If colleges and universities are going to prepare students for the changing nature of work, then what occurs outside the classroom will be just as important as anything that happens in a lecture hall.
The conversation surrounding the future of work is gaining significant momentum. There is much debate regarding the disruptive potential of technology improvements and artificial intelligence, which some believe will cause the automation of many roles, especially those involving routine tasks.
Rainer Strack of Boston Consulting Group describes a skills mismatch as one component of the challenge, with roles requiring a higher level of skill development increasing in number as a result of greater automation and other factors, and not enough skilled employees to fill those roles.
With the future of work impossible to predict, preparing employees becomes a challenge. Which skills will employees need? How will employers share their needs and affect the development of their future employees? How will the development of training programs and college curricula be improved?
For higher education, this conversation is occurring in the larger context of accountability and return-on-investment. Families and policymakers, among others, are calling for increased evidence of the added value of a college degree. Employers express concern over gaps in the skills and professional development of college graduates, often citing that communication, problem solving, teamwork and critical thinking skills are necessary for success and lacking in the experience of college graduates.
In “The Future of Work: How Colleges Can Prepare Students for the Jobs Ahead,” Scott Carlson describes a global talent shortage that already exists, and he captures well the dynamic between skill development and job market needs. He states, “As the job market becomes more dynamic, and as employers look for increasingly unnatural combinations of skills, the most important talent will be harder and harder to find.”
Creativity in reducing or eliminating the shortage will be a requirement, and partnerships between higher education and employers will be likely.
Also from Carlson: “In the years to come, employers may also have to develop supply chains for talent, seeking out partnerships with higher-education institutions to cultivate the skills they need.”
So, who has the training and skills development manual for an ill-defined future of work? If not the manual, then experiential learning and cooperative education (co-op) provide several significant chapters. The best of these programs combine classroom experience with real-world experience without compromising academics.
Cooperative education colleges and universities have professional work experience and professional development as critical enhancements to the curriculum. At Drexel University, students have up to three six-month cooperative education opportunities in professional roles related to their career goals, with 80 percent of co-ops providing salaries.
These professional experiences are part of the curriculum and add to, not subtract from, academic rigor. Students are fully supported in securing a co-op position as they apply to, and interview with, one of 1,700 co-op partners, with many students receiving more than one offer of employment.
With three co-ops, students spend five years at Drexel, paying tuition only when they are enrolled in classes, not while on co-op. Students graduate with up to 18 months of professional experience and development, and long before commencement have built a professional resume and networks of contacts and references. Among graduates, 68 percent have at least one job offer before graduation and 59 percent have jobs, often with one of their co-op employers.
These students take what they learn in the classroom and apply it during their co-op. And, they bring what they learn on co-op back to the classroom to enrich the discussion and the classroom experience. Formal sessions are held so students can share their experience with faculty responsible for curriculum development to ensure that the curriculum is current, relevant and employer informed.
Equally important and relevant to preparing for the future of work is the university’s relationship with co-op partners around the world. As part of the partnership, Drexel elicits post co-op student performance and preparation feedback from co-op employers, again to ensure that the curriculum is aligned with employer needs.
As Carlson noted, “Employers will need to send out clearer signals for the kinds of skills that they need, and they will have to be more actively involved in job training.”
In such a climate, the co-op feedback loop facilitates employer input and influences curriculum.
Cooperative education schools are well ahead of the curve as the nature of work quickly changes. Students apply what they learn in the classroom while on co-op, they learn from their co-op experience and share what they learn with faculty and other students, and co-op partners candidly share constructive feedback relative to student preparation, and on it goes. Reform is driven by cutting-edge faculty, the student experience on co-op and the feedback of co-op partners, so that the curriculum is current, relevant and market informed.
The alignment of employers’ needs and the student experience has never been more important. Cooperative education is a model that has been in place at colleges for nearly 100 years. It was relevant at the beginning, and is even more relevant as the world of work quickly changes.