Interview: Developing Academic Skills That Transfer to the Workplace


Posted In: Academics, Workforce Insight, Workforce Research

Mar • 8 • 2017

At College for America, we believe strongly in the value of an education that provides foundational skills upon which working adults can build a lifelong career. However, connecting those skills to specific technical or practical skills that are required in the short term isn’t always easy. We explore that challenge more in a recent ebook, The Liberal Arts at the Office: Addressing the New Skills Gap, which collects interviews with leading voices on talent development and online learning.


One of those interviews was with College for America’s former Chief Academic Officer, Cathrael Kazin, JD, PhD, who joined the small team early on working to design online degrees that could provide a diverse population of students access to career and academic success.


Kazin attributes College for America’s success in part to its competency-based curriculum, which encourages students to master the content within the course while emphasizing the development of skills employers are looking for.


How do you get employers and educators on the same page about foundational skills?


If you say to employers that our degrees have a strong foundation in liberal arts, they may not see the relevance. But if you say this degree develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills and helps people communicate more effectively in a variety of contexts, they recognize it’s exactly what they want.


Employers are saying we need people who can write and solve problems, while academia is saying the whole point is to educate people, not just train them for the workplace. But they’re both trying to get people who can write well — it’s as though they can’t quite see they’re talking about the same thing.


Is it just a vocabulary problem? Or something deeper?


Foundational skills implies things like learning to read. Soft skills implies they’re easy to learn or not as important as hard skills. 21st Century Skills is a term I like, but not everybody knows what it means. Non-cognitive skills is even more obscure.


At College for America, we sometimes talk about cross-cutting skills, meaning competencies that cut across academic disciplines. What I’ve found is that if you give a couple of examples people get it instantly, but we’re still searching for a good term.


How are organizations like College for America are bridging the gap between liberal arts education and the skills employers look for?


Academia is traditionally very siloed, so it’s hard for students to make connections between subjects. Traditional liberal arts education is very content driven, but what drives our program is identifying what people need to be able to do when they graduate.


Many people have the idea that competency-based education is just vocational, or that it’s just skill-based. Our students are exposed to anything they’d find in a general education program, but we’re focusing on developing competencies that would be valuable in any situation.


For example, if you’re giving a presentation on the paintings of Frida Kahlo, you’re demonstrating skills in giving presentations and in visual literacy. But in the traditional liberal arts college, the focus would be on what you’ve learned about Frida Kahlo. Most students aren’t going to be working as art historians, but they are going to be giving presentations, doing research, and analyzing images.


Many students in a more conventional setting have never had to translate what they’re learning into situations where they might actually use those skills. That’s a big disconnect.


How do developing those skills help employees in the workplace?


Many of our students lack confidence when they enter our program — particularly those who are frontline employees who maybe no one ever thought were “college material.”


Through these programs, they learn that they can do hard things. That by itself is a very big “aha.” When they do things they didn’t believe they could do, it’s really transformative. Our particular program is a mastery model, which means they can practice a competency until they have mastered it, rather than having to finish up work by the end of a semester. Being able to get feedback on their work and learn from it is very powerful. That’s a huge competency in itself.