Kentucky colleges are going beyond teaching students the soft skills employers want

by Joseph K. Clark

Aaron Thompson is the president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education. In conversations across Kentucky, business leaders routinely approach me to discuss what they’re looking for in college graduates. Over and over again, they say that while colleges do a great job providing technical training and knowledge to their students, that is not what they need most from higher education. Indeed, many companies increasingly believe they can provide much of that content themselves. They struggle to find—or develop — workers with the uniquely human skills that make a great employee.

Employers seek individuals with good communication, leadership, and problem-solving skills. They expect workers to be flexible, creative, adaptable, culturally competent in diverse environments, able to work in teams, and eager to retrain and reskill as technology advances. So many college graduates seemingly lack these critical competencies (or, if they have them, cannot demonstrate this mastery to employers) points to a failure to connect what students are learning in the classroom to employers’ evolving expectations.

That’s why, through a partnership with the nonprofit Quality Assurance Commons, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education has worked to embed career competencies into a student’s educational experience. We aim to bridge the classroom and workplace gap by teaching academic concepts through hands-on, practical applications and internships or job shadowing experiences. Sixteen academic programs at six participating schools and employers from five key industries participated in the pilot initiative, which started in November 2018. Programs were certified in April 2020. Aaron Thompson is the president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.


Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

First, we created a framework for regularly bringing together faculty, career services professionals, and institutional research offices. While these individuals play a critical role in developing and measuring workplace-essential skills in students, they primarily work in a vacuum.

Next, we built relationships between this collective and regional employer and alums across critical sectors such as construction, manufacturing, healthcare, logistics, and business services and technology. These individuals provided academic programs and career services professionals with up-to-the-minute commercial perspectives on how the workplace changes and what skills successful job candidates need. In some cases, they even consulted with faculty to develop assignments or projects.

Finally, we developed a rigorous certification process. As a third party, the QA Commons reviews a school’s academic programs to determine graduates’ workplace readiness, based not only on the curriculum but also on graduates’ job performance. Each program submitted a detailed portfolio of evidence around five categories for external review. The categories included proficiency in essential employability skills and engagement with employers and alums.

The certification provides institutions with a clear benchmark by which to evaluate student success, both inside and outside the classroom, and how academic programs align with an ever-evolving world of work. Once widely recognized, this certification could help employers feel assured that graduates will be quality hires. So far, initially certified programs have served more than 3,000 students across Kentucky, with more programs coming online.

The pilot campuses realized several benefits through their participation in this initiative. Perhaps most importantly, employers and institutions developed a shared language around — and a deeper understanding of — what quality and success should look like for programs and students. This vocabulary is best summed up by what QA Commons calls Essential Employability Qualities, or EQs. These eight skills paint a picture of a hireable graduate — adept at communication, problem-solving, inquiry, and collaboration and adaptable, conscientious, professional, and always willing to learn.

Mastering the language of EEQs increased students’ ability to communicate their workplace readiness to potential employers. The experience they gained from successfully performing real-world job tasks increased their confidence in their qualifications. Because employers were involved in shaping the curriculum, they also felt more confident in graduates’ abilities.

Professional development for faculty has been critical to the effort’s success. It has helped them understand EEQs, how to embed them in the curriculum, and how to assess them. It also helped them learn how to follow up with graduates and employers to confirm graduates were indeed workplace-ready. We developed a Faculty Employability Fellows program to encourage and support 14 faculty from seven public colleges and universities as they reimagined their roles in preparing students for careers. We continue to seek ways to support and deepen these faculty-employer relationships.

Our goal is to serve as a model for state and system leaders across the country looking to improve the quality of their institutions and programs and hoping to boost the employability of their graduates. State agencies can provide leadership and guidance to help students master the skills that carry them through their careers.

Students invest so much in higher education. The return on that investment must include improved employment opportunities and in-demand, industry-informed soft skills. The COVID-19 pandemic and its economic fallout have emphasized the need for these competencies, especially adaptability and resilience. This work is not easy, but it is necessary.

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