Employers keen on 21st-century skills

A degree is a powerful signal to employers that an applicant is motivated and invested, and has a swag of technical skills. However, the current pathway from degree to job in the competitive graduate employment market has two main problems.

Sadly, for many students, a degree is no longer a guarantee of a job. The Good Universities Guide reported in 2014 that up to half the students with a business or economics degree from some universities hadn’t secured full-time work in their field within four months of graduating. This is in a marketplace where 41 per cent of employers surveyed by Graduate Careers Australia in the same year reported they had difficulty sourcing graduates. Further, 23 per cent of these employers reported that they would have hired more graduates if appropriate people were available.

In short, employers want people with 21st-century skills. We call them the graduates of the future and there are three broad areas that will come to define this new generation.

First, these are graduates with a broad intellectual perspective and critical thinking skills. Organisations are facing unprecedented uncertainty and need people who can think critically to help them solve complex problems. They will leave university with a broad intellectual perspective. For example, it might be an accounting major who pursued a diploma in Spanish and studied an elective course in the sociology of rural trade.

Universities will help students develop these skills by offering a range of customisable, cross-disciplinary programs and by investing in lecturers’ teaching proficiency and mentoring skills to keep students engaged, motivated and thinking.

We are already seeing evidence of these trends, both in Australia and abroad. The Grattan Institute has reported that in 2014 almost 10 per cent of completing students had a combined or double degree and many students were undertaking study outside their primary faculty.

Graduates of the future also have the ability to create and maintain social networks. Employers are looking for applicants who work well with others from a variety of backgrounds and have the foundations of professional networks.

These are students who will leave university with strong interpersonal skills and have meaningful connections across local, and even international, networks. For example, an economics major who has completed a six-month exchange in Europe and participated in an emerging economists forum with students from around the country.

Universities will have encouraged and facilitated the development of multicultural social networks, both in the classroom through interactive forums and out of the classroom through societies and interest groups.

Graduates of the future will also have developed professional skills through work experience.

Employers are looking for graduates who can quickly start contributing to their businesses.

Graduates will bring familiarity with commercial concepts and the ability to manage multiple commitments. For example, an engineering major who has worked with fellow students and a software firm to develop an app and completed an internship at a boutique engineering firm.

Universities will facilitate connections with professional organisations and create flexible study arrangements and develop study pathways that connect students with industry.

In the future it will be common for universities to develop degree programs in partnership with professional firms where the student spends most of their time in industry rather than in the academy.

The graduate of the future and their employers will view the role of universities differently.

They will ask universities to focus less on simply delivering degrees and focus more on helping students develop the 21st-century skills required to be successful. It is critical for universities to respond to this shift.

If universities don’t respond, they may lose their relevance as gatekeepers of the skilled workforce and students and employers may look to different providers of graduates of the future.


This article orginally appeared in The Australian – Employers keen on 21st-century skills

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