Joe Henry – A smarter way to educate students about the future

There has been a myriad of discussions in the media recently around the issue of skills training and development. Without a doubt, there are improvements that need to be made in the system to better link graduates with the available jobs. Among them are better career development information for secondary school students, changing the dominant paradigm in parents’ minds about the value of applied learning available in postsecondary schools and promoting the importance of life-long learning and adaptability, as well as more work-integrated learning opportunities and courses in creative thinking, entrepreneurship and innovation.

Every year as I welcome new students to campus, I often hear about the decision-making process they have used to enrol in their chosen programs. Some cite the advice of parents, friends, or teachers, but many times students are clearly unsure of why they have chosen their programs. In fact according to research, the primary reason students drop out of postsecondary education is career indecision. To me, this means that we need to better equip students earlier with solid information about career options that align to their strengths. In my own institution we have developed some new online tools to support students with this process to ensure they have a more complete picture of themselves and their goals. This includes an Idea Generator to help students understand their interests and preferences related to careers.  A step in the right direction – in the fall, the Ontario School Counsellors’ Association (OSCA) will publish What’s Next? Your Guide to Career/Life Planning in Ontario, a toolkit for parents and students outlining the options available to them after secondary school.

Additionally, while children often seek parental advice about potential career paths, parents are often ill-equipped with information about the range of postsecondary options available. Recently I was talking about degree options for students in our colleges and one parent said to me, “well those aren’t real degrees.”  In fact, the applied-learning focus of degrees in colleges is just as real as any BA awarded at a traditional university.  I would argue these degrees are even more real because of their concrete connections to industry as well as to field work, internships and co-ops.

Finally, we have to change our notion about the skills associated with the future world of work. It is not about simply “skills training.” It is also about training for the right skills that are needed now AND into the future. This means highlighting the importance of life-long learning and equipping students in our academic programs to be flexible and resilient, allowing new graduates to respond to changing conditions, especially in a connected, hyper-competitive global economy.

I am proud to work in postsecondary education in Ontario. We have worked hard to better support student success and innovation. We know more about our students than ever before and we have developed world-leading programs.  However, the earlier we educate students and parents about the options that are available, the more success we will have in matching students with careers so they can contribute to the building of our province and nation.

Joe Henry, is a 2012 DiverseCity Fellow with Toronto CivicAction and Associate Dean of Student Success at Sheridan College. He is completing his Ed.D in Higher Education at Northeastern University.

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2 replies on “Joe Henry – A smarter way to educate students about the future”

I have nothing against degrees from colleges or professional degrees, and agree they should be included in the array of programmes available. My comment is about “life-long learning”, which is variously understood. Some use it to characterise a career in which spells of employment are punctuated by returns to PSE for upgrading related to new occupations. Others use it to characterise a career in which early PSE gives graduates the skills and abilities to move from occupation to occupation smoothly through on-the-job training, without continual return to PSE. It is often overlooked that traditional BAs enable the latter approach to a career. These are, of course, not mutually exclusive alternatives, and the best strategy may be a mix of the two.

Perhaps of even greater importance is recognizing the relative non-linearity between one’s academic choices and one’s ultimate work opportunities.Outside of professional programs, most people end up working in areas that appear to be quite unrelated to the content of their degree. This is not a bad thing as they are likely using the many higher level, transferable skills they have gained through PSE, in whatever discipline they studied. PSE ought to be focusing more on helping our grads better understand what those higher level skills are, and how to mobilize them across a variety of work opportunities/contexts. Learning for life needs to focus as much on the learning process and skills and knowledge transfer as it does on specific discipline content or subject matter. Unfortunately most university programs are not set up that way.

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