Last week the National Association of Colleges and Employers met in Las Vegas. Most of the national educational conferences I attend are pretty rarefied; they typically draw a few hundred people. This one had thousands, from all over the world. And, unlike the state-level workforce development events I used to attend, this one wasn’t all hype and hope. It was graced by actual employers, many of whom sponsored the event.
I was tagging along with the director of my university’s career center and a couple of her staff to hear firsthand what employers would like from us, unmediated by surveys or the higher ed press. Some takeaways while they’re fresh:
Not everyone recruits from campuses. The companies at this conference aren’t a cross section of the economy. There are few non-profits in NACE, even fewer from the public sector, and not a single mom-and-pop. The private businesses that trawl for freshly minted college grads are the ones big enough to have managers of “university relations,” and extensive in-house offices of onboarding and orientation. They see themselves – accurately – as our fellow educators. And since tenure in an entry level job is typically under two years, their business looks a whole lot like ours. People come in, they get some personal development, they leave. Each year’s round of new hires is called a “cohort.” For the companies that choose to engage in it, this very early career guidance is almost a contribution to the public good.
There is really something in it for them. Almost a contribution to the public good. The large and well-heeled do this out of enlightened self-interest. A vivid explanation came from insurance monolith AIG, whose presenters – both in talent acquisition and early development, one from the New York office and other from Chicago – spoke fluently of learning outcomes, engaging pedagogy, on-line portfolios and learning management systems. I about fell out of the folding chair.
They went on to say how it pays off: the people they hire fresh from college are versatile, impressionable, and forming lifelong networks and habits. After their crash course in the insurance sector and AIG culture, they will move on to take jobs with AIG’s customers, clients, vendors, and partners, and an early and positive experience with AIG could pay off for decades.
No one wants to look at an ePortfolio. I went to NACE hoping to find a warm welcome for best practices in higher ed: experiential learning, ePortfolios with meta-cognitive accounts from students of their college experiences, supported with artifacts that demonstrate developing proficiency over the undergraduate years. I mean, we’re all dissatisfied with the transcript and resume, right? What I saw was that no one, I mean no one, wants to even glance at these. The only thing employers don’t like about the one-page resume is that it’s too long.
But what ePortfolios develop does matter. I skipped lunch for an intense conversation with the recruiter from a large and noticeably successful investment firm. (I didn’t get hired.) Like many in the financial services sector they try to hire from the interns they host and get to know. So for our students that first cut is the hardest; there are thousands of applicants for only 40 internship slots, understood as the ticket to a job. Grades matter, but only to a point: once you’re above a 3.2 they don’t rank you on how far. Instead they turn to the other things they care about, gleaned from your resume and – if you’re lucky – an interview.
Only what an interview. The VP described a breathtaking zeal for quality control. The interviewers get daylong training retreats. Each one learns to focus on one or two of the dozen soft skills that her firm wants – results orientation, intellectual rigor, professionalism, communication skills. Finance doesn’t come up. Then all 120 or so interviewees go through six 30-minute interviews apiece, where they’re asked by pairs of interviewers “not what you know, but how you think.” Applicants are expected to speak confidently about their past experiences, what those experiences taught them, how they’d behave differently next time, how they know what they’re good at.
In other words, they’re effectively narrating what they’d discover about themselves by creating an ePortfolio. Except that the VP had never heard of ePortfolios, and when I gushed about them she was visibly unimpressed. She didn’t object, but their value is just utterly outside her sphere. It was like asking her to comment on an intern’s early childhood nutrition.
Soft skills are ascendant. I’m used to conferences where the sponsors and exhibitors sell ePortfolios, and software for tracking and reporting student learning outcomes, typically for accreditors and other oversight entities. Here it was also software, but outside of curriculum. There was a lot of CRM-style contacts management, alumni networking tools, job fair event management, and office workflow.
Two companies caught my attention, both peddling psychometric platforms to tell you whether your next hire would fit your company culture. The list of virtues was similar at both: problem solving ability, performance under pressure, work with diverse teams, creativity. Both had been around for decades, but each reported – in separate conversations – that business had boomed in just the past couple of years. Their market seemed to be the companies who wanted the same things their large, NACE-member competitors provide, but who have less in-house capacity or zeal.
I asked both reps whether they noticed certain higher ed institutions or practices do a better job of developing these skills. I was hoping to hear support for undergraduate research, service learning, team-based or project-based learning. From one I got a blank look; his company had been in this business since the 1980s and it had never come up. He even seemed to doubt you could intentionally cultivate any of this, that instead some people were just naturally creative, or easy to get along with.
From the second, Maure Baker of Performance Assessment Network, I got better informed responses, maybe because he’d worked on college campuses before leaving to start up AmIJobReady.com for PAN. In his opinion there were patterns in the student experiences that develop these outcomes, but they didn’t relate to particular campuses or practices. Instead, he believes the key is institutional integration: when faculty, career services, curriculum, and student affairs are all collaborating, the students come out with better soft skills. As near as I can tell, his experience matches the best working hypothesis in my field.
There is opportunity here. Sometimes the language barrier was unsettling, like I’d overflown Vegas and landed in Turkmenistan. But more often I felt like a railroad baron looking across an open desert, where the biggest challenge is suppressing an unseemly giggle.
I would like that psychometric data, the decades of soft-skill assessments homegrown and tested by cycles of employers and graduates, so far apparently disconnected from academic affairs. PAN sorts them by economic sector, showing for example how nurses need more resilience under pressure than client service reps.
It would be cool to show those pie charts to incoming freshmen with declared majors, and run them through the same assessment. We could then hand them a personalized report on where their gaps are, writing out a kind of higher ed medical prescription for their next four years, comprised of courses as well as co-curriculars, and developed with faculty in the relevant majors. Then they’d go off and do it, keeping track of what they learn about the world and themselves along the way in – yes – an ePortfolio, not because anyone but their families may ever see it, but so that they’re ready to explain it all in a 90-second elevator pitch, or 30-minute high-octane interview.
I know we already do some badging for these skills, and many summer orientation programs – including those at my university – include some kind of psychometric assessment and introduction to career services at entry. But we have far to go, and the two sides of higher ed seem to have been developing these from different directions.
All of this could be wrong. As my first impressions these are naive, and suspect. Also, I have to beware sampling error. For example, in the public sector – not represented at last week’s conference – we have to detail and defend every hire from charges of cronyism, and for some the backup of an ePortfolio may be welcome. (The internship coordinator at my college of business and public affairs believes a large employer in Sacramento may be one.) And for small businesses that can’t afford NACE – the majority of U.S. employers – free online evidence of student attainment would be a lot more feasible than that battery of interviews.
And we know from talking to our alumni that some employers do look at ePortfolios – maybe not to replace the resume, but to supplement the interview.
But it’s worth learning more about this area, and trying to connect it to emerging best practices on the postsecondary side.
I feel like I spent a couple of days in earshot of Promontory, Utah, but haven’t yet heard the golden spike.