, seminars, brown bag lunches. This education could occur in conversations on employment with faculty, deans, assistant deans and directors of student services. Professors could play a role by introducing practitioners into the classroom as guest speakers. The curriculum could involve some level of application with real-world settings. There’s a lot of academic freedom, of course, for professors to develop their courses. But typically, if folks in a department are like-minded, they can come to some agreement on the skillset they want the students majoring in their department to have. It really requires more than just the individual faculty member to put a strong focus on the employment relationship and what that looks like.

And frankly, I don’t think that would be too difficult to achieve in any field. You could find the requisite experts, and people who could help students have a better understanding of, for example, what it means to work as an architect, a social worker, teacher or as an engineer. What does it mean to be an hourly employee? What rights do you have at work, and why would joining a union be a good thing? There are ample resources to do this effectively. And yet, educating students on becoming future workers and entering the employment relationship is something educational institutions do a poor job of in the United States.

Evo: What skills are employers looking for now, following a post-pandemic shift in teaching and thinking?

RB: I don’t think it’s dramatically different than what employers were looking for pre-COVID: a strong focus on problem-solving, the ability to work in teams, to be comfortable in changing circumstances, to develop an adaptable mindset are important traits employers value. It’s also always been true that a strong set of ethics, a commitment to timeframes and getting work done, as well as an understanding that workplace policies or laws are important to workers’ success and well-being. Additionally, the ability to creatively approach the work environment is a vital skill. But frankly, the vast majority of jobs people in this country perform don’t rely on or ask workers to be deeply creative, yet all jobs do require resourcefulness.

Every job requires a level of cognitive awareness and problem-solving. There really is no such thing as a job where you don’t think. And all jobs require a level of skill. But too often employers don’t think of employees as having to apply those cognitive and social, emotional skills. But workers always use multiple skills in every occupation. Employers need the work done, but they’re not always making room for their employees to do the job well. What are employers incentivizing in the choices they make about their employees? What are they paying for? What are they willing to develop professionally? There’s often a contradiction in what employers say they want and what they do in the employment relationship.

Evo: On the other side, what are students or potential employees looking for from their employers?

RB: Certainly, students are looking to be fairly compensated, to attain the extrinsic benefits that only work can provide. In this sense, work should be a means to live a comfortable and prosperous life. But equally important is the opportunity to use your skills, to be placed in positions for which you’ve been educated, trained, about which you are passionate. Students want work that enables them to use their intellectual and emotional skills in settings where diversity and equity are valued. Here, students are in search of work as an end in itself, and young workers are demanding a balanced life.

Work is essential. It’s core to identity, but students don’t want work to be all-consuming but for it to be integrated into a fuller life. To bring that employment relationship into existence, students recognize they need to have a voice at work. They’re looking for a way to contribute, to have an opinion, to have some control over the workday and the shape of their work. That can create conflict with employers who are used to just hiring people to do a job and don’t have a good grasp on managing an educated workforce with a real interest in inserting identity into work.

Evo: You’ve talked about this shift in thinking about soft liberal arts degrees, from considering them not too practical before to now increasingly valuing them. What spurred that shift in the mindset around liberal arts degrees?

RB: This is where I think COVID opened a window. It revealed that, to a great extent, most workers aren’t satisfied or particularly happy with their employment relationship or job quality. And yet we know that worker satisfaction is an important contributor to efficiency and productivity. Now, folks with the hard skills, technical skills, pragmatic skills needed to do any job are more or less easy enough to find, depending on the occupation. But can the worker manage stress in the workplace? Do you have the capacity to understand people who are different from you? Can you function in a culturally diverse setting?  

Here’s why the liberal arts are so valuable. Do you have a background, for instance, in women’s studies or in African American studies or in religious studies that enable you to appreciate the diversity of cultures and understand confounding questions dealing with justice, fairness or equality? The workplace is a dense site of interactions. And while far too many workplaces are still largely male, white and only English speaking, today’s work product is part of a global environment. So, individuals who’ve gotten a liberal arts background and know how to ask important questions, think philosophically through a problem and have a sense of what it means to be an individual in society with much to offer the modern employer.  

Think of it this way: If they’ve taken sociology courses, they have a sense of how groups interact and know what it means to be part of a community. If students have taken anthropology, they deeply know the history of different peoples’ and societies’ development. This kind of education makes you far more capable to deal with differences and a global contemporary set of work demands. And I should also mention that multilingual students are well positioned to broaden the employer’s reach. These liberal arts majors are going to bring contrast, contradiction, diversity and perspective to a workplace, and these attributes correlate well with breakthrough thinking, smart decision-making, healthy work environments and satisfied, productive employees. COVID made things hard for people. They were just beaten down, and work was dangerous. Many employees really felt exposed and unappreciated. Smart employers have started to see that workers who have these liberal arts backgrounds probably are in the best possible place to cope with the future of work and the changes occurring. I guess we’ll see.

Evo: Speaking of the future of work, there’s been about a 30% boost in hiring from the class of 2021 to 2022. What’s going to happen for the class of ’23?

RB: The class of 2023 will do well. They’ll enter workplaces that probably are a bit more balanced, more respectful to the whole individual, with fewer dictatorial approaches to management, perhaps more unionized. Now look, this won’t be nirvana. Work will remain a complex mix of good and bad dynamics. But what work is will be an important part of the societal conversation, and that will be good for graduates.

I understand that predictions are mostly guesses, but I do think workplaces are being reimagined and rethought. More workers will be working from home. More workers are going to assert their needs and desires, and they won’t just fall into prescribed, defined patterns of work. So, I think graduates will find workplaces have a more expansive understanding and appreciation of what it means to be an employee or a worker in our society. No matter what kind of economy they graduate into, education will matter. It will still pay off in the long run.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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