University graduation banquets are – or were, in our pre-pandemic days – a great joy to attend. As a faculty member and then later department head, I attended our graduation banquet with anticipation. Every year, students arrived in their Sunday best (or more accurately, Saturday night best) with parents, partners, and siblings in tow, ready to celebrate their hard-won accomplishments. There were speeches, some poking fun at faculty and instructors, some mentioning student inside jokes that I was happy to not understand. And, of course, there were the ubiquitous comments about the future.
“I loved studying political science. I wonder if I will ever get a job.”
“My parents aren’t sure how my knowledge of Rousseau relates to me ever moving out of the basement.”
“Most employers are looking for a deep understanding of electoral systems, right?”
Behind their jokes, students openly worried about their ability to transition to the workforce and questioned whether they would offer anything of value to the world around them. They were clearly anxious about their futures and uncertain that their university education prepared them for much of anything. They knew that their education had a private benefit to them in terms of personal interest and satisfaction but could not clearly see the public benefit or application of their advanced education.
My conversations with colleagues in other disciplines, ranging from STEM to Fine Arts, and from other universities revealed similar stories. Many graduating students across all disciplines have difficulty articulating the value and relevance of their university studies.
The perceived disconnection between higher education and careers
The fact that graduating students do not see the relevance of their studies troubles me as an educator. I believe very strongly in the value, both public and private, of postsecondary education. I believe that postsecondary education is worth pursuing and worth supporting with both private (tuition) and public funds. And I worry that a broader sense of disconnection between higher education and “the real world” (scare quotes intended) may contribute, over time, to the societal undervaluing of and under-investment in postsecondary education over time.
Over the past half-decade, I have redirected my research, teaching, and academic leadership to focus on career skills development in higher education. In doing so, I have discovered that career skills training is congruent with what many think of as more “traditional” academic training, can be easily integrated into both classroom and online learning, and – importantly – is rewarding for both instructors and students.
Over this same time, I observed growing public sector and private sector desires for postsecondary institutions to do more with respect to career skills training. From the well-publicized RBC report, Humans Wanted, to provincial government attention to post secondary performance metrics that include skills, to a general interest in re-skilling, up-skilling, and “future skills,” questions and opinions about the role of post-secondary education in our current and future labour market abound.
A postsecondary skills agenda is emerging. In my opinion, as faculty and educators we would be wise to engage with these discussions, lest the skills agenda be set without us.
Introducing The Skills Agenda
I am writing The Skills Agenda column to support instructors – faculty and sessional/contingent instructors alike – who wish to weave career skill development into their university classes. Skills, for the purposes of this column, are broadly defined to include both career competencies, such as written communication and critical thinking, and applied, focused skills, such as how to use a particular instrument, tool, or software. On a monthly (or more) basis, I will use this column to provide you with small, manageable steps that you can take to help your students with skill development. I aim to empower you as an instructor to see your own potential to advance skills development for your students, and I aim to inspire you to do so.
My motivations in writing this column are multiple. I am passionate about teaching, and I am particularly enthusiastic about teaching people things I learned the hard way. I take pleasure in working with people to both change thinking about an issue and have their insights and experiences change my own thinking. And I am excited about the potential for universities to lead a skills agenda that will create the transformative change that Canada needs for the years and decades ahead. I believe that we need to evolve our teaching to realize this potential.
How The Skills Agenda can benefit faculty and instructors
The idea of building skills into your teaching outcomes may feel like just another thing, one straw too many for you as an overburdened instructor. I get that. As I write this, instructors across Canada continue to teach under pandemic conditions, with remote learning and uncertainty about the conditions of future semesters. Many of you, like me, are juggling academic and family caregiver responsibilities while trying to maintain your own health and well being. We have reached a time in which we have surpassed “enough” and moved well into the realm of “too much.”
For this reason, The Skills Agenda will focus on small steps that you can take that will not increase your workload, and ideally, that will reduce it. Like most instructors, you likely already implicitly teach your students a number of career relevant skills already. My goal is to help you increase the impact of your current efforts through small changes that build over time.
Starting the conversation: #SkillsAgenda
My vision is that The Skills Agenda will provoke conversations amongst faculty, teaching and learning staff, and others interested in student success, and that through these conversations we will learn together.
To this end, I invite you into the conversation with me. Do you currently incorporate skills training in your university classes? If so, how do you approach it? Please let me know by connecting with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl and sharing your thoughts using the hashtag #SkillsAgenda.
I look forward to hearing from you, and to sharing practical strategies with you in the months ahead.
Stay well, my colleagues.