Skills: “Aware” versus “Proficient”

A few years ago, I led a focus group of employers in construction to find out what skills they needed in new applicants. One of the company owners surprised me – and our education partner – when he said, “The last person I hired from this school didn’t even know how to hang windows!” (And for those of you not in construction, that’s a pretty essential skill.)

During a break, the head of the school got on the phone with the lead instructor for the construction program and relayed this message. The instructor said, “Well of course we teach students how to hang windows – it’s one of the first things we do!”

The problem, of course, is that it was one of the first things they do in an introductory level class – and they never touched it again across the rest of the two-year program. So, the instructor and the employer were both correct, but the fact that the program had not made a distinction between “awareness” and “proficiency” resulted in a graduate who was unprepared for opportunities in the field.

This should be an important consideration when planning out a program of study – should a digital arts graduate be “aware of” Photoshop, or should he or she be “proficient with” the tool? Should a nursing student be “aware of” or “proficient with” drawing blood? If the answer is proficient, how do you ensure mastery, and prove that it has been attained?

These kinds of questions are excellent fodder for discussions with your business partners, particularly – but not exclusively – those on your advisory board. Talk about the skills and knowledge you’re trying to share with students. Ask your industry partners what are the 10 (or 20, or 30) essential skills or areas of knowledge that students have to master in order to be considered as new hires – and what kind of proof, such as a certification or a student project, they need in order to prove mastery.

Asking your business partners these kinds of questions engages them in the learning process and increases the chance that they’ll help you not only fine-tune your curriculum, but that they’ll join you in working with students.  This will help teach and reinforce those skills and provide an explanation as to why they’re so important to employers.

Brett Pawlowski is Executive Vice President of NC3T, the National Center for College and Career Transitions ( NC3T provides planning, coaching, technical assistance and tools to help community-based leadership teams plan and implement their college-career pathway systems and strengthen employer connections with education.

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