Posted by: wiltjk | April 28, 2010

What knowledge, skills, and experiences do graduates need to be competitive?

As my daughter graduates from university this Saturday, I’m bringing back my post on the skills that graduates need to be competitive…

[originally posted on 11/29/2008]

I’m bummed.

This Saturday is my semi-annual Central Michigan University College of Science & Technology Advisory Board meeting and I’ll be returning from a business trip and have to miss it. One reason beyond getting to meet with some of the greatest scientific minds of our time is that we have a really cool agenda. The focus of this posting is:

6.    Discussion – What knowledge, skills, and experiences do our graduates need to be competitive? To get those neurons firing…

Assuming that the core knowledge is in the major, what might be missing? What skills are needed for success? Statistics, data analysis, communication, comfort with international communication and travel? Finally, what experiences should our students have? Do they need internships, co-ops, summer jobs, research projects?

I didn’t have to think long at all on this one as it comes up frequently among my colleagues (whom I hope post their opinions as well). Here’s a quote from a recent gathering of world-wide colleagues when we were discussing new-hires:  .

“Back in the 80’s, new-hires worked 80-90 hour weeks on their own, thinking they were making a difference, and they did. Today, new hires feel they are owed the privilege of working 32 hour weeks and lack both the passion and work ethic to make a difference.”

Discussion led to some possible reasons why:

  • Four (4) day school weeks and student/parent centered (not education centered) posturing of universities tend promote a lazy research/work ethic and will often set student’s expectations as such
  • Many new hires are too often content with mediocrity. Perhaps employers need to create a reward system that capitalizes off the new “gamer” mentality  that prevails in many technology new-hires (e.g., each successful project results in “moving-up to the next dev level with 5 virtual quality tokens”)

My opinion:

Universities need to choose who they want to be:

  • Vocation training institutions who’s metric of success is based on the quantity of job placements
  • Higher education institutions who’s metric of success is based on the quality of their graduates’ ability to excel at thinking and learning

Universities can excel at one or the other, but too often fail when they attempt both.

Skills which make a difference in industry:

  • Communication (written, interpersonal, presentation)
  • Problem Solving (those that tend to come from mathematics and the pure sciences)
  • Learning to Accept Failure (gracefully) and to Learn from Failure
  • Internships and travel abroad can be most beneficial and a foreign language will take you even further
  • Learning to quickly learn and come up to speed on new concepts
  • Oral Exams to promote Thinking on your Feet will go a long way
  • If there is no passion, encourage students to instead pursue that for which they have a passion

Consider my Diagram of Success:

No matter where you set your sights (dashes), gravity (reality) takes you one step lower (solid lines).

  • If you enter higher education with the goal of becoming rich, you will never be rich, satisfied, or content; you may eventually consider your life is in the toilet.
  • If you set your passion and goals to reaching some form of perfection (the star) in your chosen profession, you will never reach that perfection (and at times, this will frustrated you), but you will always seem to have enough finances to get by and you will find contentment and reward in your efforts. You may even have a major impact on industry.



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