Bridging the Gap Between Liberal Arts Education and Critical Job Skills

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More and more in our evolving economy, we hear that employers are struggling to find applicants with the critical job skills they’re looking for (chief among them being communication), and that struggle has led to calls for higher education institutions to shift their focus from a broad liberal arts education to a more concrete, skills-based curriculum.

However, despite the challenges, a new report from Strada Institute for the Future of Work has found that a liberal arts programs can still provide students with foundations for a successful career—with a few modifications.

Most audiences probably don’t know, for instance, that in recent years, the growth of liberal arts graduates entering the tech workforce has actually outstripped growth in computer science and engineering graduates doing so. The data in this report, however, is not intended to defend liberal arts programs.

Instead, we wish to use the liberal arts to bring clarity to the popular concept of a skills gap. We argue that the time has come for a modern- day Rosetta Stone to translate and decode the intersection between postsecondary education and the workforce. The translation of skills into the marketplace must be made clearer in order to connect three critical audiences: people looking for good work, employers looking for good people, and educators looking to build good programs and engage students.

Robot-Ready, Executive Summary

The report argues that, while the human skills developed in a liberal arts-oriented program—leadership, communication, and problem solving, among others—are among the most in-demand in the labor market, the challenge is finding students who are adept at adapting and applying those skills to the job at hand.

And that’s not altogether surprising. After all, which course teaches students to apply their literary analysis skills in a consulting context, or their political science research in the role of a financial advisor? While the liberal arts no doubt teach students powerful habits—critical thinking, research, writing, etc.—they do not teach students how to turn those intangibles into concrete job skills.

So How Can We Bridge the Gap?

We’ve written before about the power of combining traditional instruction with automated, online learning both to improve instruction and to personalize feedback in large classes. The right educational technology (“edtech”) tools can make a huge difference in an educator’s ability to translate theory into practice and empower students to convert classroom lessons to job skills.

Take the Quantified communication analytics platform, for example. In corporate settings, our language, voice, and facial processing technology, combined with our proprietary machine learning algorithms, can analyze executives’ communication skills, compare them to peers, competitors, and leaders in the field, and provide specific, customized improvement plans to help them achieve their business goals through communication.

And in the higher-ed context, the platform allows students to compare their communication skills to these very executives, understanding exactly how their current style will play out in the professional realm and how they can adjust to increase their chances of career and leadership success.

What we’re doing is showing them how to translate the writing, speech, and communication skills they’ve developed in the classroom into stellar, job-ready skills that will excite recruiters. And we’re doing this without asking professors or career counselors to sacrifice any of the equally important things they’re already doing for these students.


Measuring the ROI of Automated Learning

One of the chief complaints about both today’s higher education system and many of the ed tech providers on the market is that it’s difficult to identify any sort of quantifiable ROI. But at Quantified Communications, we’re doing just that, enabling students to objectively score their skills and track their improvement.

We’ve used Quantified’s platform in business schools across the country, and the cohorts we’ve worked with have seen amazing results. Last year, we implemented a program to help Wharton’s eMBA students improve their leadership communication abilities using our platform. We analyzed communication samples from fifty-four students, showing them their initial scores, the areas in which they were already proficient, the areas in which they could stand to improve, and custom feedback tailored to their current skillsets.

When we analyzed the students’ second communication samples, after they’d had time to understand their scores and work on their development opportunities, we saw an average overall increase of 17.4 percent.

The gap between a traditional liberal arts education and the concrete skills students need to succeed on the job is undeniable, but as the Strada report says, we don’t have to look for an either-or scenario:

It makes little sense to continue to pit a college education against workforce training, as if they are somehow mutually exclusive. The debates that separate a broad-based college experience from the professionalization of workforce training are tired. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences put it best in its report on the futureof undergraduate education: “Today, the long- standing debate over the value of a liberal arts education versus a more applied postsecondary program presents a false choice.” The most valuable workers now and in the future will be those who can combine technical knowledge with human skills.

Robot-Ready, Executive Summary

Automated learning might just be the key to bridging that gap.