Research Center Launched to Improve Career Readiness of College Students

May 12, 2017

Employers often recruit at college career fairs to attract the in-demand skills they need. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Employers often recruit at college career fairs to attract the in-demand skills they need. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

The Wisconsin Center for Education Research is launching a new initiative, the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT), to study and help inform how college students can be better prepared to enter the competitive 21st-century job market.

“We are starting CCWT at a time when student employability, skills gaps, changes in the labor market, and the purpose of higher education is being discussed and debated around the world. In fact, career readiness has become one of the defining issues in postsecondary education, yet we know too little about how students are experiencing the crucial transition from college to work,” says WCER researcher Matthew Hora, CCWT’s director and an assistant professor of adult and higher education in continuing studies at UW–Madison.

He adds, “Insights into student experiences with work-based learning, career advising and the hiring process, and how these issues are impacting their future prospects are essential if we want to design more effective and responsive educational and workforce development programs and policies.”

CCWT’s mission is to improve the academic and career success of students in two- and four-year institutions through original research, policy analysis and public dialogue. The center is focusing on how students acquire skills from classroom and work-based learning, and the impact of these skills on their career outcomes; student experiences with college career-advising services; student and employer experiences with the hiring process, including the value of educational credentials; and student and community perceptions of the relationships among higher education, vocational preparation and civic engagement.

One of the primary goals of the center is to give voice to college students, particularly those from marginalized populations, who are usually subjects rather than active participants in debates about college-to-work pathways.

A book by Hora and colleagues detailing their research was published by Harvard Education Press.

A book by Hora and colleagues detailing their research was published by Harvard Education Press.

WCER Director Bob Mathieu believes this outreach to students is what makes CCWT so unique. “Often lost amidst the talk about programs, majors and degrees are the students themselves. Their lived experiences are not simple pathways from college to work, as they move in and out of both,” says Mathieu. “CCWT’s work with students will help guide teaching, training and advising, and enhance the success of today’s workforce in Wisconsin.”

Hora has already lent an important voice to this timely debate on college-to-work transitions. Last October, he and WCER researchers Ross Benbow and Amanda Oleson, released their book, “Beyond the Skills Gap,” which details their landmark NSF-funded study examining the cultural, political and economic issues underlying the skills-gap debate in Wisconsin. One of the most surprising findings outlined in the book—which inspired Hora to create CCWT—is how cultural factors shaped students’ acquisition of skills and their entry into the labor force.

“We learned that communication skills, teamwork, critical thinking and lifelong learning are essential competencies taught by parents, peers and educators in specific disciplinary and domestic contexts,” explains Hora, whose team interviewed 70 Wisconsin educators in two- and four-year colleges and universities, and 75 employers in biotechnology and manufacturing. “We also found that getting a job was not simply about having the right credential or technical skills; applicants must also ‘fit’ the culture of specific employers.” 

The importance of technical and non-technical competencies led Hora and his team to conclude that policymakers should focus on ensuring that hands-on, experiential learning opportunities are offered across the curriculum. “Technical colleges and universities need to pay closer attention to ensuring that students are provided with these 21st-century competencies, and employers need to make greater investments in high-quality workplace training so that students can thrive in a rapidly evolving workplace over the long term.”

Hora plans to expand the center’s research geographically by conducting studies in four regions of the U.S. with high concentrations of STEM jobs, as well as in China, Japan and South Korea.

On May 22, CCWT will hold its first symposium, “Why Work Ethic and Self-Regulated Learning are Essential for Student Success.” The event is open to the public from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in room 159 of the Education Building, 1000 Bascom Mall.

Students attend career fair

College students get hands-on training using magnetic fields to confine and drive plasma. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Featured speakers include Linda Nilson, author and founding director of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Innovation at Clemson University, who will discuss how postsecondary educators can teach students how to monitor their own learning processes. In addition, Jim Morgan, a former longtime leader of educational programming at Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, will discuss the importance of a strong work ethic to manufacturers across the state.

“Work ethic is hard to define, but a manufacturing CEO in rural Wisconsin said it best for me. He said, ‘We look at Y-O-T-F!’ which means ‘Years off the Farm.’  His point was that farm kids have the work ethic prized by employers. They get to work early, stay until the job is done and fix whatever breaks with their limited resources,” says Morgan, now director of New Ventures at MRA-The Management Association. “Work ethic is intrinsic and is much harder to teach than running a machine or designing a new product. You don’t learn it from a book or an all-day seminar.”

Another CCWT goal is to develop partnerships within business, political and academic communities so its research and outreach activities address immediate needs in Wisconsin and beyond. “Through meaningful collaborations with scholars, policymakers and teachers in the field, we hope our work will inform policies, programs and practices that promote academic and career success for all learners,” says Hora.