Going beyond the textbook: preparing college students from the nonacademic side of careers

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There is a reason many people remember college as “the best years of your life.” For four or so years, we escape from “real life,” living instead where everyone is about our age, where life’s challenges are finishing projects and studying for tests, and where a spring break is built in every March.

Theoretically, we are also gaining the skills we will need to be employed and have a career after graduation. We do the projects, take the tests and get the diploma that says we are educated. But studies show that what employers are looking for most isn’t being taught in class, and most of us aren’t picking it up on our own.

According to a 2013 study conducted by Workforce Solutions Group in St. Louis, a majority of job seekers are lacking “soft skills” such as critical thinking, creativity and problem solving. And it’s becoming a problem.

They ranked a lack of communication and interpersonal skills as the most common deficit in potential employees (59 percent), followed by a poor work ethic (56 percent), and lack of critical thinking and problem solving (54 percent). “Creativity” was added to the list of lacking “soft skills” for the first time in 2013 with a response of 45.7 percent.

A study conducted by staffing company Adecco found that 92 percent of company senior executives thought that job seekers lacked seriously necessary skills. Forty-four percent of the missing skills were “soft skills,” while only 22 percent were technical skills. Leadership (14 percent) and computer skills (12 percent) were also cited.

There isn’t one single cause to blame for this issue. Instead, it is the result of a generation surrounded and dependent on technology and instant gratification, an education system focused on test results and assessments, and a society that pulls everyone in a hundred directions at once.

In the classroom, we become preoccupied with fulfilling the specific requirements to get the letter grade we desire. We walk around checking Twitter between classes. The need for extensive problem solving is rare because things are so often already laid out for us. None of these things prepare us for a professional career where creativity, critical thinking and problem solving are vital.

During my summer internship, I felt I was pretty well-equipped to handle the technical demands of my job. I was less prepared for other things, like the fact that I was allowed and encouraged to be creative. I needed quick and self-reliant problem solving skills. My co-workers were in the over-22-years-old category, and saw things differently. I adapted quickly, but it was an adjustment. These are elements that life before graduation doesn’t always prepare us for, but that employers are looking for.

Not all students go through college without picking up these skills, of course. There are education and extra-curricular programs that excel at encouraging creativity and critical thinking. Those who naturally excel at these skills, or who work hard to build them, have an advantage, according to the studies. But there are too many people that miss out on these opportunities.

If our generation wants to become successful members of the work force, we aren’t doing ourselves any favors by burying our faces in our smartphones and skating by on multiple-choice tests. We can’t forget to think. We can’t forget that we are intelligent, independent people who are capable of great things. We can’t forget that sometimes the best things in life take work and time.

College is great. Most of us have fewer worries than we will after “real life” begins. It’s a time to have fun, figure out who we are and what we want to do, and how to do that thing. But we can’t forget to remember to look beyond the multiple-choice tests and limestone-rimmed bubble of college to see what else we need to succeed after it pops.

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