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The Globe and Mail

If employers change their expectations, education will follow

Protesters denounce Spain’s high youth unemployment rate and government spending cuts. Employers say graduates don't have the skills they are looking for even as young people can't find jobs.

© Susana Vera/REUTERS

If employers eliminate or minimize job requirements that promote rote learning, they can bring vigorous, tangible and enduring changes to our education system.

Most students pursue postsecondary education to increase their prospects of finding a good job and starting a promising career. Many will argue, however, that students also attain essential life skills: an openness of spirit, the ability to learn and work in fast-paced environments, social responsibility, interpersonal abilities, and the list goes on.

To some extent, this is true.

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But here's the catch: There is no way for students to know how many of those "skills," if any, they attain as a direct consequence of schooling. The reality is that almost every existing metric that measures the return on investment of postsecondary education is based on the jobs and related salaries students earn after graduation. It is not based on how much students actually learn. Thus, the bottom line for most students is primarily to land the right job at the end of their program(s), making employers key drivers of student motivation.

Although students expend an enormous amount of their energy, time, and money in the hopes of pleasing potential employers with their performance, reality speaks otherwise. According to a study by McKinsey & Company, half of the youth surveyed worldwide are unsure if their postsecondary education improved their chances of finding a job. And among the youth who actually worked, the study found that only 55 per cent managed to land a job relevant to their field of study. It gets more dismaying: Almost 40 per cent of employers say that graduating students lack the skills required for entry-level positions.

On the one hand, we have students pursuing postsecondary education with the primary objective of finding a promising career opportunity. On the other hand, we have employers dissatisfied with students' lacking skills, resulting in numerous entry-level vacancies. It is a self-contradictory predicament.

The fix? Employers should de-emphasize – or eliminate – unnecessary requirements, which largely promote rote learning.

The root problem getting in the way of a cultural shift in education is employer expectations. The exclusive emphasis on maintaining specific grade point averages or achieving certain test scores, for example, implies that if students fail to achieve those specifications, their chances of success in finding employment they want are diminished.

As a result, students are inhibited from engaging in other activities that could provide them with the necessary (and, arguably, more valuable) skills that are sought by employers in the first place. For example, it is tough for students to indulge in creativity if employers bombard them with insurmountable expectations of grades. Yet this is the leadership quality that is missing from most curricculums even though it is highly sought by CEOs.

If these changes are carried out, we will witness a ripple effect. Institutions will be forced to re-think their delivery and assessment methods to keep up with employer demands. A diminished emphasis on grades due to a heightened focus on skills-based learning will open the door to different types of assessment, in which students will be encouraged to collaborate rather than compete to achieve a higher mark. Collaboration, as opposed to interpersonal competition, leads to a competitive edge for employers. The result: rote learning, memorizing, regurgitating, nailing an exam, and getting a high GPA will not be helpful to those seeking promising career opportunities.

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Students will be forced to step outside of their comfort zones and partake in activities that give them meaningful experiences with real-life applicability. Universities will join in because they have a vested interest in their graduates' place of employment. They could ignore employers, but they will do so at their peril – no institution wants their students graduating with a competitive disadvantage. Employers will get the skills they want. As a bonus, these changes might just decrease entry-level vacancies while also making for a richer and more diversified applicant pool. It is a win for all: employers, students, and education providers, alike.

But to turn ideas into action employers must work closely with education providers. According to McKinsey, one third of employers say they never communicate with education providers. Out of those who do, less than half say it proves effective. Communication gaps need to be bridged, and disagreements resolved, for any change to occur. Companies like Google, which now places less emphasis on test scores because of better hiring data, are examples to follow.

Employers have an unparalleled ability to direct student motivation. They must use this influence to become a force for change.

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