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Teaching Strategies that Address Workplace Skills

Jordan Catapano

As educators, a major part of our mission is to prepare students for their futures in college and careers. And realistically, we’re using teaching strategies to help prepare all students for careers, since that is the likely destination for students post-college. Yes, there are other objectives of education, but we are largely using teaching strategies to equip students with the skills necessary to thrive in whatever career they may pursue.

 So it’s reasonable to ask, “What are the skills potential employers are looking for when it comes to hiring future employees?” The funny thing is that the answer to this question isn’t a secret: the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) publishes a list of such skills.

Teaching Strategies to Address the Skills on the List

In 2014 the NACE surveyed 606 representatives from a variety of professional entities, ultimately coming away with seven main areas of competency. These areas represent the core skills employers are looking for in any potential employee.

Here are the attributes, listed in order of importance as rated by industry professionals:

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  • Professionalism/Work Ethic 
  • Critical Thinking/Problem Solving   
  • Oral/Written Communications         
  • Teamwork/Collaboration     
  • Information Technology Application           
  • Leadership   
  • Career Management

Over 90 percent of respondents identified the top four qualities as “Absolutely essential” or “Essential.”

As we examine this list, especially the first four qualities, we are forced to acknowledge what’s there. Simplified, it looks like employers are looking for individuals who work hard, think well, communicate clearly, and can collaborate with others. These are not astronomically difficult skills; in fact, part of me feels reassured that these are skills that are focused on and reinforced throughout a child’s education.

What’s not on the list is a demand that entry-level employees possess extensive knowledge of their field, or that they know all the answers, or that they never fail. We don’t have to prepare students for a future where perfection or omniscience is required. Instead, we can focus repeatedly on the core essentials: Hard work, thinking, communication, and teamwork.

The other three qualities relate to how one can utilize available technology and leverage emerging technologies to solve problems (Information Technology Application), how well one can leverage and lead others toward a unified objective (Leadership), and how well one can be self-aware in terms of the current and aspired level of performance (Career Management).

So at the risk of oversimplifying things, here’s what I’m hearing prospective employers saying: “I want to hire someone who will take responsibility for the job and consistently engage their brain while doing it. I want someone who can communicate in a clear and timely manner, and who works well with colleagues. This person should be able to utilize a variety of tech tools. They should be able to make decisions with wisdom and confidence and, when required, assume a leadership role. And they should be cognizant of their own abilities so that will continue to grow.”

What to Do with These

This list of seven competencies was developed with the aim of closing the gap “Between higher education and the world of work.” Education at all levels can feel like something of an abstraction, a place of pretend where the “Real world” is somewhere else. How do we get the skills and knowledge we discover in school to a point where they’re applicable at imminent careers?

Here are some potential areas of application your school might consider when looking at how to help students obtain these skills.

1. Internships and other real-world opportunities: Respondents to the survey identified internships and similar real-world experiences as one of the chief ways to help students obtain the professional skills they’ll need. While a classroom can teach someone a lot about a given environment, just doing the job teaches so much more. How can your school help students obtain real-world experience to any extent?

2. Use common language across your school: It’s one thing for a given teacher to use the language from the NACE survey when identifying skills and career aspirations, but it’s another when an entire school uses the same terminology. Schoolwide language helps consistently reinforce the same idea to all students, and they will steadily consider their own degree of professionalism, critical thinking, collaboration, etc.

3. Reinforce these skills to your students via the curriculum: The qualities listed above are not limited to a given school age or curriculum; they are applicable in every classroom. Continually reinforce students’ work ethic, collaboration, and so on through the daily process they go through with your curriculum.

4. Ask students to self-reflect on their skills and aspirations: Self-reflection and self-awareness is a major component of continued personal growth. Employers value the individual who can realistically reflect on their own abilities and take steps to improve, so why not facilitate this habit in school?

5. Encourage competency and direction: Survey respondents stated that, “Candidates who had a clear sense of their career aspirations, direction, and goals have a distinct advantage over other candidates.” While it may be difficult for students to identify exactly what their career goals are (heck, most adults still have trouble with that), it is important for schools to continually facilitate the conversation. This helps students narrow down their field of interest and target their efforts towards a unified direction.

Future Unknown Jobs

The Institute for the Future and a panel of business and tech experts composed a 2017 report entitled “The Next Era of Human/Machine Partnerships purports that 85 percent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 haven’t been invented yet. Wow!

“Whether either forecast comes to fruition, it’s clear that, by 2030, workers will create new work infrastructures to acquire the skills and knowledge they will need to execute their work successfully. They will routinely improvise, learn from each other, and make their own way,” the report says.

This ultimately suggests that the work of the future – the very work our students of today will be tasked with participating in – is much more contingent on general skills than on knowledge base. While many of our curriculums focus on conveying a set of given knowledge to students, it is the skills of hard work, knowledge acquisition, self-reflection, and so on that will ultimately determine a student’s success in their future career.

How much of your curriculum is dedicated to conveying raw knowledge vs. transferable skills? How much of your school participates in the conversation regarding the skills future employers want? How much of your time with students reinforces the acquisition of these broad, long-term skills?

While there are many aims of education, one of these should doubtlessly be to provide students with the abilities to thrive in their future careers. Consider how you might reinforce the core competencies identified by the NACE survey with your students!

What are some of your teaching strategies and tricks for helping equip students with skills future employers want? Share your experiences with us in a comment below!

Jordan Catapano taught English for twelve years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an Assistant Principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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