Ensuring Every Graduate Is Ready to Work

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Tuesday, March 7, 2023
By Lucian Tipi, Ginger Killian
Photo by iStock/yourstockbank
When employability skills are embedded into the curriculum, every student—regardless of major—will be poised for success on the job.
  • At many business schools, students gain necessary work skills through extracurricular resources such as career centers. But some students never take advantage of those opportunities.
  • Each school should develop an Employability Model that specifies what activities will be integrated into courses and programs to ensure students learn key competencies.
  • Through hands-on learning, exposure to digital innovation, and opportunities for international study, students will gain practical skills that make them desirable job candidates.

Students are at times strategic learners; they do not always go beyond what is strictly necessary to achieve their degrees. On the other hand, employers hope that graduates are equipped with the skills they will need to succeed in their chosen careers from day one.

Many business schools offer extracurricular activities and resources designed to help students acquire those necessary skills. For instance, schools usually maintain career services offices; give students opportunities to work with local, national, and international employers; arrange placements such as internships and work experiences; and provide online digital resources. Many schools also offer programs that embed employability offers. These programs might include short courses that focus on developing technical skills such as using data manipulation and analysis software.

However, not all students take advantage of these opportunities. Some students won’t bother to participate; others do not have the time to pursue extracurricular options; and still others don’t have access to the necessary networks. Therefore, a better approach is for schools to incorporate employability skills into the curriculum itself.

Developing a Framework

To integrate essential skills into the curriculum, a school first must establish a set of principles that will act as its Employability Model. These principles, which will apply to courses and programs at every level, will articulate the type of distinctive, applied learning that all students will achieve irrespective of their majors or intended career paths. The model will state in clear terms how the school will prepare students to solve real-world problems, which is the holy grail of employability.

To embed employability activities into the existing curricula, administrators can follow a step-by-step process in which they modify every course as necessary to make it comply with the stated principles. Or they can take a “big bang” approach in which they overhaul their programs all at once.

A sample Employability Model might include the following five principles:

  • Hands-on learning. Applied experiences pervade every student journey.
  • Research-rich learning engagement. Classroom activities require students to address real-world problems.
  • Digital innovation. Students progressively build their capabilities in digital and technical skills.
  • Multidisciplinary awareness. Students develop knowledge and skills across a range of sectors.
  • International engagement. Students embark on meaningful work or travel to examine international business challenges.

An alternative and more concise set of principles might include four components:

  • Applied learning.
  • Digital and technical skills.
  • Career readiness.
  • Graduate program management.

Obviously, as outlined here, the Employability Model principles are fairly generic and focus on applied learning. Each school should refine the principles to align with its own vision and mission and deliver them in a way that best suits its programs. This will ensure that students are exposed to practical problem-solving in a safe and supportive way. Because defining the “ideal” set of employability principles is not a task to be taken lightly, administrators might want to seek the input of industry advisory boards or other interested stakeholders.

When a school consistently delivers the principles of an Employability Model, each graduate will be prepared either to start a job or to engage in additional academic study.

When a school delivers the principles of an Employability Model innovatively and consistently throughout the curriculum, each graduate will be prepared either to start a job or to engage in additional academic study. Students will have developed networks, applied classroom learning to real-life projects, and acquired a series of digital competencies. Their practical skills will make them stand out from other applicants and make them attractive to employers.

Examples of Employability Models

We have both worked at business schools that followed Employability Models designed to prepare students for the workforce.

For instance, the Sheffield Business School at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. instituted an Employability Model during the time that Lucian Tipi was its head of teaching and learning enhancement. The development team first convened focus groups made up of students, employers, and academics to get input on the skills that were most desirable for various subject areas. The team also met with members of Sheffield’s Industry Advisory Board, which included individuals from partner businesses and charitable organizations. The development team first asked these participants what skills they would look for in “the perfect graduate.” Once team members had identified the principles for their Employability Model, they asked participants for additional feedback.

The next step was for academic teams to embed a compulsory employability course in all programs at all levels. The process took between two and three years.

As an example, Creative Problem-Solving and Decision-Making became a required course within the second-year undergraduate curriculum. Each student selected an organization to study. In a 4,500-word report, the student provided background on the organization, including the context for a particular challenge that required problem-solving and decision-making skills, and evaluated the factors at the company that either supported or inhibited creative thinking. The student then discussed the main advantages and disadvantages of the company’s problem-solving and decision-making approach and provided recommendations for three changes that would improve the organization’s capabilities.

At Ginger Killian’s school, the Crummer Graduate School of Business at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, an applied learning model is integrated into the MBA program in several ways. Industry professionals and alumni regularly engage with current students as class speakers; these engagements often lead to internship or employment opportunities, especially for MBA students with less work experience.

Students also complete a faculty-mentored consulting project as part of the core MBA curriculum. In these capstone courses, students work with local enterprises to address current organizational issues. In one case, students helped a local nonprofit secure a multimillion-dollar grant; in another, students researched the best location to establish a multimillion-dollar production facility. These projects deliver incredible value to the community and students alike.

Finally, the MBA program includes an integrated international experience to extend student learning into a global context.

Putting the Principles Into Action

Once a school has committed to creating an Employability Model, academic teams will need to develop parameters for operationalizing the principles in ways that suit the school’s mission. We recommend these approaches:

Make applied learning experiences a central part of the program. Provide students with chances to examine problems supplied by businesses, charities, local governmental authorities, or other organizations. Make sure each level of the program has its own distinct learning goals delivered through a minimum number of applied experience projects. These should be introduced early in the curriculum, and they should be structured so that students build on skills they have acquired previously, fluidly transitioning to new levels of knowledge. One of the experiences should be a required internship that has specified hours and work responsibilities.

Career-readiness activities should help students develop self-awareness, explore career options, develop job-seeking skills, and pursue professional development.

Ensure that students gain digital and technical skills. Some schools might choose to identify core digital competencies, such as “future-ready” skills, that all students must acquire regardless of discipline. Other schools might encourage each department to design its own specialized technical offerings.

Organize personalized and impactful career-readiness activities. These activities, designed to meet the needs of learners at each stage, should help students develop self-awareness, explore career options, develop job-seeking skills, and pursue professional development.

Give students opportunities to launch their own business ventures. Once students develop business ideas that have been approved by their instructors, require them to attend classroom sessions that cover the basics of running a business. Next, bring in local business leaders who can talk about the challenges they have faced and meet one-on-one with students to provide support and advice. Finally, allow students to use the business school’s incubator space for additional support.

However, a business creation class might not be feasible for all business schools. Some students, particularly in larger programs, might not be ready to launch their own enterprises. And some schools might not have the necessary funding, resources, academic advisors, and committed local business leaders. Therefore, this activity might work best at smaller niche programs.

Carefully monitor graduate program management models. Graduate programs must provide students with the specialized knowledge they will need in their particular fields. For that reason, schools must allow departments to have autonomy in designing their programs and support faculty as they align curricula to the requirements of their industries and communities. Faculty and administrators also must conduct continuous curriculum reviews to be certain they are meeting the emerging needs of employers.

But the learning goals of graduate programs also must align with the mission of the business school and the institution. Therefore, administrators should use models that incorporate three types of learning goals: standardized university goals that apply to all programs, program-specific goals tailored to the needs of the discipline, and elective goals that facilitate learning experiences that match the interests of individual students.

Differentiating the Program

No approach to employability can guarantee graduate success. However, if a school adopts a structured pathway that builds employability initiatives into the curriculum, all students will have the opportunity to enhance their skills.

The best business schools already have begun focusing on employability. Truly ambitious business schools are differentiating themselves by ensuring that all of their students possess the skills they need to enter the job market by the time they finish their degrees.

Lucian Tipi
Associate Dean for Teaching, Education and Student Experience in the Faculty of Business, Law and Social Science, Birmingham City University
Ginger Killian
Associate Professor, Crummer Graduate School of Business, Rollins College
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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