Building Bridges Over the College-to-Career Gap
Many students view college education as their ticket to receiving higher salaries and better jobs. But just how prepared are today’s college graduates to succeed in their careers after graduation?
By some accounts, not as well as they could be. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, only 13 percent of Americans strongly agreed that college graduates had the skills they needed for the workplace. Even before the pandemic interrupted internships and other opportunities for professional development, educators worried that today’s college curriculum might not be preparing students for the future world of work—a concern that has only heightened as new technological tools emerge.
On top of that, many undergraduates might not realize until it’s too late that they need to take advantage of the technological training and professional development opportunities available at their colleges, says Jamie Belinne, assistant dean for career and industry engagement at C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston in Texas. Some might avoid technical courses because they are worried that these harder courses might affect their GPAs; others might want to ensure they have time to pursue extracurricular activities.
“It’s not that the university doesn’t teach these skills,” says Belinne, “but that many students might not choose to take the electives we offer.”
That’s why the Bauer College has made career readiness a No. 1 objective in its program. The college offers a mandatory, large-scale experiential learning professional development course for all undergraduates, in addition to a number of career development workshops. And if students still need a skill-building boost at graduation, they can apply for positions with a local recruiter that hires individuals to receive “last-mile” training as technical consultants before placing them in full-time positions with its client companies.
“It’s often not until the end of their academic careers that students realize, ‘Wow, I probably should have taken more courses,’” says Belinne. For that reason, the school creates multiple opportunities for students to build their technical skills, refine their professionalism, and expand their résumés—long before graduation.
Many of Bauer’s 2,000 students are first-generation students who are working their way through school, which means they have less time for professional development or network building. To ensure that they take time for professional development, for the past 15 years, Bauer College has offered a required undergraduate course called Connecting Bauer to Business. It's a course that focuses solely on preparing students for internships and future full-time employment.
Each semester, approximately 1,000 first-year students take the course, which is divided into three sections. Students complete career assessments, record mock interviews, set up LinkedIn profiles, and hear panel discussions in which professionals discuss various career paths applicable to different business majors. Students can earn extra credit by participating in extracurricular activities such as career fairs, informational interviews, and employer résumé reviews.
For their main projects, students form teams either to complete two real-world consulting projects for companies or to participate in a case competition. Teams that choose to take on consultancy projects for client companies provide deliverables such as research reports, surveys, or market analyses. Teams that take part in the case competition each analyze a business ethics issue of interest to their teams, before presenting their findings to a team of judges at the end of the semester. Winning teams win cash awards from the company sponsoring the competition.
“We want students to receive a broad overview of what they need to start thinking about now in order to be strong candidates later."
“Students use the self-assessment and career panel information to narrow down their career choices and select a major, which is why completion of the course is a requirement for declaring a major at the college,” says Belinne. “The lessons learned in the sponsored projects and case competitions create a foundation for their upper-level capstone courses and case competitions.”
During the pandemic, Paul Pavlou, dean of the Bauer College, made it a priority to continue the college’s experiential curriculum in a virtual environment. To make this conversion possible, the college partnered with EduSourced, an online experiential learning platform. Faculty used the platform to convert team projects and the case competition into virtual formats; place students into teams according to their interests; manage online interactions between students, mentors, and clients; and monitor project progression.
In addition to the Connecting Bauer to Business course, the college offers a series of workshops to reach freshmen and sophomores while they still have time to take more specialized courses. For example, a recent workshop introduced students to courses they should take to develop skills that are most in demand by employers. Another offered basic training in skill sets such as emotional intelligence, career management, and analytics.
In July 2020, Bauer College held its Emerging Leaders Academic Success Program, an orientation for transfer students. During that virtual event, participants attended a panel discussion where recruiters explained how to build their networks, write effective résumés, and improve their technological skills. “We want students to receive a broad overview of what they need to start thinking about now in order to be strong candidates later,” says Belinne.
Bauer College offers a master’s degree in business analytics, but its faculty plan to encourage more undergraduate students to take technical courses as early as possible during their college careers. Currently, the school brings in consultants to deliver intensive and short training workshops on data visualization tools such as Tableau, Power BI, R, and Python.
Such workshops are designed “to get students excited to take our analytics classes,” says Belinne. “There’s such a demand for people with these skills that if we can get them interested in the idea of these careers, everybody wins.”
Post-Graduation Career Preparation
If students get to graduation without taking such courses, however, they still have an opportunity to boost their technical skills without spending more time out of the workforce. The Bauer College works with the recruiter Talent Path, a Houston-based technology accelerator. Launched in 2018, Talent Path hires new graduates as consultants and trains them in skills they might not have acquired in college.
“We can teach students to think critically and use technological tools effectively, and we can provide students with an overview of which tools are best,” Belinne says. But historically, young professionals have developed deep knowledge of many software programs either in company training programs or master’s-level education. Students who are hired by Talent Path as consultants receive full-time pay and benefits while completing 90 days of “last-mile” technical and professional training.
“This experience bridges the gap between making students strong critical thinkers who understand how to apply tools and turning them into experts at using the specific tools a company needs.”
The accelerator trains consultants to use specific software programs and coding languages, helps them acquire knowledge about different work functions within companies, and exposes them to various company cultures. Once they complete their training, they are assigned three- to 12-month real-world consulting projects, which serve as stepping stones to full-time placement with companies.
Since 2018, Talent Path has hired 42 graduates from the University of Houston—including 17 graduates from the Bauer College. “Many of these students are great candidates but lack specific technical skills for the roles companies have to fill,” says Belinne. “This experience bridges the gap between making them strong critical thinkers who understand how to apply tools and turning them into experts at using the specific tools a company needs.”
Reaching the Finish Line
Since its launch, the Connecting Bauer to Business course has significantly improved the way employers rate students’ career readiness, says Belinne. “The number of employers rating our students’ soft skills highly has doubled or tripled in areas such as oral communication, teamwork, professionalism, and interpersonal skills, based on Likert scale surveys.”
The course also empowers students to take ownership over their career readiness preparation throughout their college careers. Forty-six percent of students have reported that they joined student organizations, and 10 percent to 15 percent say that they found internships as a direct result of being in the class. More than a quarter say they received interviews as a result of interactions they had with employers during the class.
“More than 50 percent say they grew their networks, and more than 70 percent say the class gave them experience to add to their résumés,” says Belinne. “More important, the college's placement rate has grown from 38 percent at the course’s inception to more than 95 percent today.”
By adopting a multifaceted approach, school officials believe they have taken great strides toward “pushing students over the finish line” in their professional development, says Belinne. “Ultimately, it’s about the success of the students.”