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College Ready Does Not Necessarily Mean Career Ready

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August 11, 2011 02:51 pm

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At a recent meeting hosted by the Alliance and sponsored by the Irvine Foundation, business leaders, policymakers, researchers, and others joined our staff to discuss and analyze the role of business engagement in preparing students for college and career. The Alliance is amazingly fortunate in that we often get some of the smartest, most impressive people around to come over, sit at our conference room table, and talk about issues like this. As with every policy conversation about education these days, the topic turned to defining college and career readiness. I think it is fair to say that many of us policy types feel much more comfortable talking about college readiness than we do career readiness. As we saw during our meeting, career readiness means many things to many people.

The one discussion point, however, that garnered much head-nodding and prompted an unexpected conversation about parenting in the twenty-first century was the one-off observation that this generation of graduates/new employees tends to have some issues regarding “soft skills.” Within our discussion, the soft skills referred to were simple ones, such as the ability to take criticism and handle conflict; an appropriate sense of expectations about what a young, just-starting-out-on-the-highway-of-life person should be asked to do; appropriate clothing options for the workplace; and so on. Almost every business leader at the table (and most of us who hire and manage staff) shared stories about first-time employees-all extremely college ready and college successful-who demonstrated virtually no patience, no fortitude, less than stellar decision-making skills, and an utter lack of good old common sense. (Caveat: Alliance staff are exempt from this observation of course.)

So does college ready necessarily mean career ready? According to the cadre of business leaders at the table, not necessarily. It became clear that the aforementioned soft skills (and I should note that one participant pointed out that the term “soft skills” is a really dumb way to characterize skills that are clearly so important) are a top priority for employers because if these skills are intact, then employees can be trained and taught, and hopefully become the outstanding employees we all want working for us. No one was suggesting the rigorous academics of college are worthless and, of course, there is much more to the career-ready conversation than what is being discussed in this now-too-long blog post. However, it is evident that the ability to manage oneself within the workplace is a really important part of the equation.

So where did the idea of twenty-first-century parenting come into the discussion? Like all humans, our group needed to find some reason why this generation of employees seems to be so challenged when it comes to soft skills and the demands of the workplace. An answer emerged: “helicopter parents.” Several participants posited the idea that the current generation of “helicopter parents” (you’ve read about them … the ones who protect their children from every hardship, fight all their battles for them, and do all their science projects) are a big part of the problem. These young people, never given the chance to develop the common sense and interpersonal skills needed to support them throughout their careers, enter the workforce like helpless babes in the woods, unable to hear and process criticism, work in teams, compromise, or stand up for themselves. Without some practical experience to build their character, teach them how to adapt and get along, and strengthen their resolve in the face of conflict, these young people may be able to do the job but are sometimes unable to handle the other demands of the workplace. So once again, the blame lies with us parents. Good to know some things never change.

Maria Voles Ferguson is Vice President of Policy at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

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