On June 14, 2011, Matt Wuerker published this political cartoon illustrating the state of accountability in education in the United States. The cartoon sparked much conversation around the water cooler at the community college I was working at the time it appeared. Ironically, the cartoon appeared around the time we in higher education were discussing the success or failure of developmental (remedial) education within the community colleges. Certainly some within our sector pointed to the public high schools, wondering why students arrive to our doors unprepared for college. Professors who teach in the first college English or Mathematics course after the developmental sequence often ask why students who took developmental course work aren't more prepared for the college course. Consequently, I have concluded Wuerker's cartoon is illustrative of many other "cycles" of blame that intersect with my profession.
Another example of this "blame game" swirles around "soft skills". In the course of my activities as a community college president I interact with economic development organizations, chambers of commerace and business professionals who hire our graduates. Each of our career and technical programs have advisory councils that meet at least twice annually to advise and guide our programs to ensure our graduates are prepared for the profession for which they trained. In each of these types of environments the term "soft skills" is mentioned. Many within these circles want us to produce graduates with "soft skills". When I probe these individuals about what they mean by "soft skills" I hear related themes, but not necessarily are the answers always the same.
By soft skills I frequently hear from businesses that they want individuals who will show up to work on time, work hard, get along with their colleagues, and can pass a drug test. Sometimes I hear conversations about soft skills to include communication, team work, collaboration, and worth ethic or "going the extra mile". Periodically, someone will throw in honesty as a desired skill. Ironically, the community college is also an employer and many of us who hire people to join the teams within our organization expect much of the same type of skills. We know first hand as an employer about the challenge of find people with the necessary soft skills to be successful in our organization.
On the flip side of this conversation I frequently talk to our students, particularly around fall enrollment and May graduation and when I ask our prospective students why they are thinking about coming to DACC or planning to study a particular program, they often tell me about the job or career they hope to obtain upon graduation. I have never heard a student tell me that they were coming to obtain a degree simply because they were interested in a subject and wanted to learn it "just because". The majority of students are hoping that their education opens up opportunities for a job or career.
When graduates are not able to obtain a job after graduation they wonder why and sometimes blame the college for not preparing them for a job. When employers are not able to find prospects with the skills they want and need they often look to us to ensure that our graduates have the "soft skills" employers want. Neither groups' expectations are unreasonable. The question I often ask myself - How do you "teach" these soft skills? We can teach programming, blood draws, welding melds, mathematical equations, grammar, painting techniques and so much more. But how does one learn a work ethic, honesty, teamwork?
More and more I am becoming persuaded that experiential learning is a vital component for preparing our graduates for work. Course work can assist graduates in obtaining the knowledge and technical skills necessary for their field of study, but only authentic experiences can help them truly understand what employers expect. Our faculty consistently report that they discuss them importance of these soft skills through out the curriculum. I have observed our faculty talking to their classes about these skills so I know they are telling our students about what they will need to be successful. However talking about skills is not the same as obtaining those skills - after all, I can talk about ice skating all I want, but that doesn't mean I can skate.
I believe we need consider how to expand our experiential learning experiences within our programs of study so students can observe and experience the expectations of employers. One of my favorite videos that best illustrates those expectations is entitled, "The Entitlement Creed". Click here to watch.