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Preparing Students for the World of Work Beyond Academics

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Written by Andy Phillips, Chief Operating Officer, the University of Wollongong in Dubai

The pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented shift in the education sector – almost all universities have had to adapt their teaching models to a hybrid format to ensure that students are prepared for an increasingly competitive job landscape. Employers are now actively seeking candidates that possess skills beyond the academic curriculum, primarily critical thinking, problem-solving and soft skills.

The purpose of university education is often two-fold: preparing students for the future workplace and enabling them to secure lucrative jobs, as this is a core expectation of university graduates with a ‘job-based outlook’. The second is to take a ‘purpose-driven outlook’, whereby universities help shape well-rounded graduates and broadly prepare them to be successful – empowering them to think critically, communicate clearly, and grow as enlightened individuals.

The hard truth of the matter is that it isn’t an either-or situation. A modern educational institution needs to ensure it fulfils both objectives – preparing students to be future-ready, while also helping them find their own individual purpose. This, in turn, provides them with a definite direction in finding meaningful work.

In the current, increasingly complex work landscape, young graduates find themselves dealing with the rapid pace and scale of technology, the huge competition for a limited number of jobs as a result of the pandemic, and the ever-evolving world of workplace competencies. In this context, how can universities accomplish their core objectives?

Helping Students Find their ‘WHY’
Students need to find answers to some questions early on: who they are, their strengths, weaknesses, and interests. This will help them make the most of their degrees. A large number of university students find themselves changing their majors as they work through their programs, learning more about who they are and what they’re passionate about. When universities make a meticulous effort to help students identify their core strengths, it makes them more confident about choosing their career path and helps them to seek out and do more meaningful work.

Discovering a student’s ‘why’ can also be done using scientifically recognised tests, such as the Thomas International Personal Profile Analysis. This test assesses whether a student’s choice of the program matches their personality and allows them to know if they’re on the right career path before they graduate. Apart from the obvious benefits of more fulfilment, according to research emerging from Harvard, people with a sense of “purpose” tend to enjoy better mental and physical health, and live longer.

Creating Mentoring and Coaching Programs
“If you knew then what you know now, would you do anything differently?” This powerful question reminds us to appreciate the value of experience and hindsight. Early mentoring and coaching is key to providing students with the direction and guidance they need to make the choice.

Universities can create mentorship or coaching programs with professionals that essentially take students under their wing. In offering expert knowledge to students in fields such as communication, entrepreneurship, personal branding, human behaviour, and personal objective setting, these programs assess their aptitude for the course they have chosen through scientific techniques, and also include psychometric testing and personality profiling. At the end of the coaching program, students come away with the knowledge and confidence that gives them a head-start in the world of work.

Developing Soft Skills
The 2020 Future of Jobs report by The World Economic Forum (WEF) found that 50 percent of all employees will need reskilling by 2025. Interestingly, among the top 10 skills required in the next four years are problem-solving, self-management, and people skills – essentially soft skills.

In an era where complex processes and procedures are increasingly subject to automation, a combination of technical and uniquely human skills, are what differentiates the successful employee from the rest. The way we work has changed almost overnight. As we work from home, qualities like self-discipline, motivation, and initiative are becoming more significant than ever as the employer-employee dynamic continues to transform.

Skills such as leadership, creativity, teamwork, empathy, active listening, and critical thinking have been looked at and extensively studied for centuries. They are also on the list of employers’ most in-demand soft skills, according to a recent study conducted by LinkedIn.

A new report by Stanford Research Institute International also finds these skills are critical in determining 75 percent of long-term job success, while only the remaining 25 percent is attributed to technical skills. Furthermore, researchers at Harvard University, Boston University, and the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business also found that workers with soft skills training are 12 percent more productive than those without.

Investing at the Grassroots Level
Given the fast-paced world, we live in, following the traditional model where teachers and educators are accountable for a student’s success is almost unrealistic. This model needs to be revised to fit the world we live in today. Inspiring and empowering students and providing them with guidance, and 21st-century skillsets take precedence in navigating the modern workplace.

While this may seem an extra investment, making the effort to ensure students have the requisite skills at the onset of their learning journey could make all the difference in the world. Teaching students how to think and empowering them with soft skills – while also helping them answer why any of it matters are invaluable in helping them become more well-rounded individuals and potential employees.

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