Moving from Education to Employment

Former colleagues of mine at McKinsey & Company have recently published a thought-provoking report on the challenges and opportunities many countries face in helping students transition from school to the workforce.  Quoting from the Executive Summary, the report notes:

“Around the world, governments and businesses face a conundrum: high levels of youth unemployment and a shortage of job seekers with critical skills. How can a country successfully move its young people from education to employment? What are the problems? Which interventions work? How can these be scaled up? These are the crucial questions.

In this report, we attempt to answer them. To do so, we developed two unique fact bases. The first is an analysis of more than 100 education-to-employment initiatives from 25 countries, selected on the basis of their innovation and effectiveness. The second is a survey of youth, education providers, and employers in nine countries that are diverse in geography and socioeconomic context: Brazil, Germany, India, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.”

The report is fascinating and serves as a wake-up call to higher education leaders like myself.  In many ways, the report is highly critical of the role post-secondary education is playing in preparing students for meaningful careers.  These survey results are particularly troubling:

  • Only half of students surveyed believed that their post-secondary studies improved their employment opportunities
  • One-third of employers say they never communicate with education providers; of those that do, fewer than half say it proved effective
  • Fewer than half of students say that when they chose what to study they had a good understanding of which disciplines lead to professions with job openings and good wage levels.

These figures paint a pretty bleak picture, but the McKinsey report also identified some education-to-employment programs that are helping students and employers make the right employment matches.  Quoting from the report again, “Two features stand out among all the successful programs we reviewed. First, education providers and employers actively step into one another’s worlds. Employers might help to design curricula and offer their employees as faculty, for example, while education providers may have students spend half their time on a job site and secure them hiring guarantees. Second, in the best programs, employers and education providers work with their students early and intensely.”  The report goes on to recommend further development of such post-secondary education programs.

These recommendations make great sense to me because they describe exactly how our undergraduate business program works here at the D’Amore-McKim School of Business.  Our corporate Board of Visitors and industry advisory groups (such as our Accounting  Advisory Board) are involved in curricular redesign efforts and provide ongoing feedback on specific courses and changes in the industry that our students and faculty must understand.  In addition, our classes are full of guest lecturers from our key corporate partners who help our students better understand how the concepts they are learning in class are applied in practice and offer advice on how best to prepare for and succeed in careers in their fields.

The signature of our undergraduate program is co-op, in which students spend six months in paid, full-time jobs in leading business, government and non-profit organizations.  The vast majority of our students, in fact, will participate in two or three co-op jobs before graduating from the D’Amore-McKim School of Business, providing the possibility that they leave us with vital job experience, a more impressive resume, and a much better sense for what they want (and don’t want) in their careers.  Not surprisingly, a majority of our students receive permanent job offers from at least one of their co-op employers – suggesting that both employers and students find that the co-op model works as a successful job-matching model for those moving from education to employment.

At the D’Amore-McKim School, we also ensure that “employers and education providers work with their students early and intensely (Education to Employment. McKinsey&Company, p.20)”  For example, a required freshman course is built around a live case study and consulting project for the global retailer, TJX.  TJX executives work with students throughout the semester and judge their final project presentations.  Section sizes for this course are capped at 19, in effort to ensure that students have a better chance to master the material.  In addition, faculty get to know their students personally and provide the curricular and professional guidance students need to start making their coursework, major, and co-op plans for the next four years.

In our “New World Scholars” program, honors students are also paired with alumni and corporate partner mentors in their freshman year.  These mentors, coming from outside of academia, provide a valuable alternative perspective on career paths that complements the counsel offered by our faculty.

Our co-op and program advisors also begin working with our students during the freshman year so that they may start learning about their interests and educating them on the range of potential co-op opportunities and career paths that they might pursue.  These advising sessions supplement the “co-op prep” courses that all of our students are required to take to ensure that they are well prepared to search for, secure and perform in these jobs.

The McKinsey report helps us better understand the difficult challenges that our youth face in transitioning from post-secondary education to full-time employment and sheds light on one of our world’s most pressing economic issues: the high and chronic levels of youth under- and unemployment.  These young women and men are bright, energetic, well-educated and willing to work, and our world cannot afford to continue wasting this extraordinary human resource.

I like to think that we are doing our part at the D’Amore-McKim School to help our world fully leverage this resource.  I wish more of our business school competitors would develop similar models which focus so extensively on preparing students for the education-to-employment transition.  While I don’t relish the thought of these competitor schools working to erode a distinct advantage that we enjoy in the business education market today,  how much better would our world be if all of our students were leaving college with the skills, passion, and mindsets necessary to embark on careers that they find professionally rewarding and personally fulfilling?

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