Career Readiness

A perfect storm appears to be looming in higher education, the result of unparalleled economic pressures and demographic shifts. Skyrocketing costs and student debt, along with the disappearing middle class, are raising serious doubts about the viability and “ROI” of a college degree. Record numbers of colleges and universities have closed in the past 25 years, with several hundred under watch by regulators due to financial issues. At the same time, undergraduate enrollments are stagnating across the country and expected to steadily decline in the Northeast, especially among the groups that have traditionally served as the “bread and butter” for colleges and universities – white middle and upper class students.

In response to these threats, many institutions are exploring alternate forms of revenue through continuing, professional, and/or graduate education programs. Schools are introducing and investing in alternative programs and delivery formats – such as graduate degrees, certificates or other “microcredentials,” and/or online programs. They are also responding to increasing pressure to demonstrate successful employment outcomes for students, and are investing in programs to ensure that their graduates – especially liberal arts majors – are “career-ready.”

Preparing students for jobs of the future

Higher education is facing increasing scrutiny regarding graduation outcomes – and is being called upon to demonstrate that college is indeed “worth it.” At the same time, institutions are challenged to prepare students for future jobs that are largely unknown: According to U.S. Department of Labor data cited by the World Economic Forum (2015), 65% of today’s schoolchildren will grow up to have jobs that have yet to be created.

There appears to be widespread agreement that jobs of the future will require social and behavioral skills, such as problem-solving, communication, leadership, teamwork – often considered the hallmark of a liberal arts degree (Deming, 2015; National Association of Colleges and Employers, 2016).

Jobs are shifting away from routine tasks that are far more likely to be automated, to interactive tasks requiring social skills. The World Economic Forum (2016) reports that by 2020, social skills such as persuasion, emotional intelligence and teaching will make up more than a third of all desired job skills, and more technical skills will need to be supplemented with strong social and collaboration skills. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, service providers, requiring strong interpersonal skills, will make up almost 95% of all jobs added by 2024.

Increasingly, experts describe the need for “T-shaped” professionals to fulfill jobs of the future, combining deeper, subject-area mastery with “universal competencies” in “soft” skills: “[these] jobs require hard skills/deep knowledge within a discipline, but also the ability to converse with people from other kinds of professions, ethnicities, and cultural backgrounds.” (Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Future of Work,” 2017).

The Chronicle further explains that hiring managers at major companies concur there is already a serious gap and talent shortage in soft skills: “employees with robust soft skills were the most-desired candidates for any job . . . Subject-matter expertise is highly teach-able. . . . It takes an awfully long time to teach somebody about taking initiative, or how to accept critical feedback.”

The vice president of talent acquisition at Enterprise Holdings (which includes the car rental company), is quoted as saying that “although Enterprise wants prospective employees to have a college degree, the company is not necessarily looking for specific majors or technical skills for the majority of its hires. Empathy, communication skills, flexibility, problem-solving skills, experience in working with teams of people — all of those skills end up being most important in the job.”

Given a job future characterized by “exponential change and constant disruption,” no one degree program can be expected to prepare students for all the skills – and jobs – they may need over a lifetime. However, the need for retraining will be constant and the role of colleges and universities is likely therefore expected to change: “Some colleges might have to reconsider the kinds of students they serve, accepting more students who are older and heading back to college to change careers or update their skills . . . [and] putting more emphasis on shorter, bite-sized training programs that get older students back into the workforce more quickly.”

Furthermore, some see the churn in the job market as “a tremendous business opportunity for institutions to leverage the wealth of content that they have, repackaging it in smaller bites for their graduates to help them make successful transitions to new opportunities in the job market.”

Finally, in many ways, college and universities — specifically, a liberal arts curriculum – provide excellent preparation for students in the soft skills they will need for the jobs of the future, such as critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and leadership. However, there is general agreement that institutions must do a better job helping students (a) understand and articulate these outcomes, and (b) fill career-related gaps in their preparation through professional and technical boot camps and similar programs (EAB presentation, 2017).

The Chronicle of Higher Education (2017) reports that according to Burning Glass, a labor market analytics company, “traditional liberal arts majors can be a powerful frame for acquiring soft skills and setting a foundation for lifelong learning, but students in such majors will also need to learn some hard skills to . . . [give] them a better shot at higher pay.” In a recent study, approximately one million job ads were open to liberal-arts students and did not ask for specific sets of skills; however, another 900,000 jobs — many with higher pay — would be open to liberal-arts majors who added specific skills easily acquired through elective courses or technical training, such as social media, basic coding, and web design.


Carlson, Scott. “The future of work.” The Chronicle of Higher Education (2017).

Deming, David J. The growing importance of social skills in the labor market. No. w21473. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2015.

Hickman, Carla. “Higher Ed in the New Learning Economy.” EAB Presentation, Providence, RI, March 27, 2017.

World Economic Forum. “What will digitalization do to the future?” World Economic Forum, Geneva, Switzerland, 2015.