Going to your dream school could make you less employable. Here’s how we can fix the system for students and employers


The students of today are the workforce of the future–and right now, we’re letting both students and their future employers down. We’re failing to provide them with the type of education that equips them for success.

It’s time for a new model. Learning should be about doing. Businesses can partner directly with high schools, community colleges, and research universities to offer more hands-on education.

Practical applications

Learning styles vary widely across students–from visual to kinesthetic. Many may find themselves falling behind the so-called “curve” simply because one method doesn’t suit them.

Building curricula through project-based learning can provide an effective and inclusive path to more successful outcomes overall. It would help to advance those who learn best in practical settings and provide a broader range of valuable job skills.

The “skills gap” in our labor force is ubiquitous. Seven in 10 jobs in the U.S. require medium to high levels of digital skills. One McKinsey report found 87% of companies say they have or will soon have a skills gap between their employees and the tasks they need to perform.

Some 50% of college and vocational program graduates refrained from applying to an entry-level job because they felt underqualified, according to Cengage, a digital education platform. Nearly 40% said they lacked one or more skills or competencies specified in the job description.

The purpose of education should be to help students be successful. Graduating with an advanced degree that confers no practical applications is bound to leave students discouraged. You hardly expect that getting accepted to and attending your dream school (that you dole out $50,000 a year for) would diminish your employment prospects–but that’s precisely what’s been increasingly happening.

The education disconnect will cost the economy in the long run. According to Korn Ferry’s most recent “Future of Work” analysis, by 2030 the skills gap–if not remedied–will result in 85 million jobs going unfilled worldwide, and companies losing out on $8.5 trillion in revenue.

Companies, of course, can and do train or “upskill” their own workers. However, upskilling costs money and time. Thirty-five percent of companies say it takes six months to upskill workers–and 10% say it takes more than a year. A Wichita State University model found that 24 to 28 months on the job can elapse before a typical graduate becomes a valued contributor to their company. The right kind of practical, project-based education can reduce that period to three months or less.

It’s far better for students to get a jump on workforce challenges in high school or college. Project-based learning provided in partnership with the private sector can improve outcomes for students and employers alike. Instead of lecturing and testing, teachers acting with industry guidance can assign students projects they’d likely see in a work situation, using the same software, coding program, or other technologies businesses work with in real life.

A successful model

This style of learning has a long track record of helping students succeed academically and professionally. For example, Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts has used a project-based curriculum for more than 50 years. A survey of 2,500 WPI alumni found they attributed long-term success to project work in college, including 86% who said the approach made them more effective at collaborating on a team and 89% who said it helped them take responsibility for learning on their own.

It’s no surprise that leaders across a range of industries are recognizing the value that project-based curricula can bring to the workforce. For example, Google has partnerships with community colleges and public four-year universities that train students in various data and technology skills, from IT support to data analytics.

Or consider Esri, a developer of geographical information systems software, which combines statistics, mapping, coding, and data visualization. Esri has partnered with New Hampshire Public Schools to give all 200,000 students in the school system access to their ArcGIS software to learn geospatial skills–helping prepare them for careers in everything from forestry and real estate to city planning.

My own company opened the 3DEXPERIENCE Center at Wichita State’s National Institute for Aviation Research. This partnership gives engineering students experience with additive manufacturing, reverse engineering, and robotics through our 3D design software–the very technologies that aerospace manufacturers use to build airplanes. Students employ it in real-life projects. One group successfully built an unmanned aerial system in 90 days–a process that normally takes three years.

Most important of all, students in these programs learn how to learn. Software, coding techniques, and 3D printing technology change all the time. Typically, years elapse before new technologies trickle down into curricula. However, with these partnerships, students learn how to use and adapt today’s technologies to real-world engineering and design challenges of the moment. The more employers interact with schools, the nimbler their workforce will become.

Today’s students will likely work in jobs we haven’t even dreamed of yet. With experiential, project-based curricula now, they’ll be ready for anything.

Amazon is laying off workers again. It started making cuts in November and is continuing with another round, bringing the tally to more than 18,000 layoffs — or roughly 5% of its workforce. This comes a day after Salesforce said it will cut 10% of its staff. Both companies say they’re doing this because they overhired during the pandemic.

Layoffs are often one of the first ways companies cut costs. But they don’t take them lightly because there’s a lot at stake, not least employee goodwill and public image.

Layoffs are all about numbers. The process starts off pretty formulaic, said Paul Wolfe, an independent HR advisor. “What do we need to save? How much do we need to cut?” he said.

And then how many people does that include? That requires that companies make bets on the future and how the economy is going to impact their business. In an uncertain world, Wolfe said it’s better to overshoot, “rather than realizing in two or three months, ‘Oh crap, we underestimated and then I have to let more people go.'”

Because another round of layoffs creates another round of headlines — and a greater feeling of uncertainty for employees who remain.

Who gets cut is a little less formulaic. A company might start with voluntary buyouts, but that rarely gets firms close to their target. So they’ll identify departments that have too much slack or business ventures that underperform or are too experimental. After that, it usually comes down to performance, per Jason Winmill at the consulting firm Argopoint.

“Employees of any corporate organization perform on a bell curve, meaning some are super performers, most are around average performers, but some are underperformers,” he said.

Laying off underperformers makes financial and legal sense if companies can show someone’s not making their sales quota or customer service call volume.

There are some alternatives to layoffs. Companies can make pay cuts or furlough workers. But “there’s been historically mixed results in this area,” said Michael Sturman, who chairs the human resource management department at Rutgers.

Because even though in the short term employees may feel like it’s a better deal — they keep their jobs and help save colleagues — any cutback signals trouble. And no worker wants to stay on a sinking ship.

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