Closing the Job Skills Gap: Learning Outcomes in Student Employment

Poster advertising student employment

“Why are so many college students failing to gain job skills before graduation?” This is the title of a Washington Post article that caught my attention. It cited a survey, conducted in November 2014 by Hart Research Associates, which found that employers don’t feel that today’s college students are graduating with important skills necessary to be successful in their workplaces. Skills that employers felt were most important for their employees, such as communication, problem solving, and decision making, were also skills they thought college students lacked upon graduation.

Employers have long complained of the disparity between skills they feel college graduates should have, and the actual skills they possess upon graduation. But with the ever-rising cost of higher education, colleges and universities are being held accountable on a higher scale to deliver an excellent product. With colleges and universities under such scrutiny, this provides a perfect opportunity for Student Affairs to shine, since we offer programs and services that allow students to learn the skills that employers desire.

One way that Student Affairs can help students develop skills for future success is by hiring them to work campus jobs, and providing intentional development opportunities during their employment. When we provide ongoing training, such as sessions on conflict resolution, decision making in undefined circumstances, and understanding personality differences, and we loosen the reins on our employees to start using the skills we teach them, then their job skills are bound to improve. Even if the work is unrelated to their college major, real life experiences gained through campus employment are transferable across all majors. And with the right assessment in place, we can prove it.

For example, Campus Recreation offers unique opportunities for student employees to improve the skills that employers most value. Below is the current list of skills that four in five employers rate as very important (a rating of eight, nine, or ten on a zero-to-ten scale), along with Campus Recreation job responsibilities that develop these skills:

1. The ability to effectively communicate orally
2. The ability to work effectively with others in teams
3. The ability to effectively communicate in writing
4. Ethical judgment and decision-making
5. Critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills
6. Ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings

Campus Recreation student job responsibilities: Supervising staff and delegating tasks; sports officiating; teaching group fitness classes; providing personal training instruction; providing written and verbal employee evaluations; planning staff development sessions; teaching job duties to new hires; collaborating on policy development; answering patron questions; explaining and enforcing policies; resolving conflicts; responding to emergencies; troubleshooting facility problems; providing ongoing positive and corrective feedback; documenting problems and concerns; requesting procedural changes; developing employee handbooks.

In my department, assessment on whether students are learning these skills is done through both direct and indirect measures. Intramural officials are evaluated by their supervisors, and written and verbal feedback is given on a regular basis. Emergency drills are conducted on a monthly basis for both recreation center and aquatic center staff, and written and verbal feedback is provided. Student employees receive mid-semester informal evaluations on their job performance, and written evaluations are completed at the end of each semester.

But my favorite assessment is where the students write about their own learning. Student employees complete exit surveys and blogs to explain how they think their transferable skills have improved as a result of working in Campus Recreation. Here are a few examples taken from assessment results:

“I learned to fine tune ideas and fully plan out the details before presenting them to others.”

“I’ve also learned when to “pick your battles” – knowing when to fight for something, and when to let things go. Sometimes your way isn’t always the best way, and you need to remember the goals and needs of the department over your own.”

“Before coming to college and working at the Johnson Center people just tended to listen and go along with leadership. But in college people start developing their own minds and thoughts and how they want to approach things. It is more realistic to see everyone have their own viewpoint, than for everyone to agree. So being in meetings where collaboration was important taught me its value. I know that a good collaboration environment is open and free from criticism. Everyone’s voice must be welcome and applauded, if it’s not then collaboration will not work.”

“My major at UK is communications. So naturally my communication competency has gone up from my education. But the ability to take what I learn in the classroom and apply it to my supervising at the JC has been great. I now have a better awareness for cultural and personal differences. I know how to navigate different situations with different people. I can do this because I know how to communicate with them on an individual basis.”

“Over the past few years I have handled several emergency situations. After being a part of so many of these incidents, I feel that I can appropriately handle almost any situation.”

“I have watched myself grow as a person and as an employee in my 3 years at the JC, and I have watched the respect and trust of my fellow employees in me grow. Because I have successfully gained the trust of my employees, I feel more confident in everything from group projects to interviews to other jobs.”

By providing ongoing staff training for our student employees, allowing them to be involved in planning and decision making during their employment, and giving them the freedom to apply their skills and make decisions on their own, we can close the gap between what employers expect from graduates, and the actual skills the students acquire before graduation. And by conducting appropriate assessments, we can demonstrate, not only to university administrators and other stakeholders, but to the students themselves, the value of their job experience in Student Affairs.

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