There is one philosophy that my team here at Blackboard and I live by: put learners at the center. It drives everything from the way we do business to the way we design our products.

So when I had the opportunity to engage in an open dialogue with 150 college student body leaders from around the country at the White House and Chamber of Commerce, I jumped on it with gusto.

It was both a humbling and enlightening experience. Humbling because these students were not just crazy bright, they were highly engaged in activities so far beyond what we dealt with when I was a student body leader. They asked questions about financial aid regulations and trade negotiations like they worked for a policy think tank. And they spoke about how we combat sexual assault on campus with both passion for the issue and conviction that they can be the change.

And while the day was filled with such a breadth of conversations, what was exceptionally enlightening for me was the time they spent focused on workforce readiness. The students had asked for this to be a major topic, not surprisingly, since the one thing that near all learners in higher education seem to be worried about these days is getting on (or improving) their career path. In these discussions, including a panel at the Chamber of Commerce, three themes emerged.

1. Learners aren’t building the soft skills they need to confidently enter the workforce.  

What I heard from the student leadership at the event was that they felt as though it was up to them, through extracurricular activities or other outside-the-classroom means, to master soft skills. And they were very interested in finding out ways their schools could help them.

What was most interesting to me – and ironic – was that this group of students who met with their institution presidents at least monthly and felt they had a voice in topics such as climate change and institution investment portfolios, felt completely powerless when it came to the academic side of their educational experience – the side of their experience that is arguably the core of what they are getting from the institution.

They were encouraged by the thought that soft skills can actually be developed through a combination of curricular and co-curricular activities and empowered by the idea that they should bring their voice to that need. In my estimation, there shouldn’t be a single committee on campus that doesn’t have student representation; and certainly not one that deals with the academic experience.

2. College students are worried about two things: getting a job and paying for school.

Okay – admittedly, this is definitely not unexpected. But what was startling was the manner in which these student leaders spoke about these issues. There were very troubling levels of anxiety with this group of young leaders – and the fact that the students who would seemingly be in very good shape for a fruitful career after college, the ones who have worked hard to earn these leadership positions – are as anxious as any of their peers about finding a job and eventually paying for college. It was common across leaders at elite privates, public institutions and community colleges. And these students were focused on this not just for themselves, but as staunch advocates for the needs of the students they represented.

We talk quite a bit about technology’s potential to help us reduce the skills gap in increasing access to quality education, lowering the cost barriers and scaling effective practices in teaching and learning and retention. In this conversation it really struck me that another powerful way technology can impact career readiness is in supporting the transformation of career services. Instead of classic resume services, technology can act as a means of creating lifelong learning portfolios that showcase not just academic achievements and work experiences, but skills – both hard skills and soft skills – competencies and expertise. This also enables career counselors to spend time helping students determine what is next for them on their path to career.

3. Students want to experience ‘The Office’ outside of just the T.V. show.

Beyond the aforementioned issues of feeling unprepared with the soft and hard skills that they need to be successful in a workplace environment, students are also faced with a very real and daunting unknown: what is it actually like in an office? Do I actually want to work in an office (because now I have more choice)?

Marvin, Kent State University’s student body president, told us that many of his peers have parents who have never worked in an office environment. “Take your child to work days,” Marvin told us, “have never existed for these people.”

The most critical relationship moving forward in order to eliminate this barrier is between employer and institution. Of course, we need these bridges to better match the experiences we are providing and skills we are building to what is needed in the job market. But we also need them so that we can give students a real taste of what a particular career pathway will be like. This way, we can have fewer people spending time and money on a path that doesn’t lead them where they want to go. So, along with alignment on outcomes, we need employers to be involved in showcasing the reality of work to the students they are hoping to reach. And, of course, they must do so by meeting the learners where they are – on the devices and the digital environments where they live and operate every day.

So, all in all, it was an enlightening day for me as I continue to think about the connection between formal education and career progression. To learn more about the organization that helped put on this great event, click here.


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