With the ceremonies behind us, new graduates fortunate to have landed a job are heading off to work. Hot on their heels, another entering class of freshmen is readying to enroll in colleges and universities to prepare for a complex future as citizens and workers. Each time this procession across the stage occurs, alarms — since at least 1983 — alert us to eroding educational standards and the risks posed to our nation’s economic competitiveness.
National assessments and international comparisons suggest that our educational system is not adequately preparing America’s students. But what is it, we ask, that we are not preparing students for or to do?
Of late, considerable attention — from employers, the media and public policymakers — is being directed to job skills and attributes that future employees will need to be successful. Some commentaries focus on the importance of vocationally oriented skills that job seekers must have in hand, ready when they arrive on the doorstep of a potential employer. Others suggest that a broad range of intellectual and personal attributes will put job-seekers in better stead, better position them for the broad array of career choices that are now available and will be available over the duration of their work years.
These seemingly divergent opinions leave those entering college, trying to choose career tracks, at bay. In what direction should they go? What major should they choose? What skills and attributes are most valuable? What do employers want, and need, for the present and for the future?
On June 26, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce issued a report, “Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements through 2020.” This followed an April 10 report from Hart Research Associates entitled “It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success.” The former updates job creation projections and corresponding education requirements through 2018, while the latter provides an analysis of “employer priorities for the kinds of learning today’s college students need to succeed in today’s economy.”
Both conclude similarly. A liberal arts education is essential to efforts to achieve important national goals: educating Americans in the knowledge and skills they need to thrive, fostering an innovative and competitive society, and equipping the nation for leadership in an interconnected world.
The consensus among employers, according to Hart, is that innovation, critical thinking and a broad skill set are important for taking on the complex challenges in the workplace. When asked what they look for in employees, the CEO of Boeing said “his most successful engineers are not only technically proficient but also able to communicate and interact with people from divergent backgrounds.”
The former head of U.S. military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan cited “the importance of studying foreign languages, histories and cultures, and beliefs and ethical systems different from our own,” and the head of Lockheed Martin said, “STEM [science, technology, engineering, math] fields alone are an insufficient preparation for life.”
What each of these leaders promotes is an approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change — a rigorous liberal education that develops a sense of social responsibility, strong intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills that span all major fields of study, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.
An Association of American Colleges and Universities 2013 survey of business and nonprofit organizations confirms their statements:
• 93 percent said “a demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than [a candidate’s] undergraduate major;
• 90 percent said candidates need to demonstrate “ethical judgment and integrity, intercultural skills and the capacity for continued learning,” and
• 75 percent of employers called for “more emphasis on five key areas — critical thinking, complex problem-solving, written and oral communication, and applied knowledge in real-world settings.”
So, whose job is it to align the quality of our educational experience with the demands of life and work? Must we listen better to understand employers’ demanding message — to provide sound liberal education to all students in higher education? The signals are all very clear, and we have enough information to act.
For students who will be asked to choose from an expansive array of programs of study and too often, acquire extraordinary debt to complete a college education, the consequence of choices will shape their lives. We must, therefore, place liberal education at the forefront of higher education, guiding students in ways that employers and industry leaders say we must. A failure to create the resolve not only places our economy at further risk but erodes the very foundation of our democracy as we head into the 21st century.
John Dorrer is former acting commissioner and director of the Center for Workforce Research and Information at the Maine Department of Labor. He is now a workforce consultant. Luisa S. Deprez is professor of sociology and women and gender studies at the University of Southern Maine. Dorrer is a member, and Deprez is co-director, of the Maine Regional Network, part of the Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.