Identifying and Teaching Enduring Skills:
Why employers and educators need one another to develop career-ready graduates
By Ben Nelson, Founder and CEO, Minerva Project
According to the Strada Gallup Survey 2017, 96% of Chief Academic Officers at universities think they are doing a good job preparing young people for the workforce. Less than half (41%) of college students shared that view and only 11% of business leaders thought so. This data point alone makes it imperative that employers work with higher education institutions to address this mismatched perception of employment readiness.
An obvious solution is for employers to identify the skills they are looking for and collaborate with the regional universities to teach those skills. There are two main challenges with this approach. First, many employers cannot identify nor articulate what skills they are looking for. And even when they do, they are not consequential in their hiring processes. They may identify, for example, project management as a crucial skill for graduates to succeed, however will still employ graduates based on their degree or discipline of study. Second, in the rare cases where they can identify those skills and hire for them, these skills are continuously evolving. Add to that the time lag it takes to obtain educators’ buy-in and implement curricular changes, these skills may be obsolete by the time the next generation of graduates are on the job market.
One approach is for employers and universities to partner well ahead of the graduation/employment phase, where students apply the skills they are learning in the classroom to the workplace. Students would add value to employers by solving real-world problems and then provide a feedback loop back to the university on how to hone the theoretical skills they are learning. This provides employers access to the curriculum the university is teaching and provides an opportunity to directly shape it. It also provides the university with a way to stress test the relevance of its curriculum and its applicability. Finally, students are able to graduate with professional experience even before they embark on their first job.
While this addresses the issue of relevance and applicability, the fact that most skills being taught expire in our rapidly evolving world remains valid. So which skills are future-proof and how do universities teach them? Much has been said about softs skills vs hard skills, or human skills vs tech skills. We, at Minerva, speak about enduring skills. Skills that transcend evolving contexts and changing landscapes. Skills that emphasise concepts which remain valid regardless of discipline, field of work, or time. These are hard to identify, measure and teach. To illustrate, most employers will cite that critical thinking is an essential skill but are unable to identify the ingredients that make up that skill. Even fewer are able to assess whether a potential candidate possesses it. As a result, that employer will not hire for that skill and lament the fact that universities are not preparing graduates for employment.
Similarly, while most universities will state that critical thinking is an essential skill, and many will even claim to teach it, virtually none can pinpoint where and how they do that in their curriculum. Rather they hope their graduates amass this skill by osmosis.
At Minerva, we have adopted the four core “enduring” competencies that the majority of employers state are important to them, namely critical thinking, creative thinking, effective communication and effective interrelation. We have then broken them down to dozens of concepts and habits that we focus on teaching across a variety of contexts. To continue with our example, some of the concepts that comprise critical thinking will include causation vs correlation, bias identification and plausibility. These and more than twenty other concepts and habits are intentionally taught in our curriculum, and applied and practised in fields such as sociology, physics or computer science. This means that when students graduate, and encounter new and changing professions, they have already learned and practised these concepts and can apply them to any new or changing environment.
Through our partnerships with universities such as Zayed University or ESADE, employers are brought on board at the onset of a student’s education and students can apply those enduring skills early on in the professional world. Through our partnership with Zayed University, students can enrol in three interdisciplinary programs, and practise the skills they learn with some of the top regional employers. Employers also learn to recognize and assess the skills they so desperately need, thus improving their entire hiring process. It is only through similarly intentional, thoughtful and early partnerships between employers and educators that we are able to genuinely address the enduring skills gap.