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Can Academia Prepare You for Your Next Job?

While I’m used to hearing comments such as “employers value competencies” and “we need to bridge the gap between college and career” at career counseling conferences, these thoughts were reinforced during presentations at the recent Sloan Consortium Annual Conference on Online Learning.

Reports from both the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce project the need for workers with postsecondary education to rise as the number of jobs requiring this level of preparation increases into the next decade. But it’s not clear that higher education is preparing students for the workplace.

Jeff Selingo’s recent article “Skills Gap? Employers and Colleges Point Fingers at Each Other” addresses the current debate and suggests that improvements can me made on both sides, with colleges doing their part by improving assistance to students transitioning from school to work. Educators and administrators are starting to see the need and recognize that students – new college students and adult learners returning to the classroom – arrive with expectations that their academic programs will help prepare them for future work. And the response includes initiatives and activities that bridge the gaps through career exploration, practical experience, and career services integration.

Career Exploration

  • Informational interviews have long been a staple of professional networking. The goal is to establish a connection with someone working in your industry and meet with them to get more information, insight, and advice about the field. This concept has made its way into class assignments as a way for instructors to help students meet with people working in their area of study.
  • Guest speakers and lecturers are also not new, but take some time to coordinate. Bringing practicing professionals into a classroom, face-to-face or online, allows learners to ask questions and get another perspective on the realities of the workplace. Browse a list of potential guests who have registered with MERLOT’s Virtual Speakers Bureau by field of study.
  • Alumni-student mentorship programs are growing in popularity as a way to not only connect students with those who have graduated from their programs, but also to help those graduates maintain a connection with the school. Activities that match alumni with current students may be included in class assignments, capstone courses, and through other partnerships within school academic programs and alumni services offices. University of Phoenix boasts a program that included over 4,000 alumni mentors in 2010.

Applied Experience

  • Internship, co-op, and practicum experiences are more important than ever allowing students to experience the workplace while they are in school. Hands-on learning and exposure to real-world projects as part of a professional team are just two of the possible benefits for students, further informing their career decisions and making them potentially more attractive to future employers after they graduate.
  • Service learning opportunities combine community service with academic coursework as students work with local agencies to carry out projects that affect their communities in positive ways. When coordinated and supported through the curriculum, students not only provide service, but also extend their own learning experiences in these settings, networking as they go.

Career Services Integration

  • Career development presentations are often available through a college or university’s career center. Counselors and employment specialists work with instructors to offer sessions and resources that tie in the area of study with career and job search topics, such as resume writing, graduate school decisions, and current hiring trends and projections.
  • Academic advisors and career services facilitators are also working together to provide students with jointly offered services that address both academic and career decision-making. Florida State University’s Advising First program is an example of how two traditionally separate groups can collaborate.
  • Employer partnerships, such as those taking place at Central Piedmont Community College (NC) and American Public University System, create new ways for students to network professionally and learn about employment opportunities, as well as keep instructors and administrators connected with current trends in their fields. Through participation in numerous ways, from job fairs to advisory boards, companies and organizations with an interest in hiring new graduates are becoming part of the larger conversations about education and career readiness.

Many online students enter their programs with specific career goals in mind. And learners at all post secondary levels – certificate, undergraduate, graduate – stand to benefit from the integration of career and academic experiences as they prepare to meet the ever-changing demands of the world of work.

What career development activities would you like to see added to your online courses?

Image credit: photologue_np, Flickr, CC:BY