Power Skills for Work and Life
General education faculty and career services staff partner to make liberal education visible and valued
The collaboration between the career services office and the general education faculty at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia began with storytelling. In fall 2014, while teaching a course on how people create and use narratives, Meriel Tulante (one of the authors of this article) approached Tracy DePedro, Jefferson’s director of career services. Tulante had an idea about asking students to develop a professional narrative that could help introduce them to potential employers, using devices such as résumés and anecdotes to highlight skills and qualifications. DePedro readily agreed to visit Tulante’s class to coach students on how to tell the story of their preprofessional development and build their personal brand as they headed toward graduation.
Jefferson is especially suited to this kind of collaboration due to its mission of professional education. With its strengths in the fields of design, health, business, and fashion, Jefferson draws students who are strongly oriented toward career preparation and job placement, and the university’s approach to general education is designed for this context. Our Hallmarks Core is a forty-credit general education core curriculum organized around eight learning goals that we’ve come to call “power skills,” competencies vital for our graduates’ professional, civic, and personal lives. These eight power skills are rigorous inquiry, critical analysis, contextual communication, global perspectives, intercultural insight, collaborative creation, intellectual risk-taking, and ethical reflection. Students track their progress in these eight competencies through an ePortfolio process in which they collect examples of work or experiences related to the learning goals, not only from the general education core but also from their preprofessional majors and/or cocurricular activities like internships and study abroad. In Tulante’s narrative class, these ePortfolios were one of the resources students could use to craft a professional narrative to use in their job searches.
We live in a paradoxical time when commentators fret about the decline of the humanities and liberal arts, while employers lament their difficulties in finding college graduates with communication and problem-solving skills, exactly the kind of competencies that a liberal education fosters. For example, 93 percent of employers rate the ability to solve complex problems as very or somewhat important for college graduates, but only 39 percent believe recent graduates are very well prepared in that skill area, according to the 2021 employer survey report How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).
Because Jefferson doesn’t offer traditional liberal arts majors like English or sociology, we have been free to develop a strategy for general education that approaches skill development systematically, independent of the enrollment needs of a philosophy or literature department. Like other universities, however, we struggle with bridging the gap between education and employment, as well as with matching the needs of employers to the skill sets with which we equip our graduates. This dilemma is what led the Hallmarks Core directors to begin building a partnership with our colleagues in the career services office.
DePedro’s visitto Tulante’s narrative class hinted at a potential new bridge between the university and the workplace. The success of this initial partnership, and DePedro’s eagerness to reach students in their classrooms, prompted the Hallmarks Core directors to find additional locations for a more intentional and scalable approach to this collaboration. We already had a tradition of bringing career services staff into our Writing Seminar II classes (a required course in the Hallmarks Core sequence) to help students with résumés and LinkedIn profiles, typically in their sophomore year, but that was the only regular classroom contact between our students and the career services staff built into our curriculum. The Hallmarks Core curriculum also features a capstone course, required for all seniors, that includes workshops during which students add the final items to their ePortfolios and write reflective essays that explain how all of the documented learning experiences connect to the learning goals under which they are being filed. For some students, this ePortfolio process can feel like busy work or a purely academic exercise, making it difficult for them to recognize the metacognitive effort involved and the value of narrating their progress toward competencies that we know employers are seeking.
Inviting career services professionals to these capstone classes has helped shift these perspectives, and the visits have been mutually beneficial for instructors, staff, and students. From our general education perspective, we appreciate having DePedro and her colleagues frame the learning goals at the heart of the ePortfolio process as power skills that employers value. As career guidance experts, these visitors have credibility in one of the areas that our preprofessional students care about the most: finding a rewarding job after graduation. Students are drawn to Jefferson at least in part for its industry-sponsored projects in various majors, regular profession-specific job fairs, and 97 percent job placement rate. When our career services colleagues point out how the Hallmarks learning goals match up with capabilities that can help students land their first jobs, they get students’ attention in a way that the course instructors generally don’t. The students start to see the ePortfolio as an archive of experiences and evidence that can be used during an interview as ready examples of their ability to, for example, collaborate or navigate cultural diversity. When asked for feedback following a career services session this fall, one student commented, “I realized how valuable the Hallmarks [ePortfolio] and skills gained from completing it [are],” while another student wrote, “I used to think that only work experience could go on a résumé, but if worded correctly, schoolwork can go on it, too.”
To illustrate the value of the ePortfolio process more vividly, the career services staff work with the capstone course instructors on a class assignment using an app called Big Interview. The assignment requires students to film answers to mock interview questions that touch on skills like collaboration. Career counselors review the videos and send them back to students with feedback on their performances. By putting these power skills into a real-world scenario and practicing how to articulate the development of their competencies using examples and language drawn from their ePortfolios, our students begin to appreciate the potential value of their general education curriculum.
A core principle of career counseling is to meet students where they are in their career journey.
Our career services office has found much value in the partnership with the general education program. DePedro and Associate Director Patrick Ryan note that their peers at other institutions rarely have such a sustained and extensive level of engagement with any program or curriculum. DePedro says that having multiple touchpoints with students over the four years of college helps “keep career services at the forefront of their minds” and provides an opportunity “to connect with them at different stages, developmentally” when “they care about different things.” This sort of partnership, based on classroom presentations, is viewed as a best practice in the career services field, according to an article by career services professional Renée Glass-Starek, published in 2013 in the National Association of Colleges and Employers’ NACEJournal.
Our colleagues in the career services office appreciate having access to a captive audience in general education classes beyond the self-starters who are motivated enough to seek appointments with the career services staff. DePedro and Ryan welcome the chance to reach out to students through these affiliated courses, and their interactions often result in additional students making follow-up appointments with their office. Most students wait until the last minute to begin a career search, but a career services assignment in a course helps them to be proactive about the process. DePedro emphasizes that although the job search is intimidating and difficult for everyone, students rarely share these common challenges with each other. When students engage in group conversations, she says, “it lifts the isolation. Everyone is feeling the same way—it’s not easy to get jobs and internships. It’s a hard experience for everyone.” As a student commented after one recent session, “It helps knowing other people are scared or unsure of what to do as well. It shows we’re all in the same boat.”
According to our colleagues, career counselors value access to the classroom; in fact, professional conferences for career services professionals often feature sessions about how to convince faculty members to invite them to their classes. Career centers at various institutions also recognize the need to create partnerships with faculty. For example, the Gwen M. Greene Center for Career Education and Connections at the University of Rochester offers grants to support faculty as they embed career-related activities, such as experiential learning, industry exploration, or skill development, into their courses. At the University of Denver, the career services office collaborates with faculty and departments to tailor its career resources to meet students’ needs and has even established a faculty advisory board to evaluate the effectiveness of the office’s work each quarter. Ryan describes one successful strategy that he has used at Jefferson and other institutions: the Don’t Cancel Class program, which offers to send a career services counselor to a class when the instructor has to be absent.
At the same time, Ryan points out a downside to the classroom sessions. The visits, he says, can be “a mixed bag. The class is more formal and forced. Students notice that. They can engage or turn off. They can check out if it doesn’t really ‘count’ for class.” Despite these challenges, student feedback after the sessions in the Hallmarks Core has been largely positive and appreciative.
A core principle of career counseling, which shares many practices with other types of counseling, is to meet students where they are in their career journey. Partnering with faculty allows career services professionals to learn about the challenges that less proactive students are facing or perceiving in relation to their job search. By facilitating candid conversation in classes, DePedro can see that students are at different stages and varying levels of comfort and are facing different roadblocks. “You can get to a place of just telling students to tick boxes,” she says. “You need a more holistic view” of the students’ lives and priorities in addition to guiding them through the concrete stages of career readiness, she explains.
Our conversations with our career services colleagues also reveal the benefits students receive by interacting with career services staff in their courses. Ryan explains that these staff “can show students how to transfer the skills they learn in their general education courses into their career context, helping them identify in advance the value of these courses before college is over.” DePedro and Ryan note that the eight career competencies identified by NACE—career and self-development, communication, critical thinking, equity and inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork, and technology—are similar to the Hallmarks learning goals. “Employers always say that [students] could have excellent portfolios, but if they don’t have communication and problem-solving skills, it’s hard to hire them. The nature of work today is so fast-paced and changing that you need to have adaptability,” DePedro says. “Employers want someone who can grow and change.”
Students in the Hallmarks Core capstone seem to agree that the career services interventions are valuable components of the course. Comments on course evaluations suggest that students value “learning more about job interviews and how to go about that,” and they singled out the Big Interview assignment as “helpful” for the future. Multiple students called the visits from career services staff “the most helpful” or “the most effective part of the class.” Students were grateful to have career experts “advise us on what to do leading up to and after graduation,” and one student suggested that “more classes on career service[s] help would have been beneficial especially since we are all at that point in our lives.”
Between 90 and 95 percent of employers responding to AAC&U’s 2021 employer survey rated the following skills as very or somewhat important for college graduates: effective teamwork, critical thinking skills, the ability to analyze and interpret data, complex problem-solving skills, ethical judgment and reasoning, oral and written communication skills, and the ability to work with people from different cultural backgrounds. Based on this and other employer surveys, we believe that Jefferson’s general education curriculum is fostering skills that are valued in the marketplace. However, we struggle to persuade our students that this is the case, and they, in turn, aren’t prepared to communicate their skills to employers. In addition to mediating between students and employers, perhaps our career services colleagues can also mediate between faculty and students, leveraging their credibility to convince students to recognize and articulate the value in the competencies gained in their liberal education.
A concrete way to bolster students’ attention to the career skills they develop in general education courses is through the legitimizing presence of career services at key points in the general education curricula. Effective communication and collaboration between professionals in higher education is just as vital as in other areas of work that students will encounter. Career counselor Katharine S. Brooks decries the “disconnect and lack of respect” between liberal arts faculty and career services staff in a 2009 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and offers this advice: “Professors, academic deans, and career-center staff members must work together. Learn what is happening in each other’s shops. And don’t have just a superficial conversation about services—instead, engage in a conversation about what is truly distinct about the curriculum, what students are learning, and how to make employers care.”
Our collaboration with career services professionals suggests that bridging the gap between liberal education and the world of work may require faculty to bridge the gap between the curricula and the career services office, making the same leap between academics and the workplace that we expect our students to make upon graduation.
Images credit: Thomas Jefferson University