Fostering Employability Skills for Students

Measuring and building students’ critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication skills will help them succeed not only in their coursework, but also in their future careers. Proficiency in these skills has also proven to be predictive of positive academic and career outcomes, and these are the skills most in-demand by today’s employers.

However, recent research indicates that there is a gap between what employers look for in potential hires and the skills, or lack thereof, that students possess post-graduation. This highlights a critical area of higher education that needs attention. 

To explore the importance of essential skills in preparing students for career success and the use of micro-credentials to demonstrate proficiency in these areas, the Council for Aid to Education Inc. (CAE) hosted an informational webinar with their strategic partner, Edalex. 

The CAE is a nonprofit developer of assessments that measure students’ academic and career readiness. Edalex is an edTech company on a mission to surface learning outcomes, digital assets, and the power of individual achievement. Together, the organizations have assessed over 800,000 students at over 1,300 institutions worldwide and their partnership delivers exciting evidence-based micro-credentials of students’ essential skills.

Employers ascertain that proficiency in analyzing, problem solving, working with a team, and communicating effectively through writing and speaking are considered priority and even mandatory skills for potential hires. Despite the increased demand for higher-order employability skills in the workforce, these competencies are seldom explicitly taught or measured by higher education institutions. 

In fact, employers have a lack of applicants who overtly possess these skills. Sixty percent of employers say that recent college grads do not have the necessary skills for the applied position and 44% of employers report that graduates lack writing proficiency, according to a survey by PayScale in 2016. Moreover, data from CAE’s Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA+) indicate that 60% of incoming students are indeed not proficient in critical thinking, problem solving, and written communication. 

Even students recognize that critical thinking and problem solving are vital skills for their careers. According to a recent survey, 95% of incoming undergraduate students at a leading business school in the United States believe that the possession of these skills impacts their employability. 

“These skills are consistently ranked by employers as most important, even more valuable than content knowledge. However, they are rarely taught, measured, or reported on transcripts,” said Doris Zahner, Ph.D., Chief Academic Officer, CAE. “There is a gap between the knowledge students have upon graduation and the skills employees need for success. Our research shows a great opportunity to close that gap and improve outcomes for everyone.” 

Therefore, to better prepare students entering the workforce, higher education institutions must implement authentic assessments into curricula. Authentic assessments include:

  • Real world scenarios where students are situated in a likely hypothetical environment that requires the application of critical thinking, problem-solving, and written communication skills.
  • Requiring students to use supplied reference materials to organize information, define the problem, address issues, consider and evaluate solutions, and recommend and defend a course of action. 
  • Flexible scoring, requiring no single “right” answer, which reflects a range of plausible and effective response strategies to mimic real-world decision environments. 

In a specific case study, the goal was to improve the ability of students to think critically and implement problem-solving tactics, increasing academic success and better preparing students to enter the workforce. They followed a structure of assessing incoming students to create a baseline of skill sets, analyzing assessment data to focus student support efforts, implementing critical thinking instruction into the classroom, encourage students to practice skills in specifically curated performance tasks that align with instruction, and finally re-assess exiting students to provide micro-credentials based on their mastery level. 

Helping students improve employability skills requires higher education leaders to implement authentic and reliable assessments. To support skill development for students, professional development may also be needed on how to integrate essential skills instruction into existing curricula. Rewarding students with micro-credentials for mastery of essential skills helps students tangibly showcase to future employers that they are ready to enter the workforce.