Career Tools

General education career competencies prepare students for the future of work

Many adults go back to college to gain the knowledge and skills that will help them advance in their current career or start a new one. As students engage in their program of study at Excelsior College, requirements in the majors focus on helping students acquire the career-specific skills necessary to work in a chosen profession.

Career-specific skills, however, are no longer enough for working professionals.

To meet the needs of a rapidly changing workplace, professionals today are required to constantly update their skills and adapt to a changing landscape. To ensure graduates are prepared for the future of work, Excelsior College community members, including faculty, academic support staff, and students, developed general education career competencies. These competencies define cross-cutting skills in areas such as communication, problem solving, and ethical reasoning. By focusing on these transferable skills, the general education curriculum ensures graduates are lifelong learners positioned to meet the needs of a constantly changing workplace and environment.

There is uncertainty among employees and employers about what the future of work will look like, but the increased use of automation technology will continually impact the workforce. Jobs will not disappear but will instead shift, requiring workers to possess new sets of skills. In “The New Division of Labor: How Computers are Creating the Next Job Market,” authors Frank Levy and Richard J. Murnane argue that workers of the future will need to be able to quickly process new information, solve unstructured problems, or perform non-routine manual tasks. The general education career competencies will help prepare learners to meet these kinds of challenges.

“[The Liberal Arts] system has striking advantages, preparing students for their multiple future roles in a much more adequate way than a narrow single-subject system.” – Martha C. Nussbaum, Distinguished Professor of Law and Ethics, University of Chicago

The general education career competencies encompass seven areas: oral and written communication; mathematical and scientific problem solving; information literacy; cultural diversity and expression; global understanding; ethical reasoning; and professional presence and self-awareness. These areas reflect the most important soft skills employers seek in employees. In an article in Nurse Education Today, Andrew McKrie, faculty of nursing and midwifery at Robert Gordon University, emphasizes the importance of this foundational learning for nurses, stating that this liberal arts curriculum “can influence student nurses’ sense of discernment, enhance their own responsibility for learning, support ethical regard for others, provide different perspectives on human experience and contribute to a balanced curriculum.” Today’s graduates — regardless of their area of study — need career-specific skills to enter the workplace and transferable skills to adapt to change and uncertainty in their professions and lives.

Increasingly, these foundational skills are incorporated into coursework at Excelsior College. Written communication skills, for instance, are embedded across the Excelsior curriculum, including in the core requirements for a major. However, it is not possible for courses in the majors to cover all of the necessary foundational skills when the specialized abilities needed by students to enter and advance in these professions keeps increasing. By directly exposing students to these intellectually demanding competencies, students will be able to better learn them. By integrating these requirements in a way that complements majors, Excelsior faculty members will be able to best prepare students to transfer their knowledge across courses and to their future careers.

Focus on Professional Presence and Self-Awareness

One unique component of the new competencies is the focus on professional presence and self-awareness. Surveys of employers confirm these traits are important in the people they hire. For instance, Hart Research Associates conducts a survey for the American Association of Colleges and Universities on the extent to which graduates are prepared on key skills and abilities. In the 2018 survey, skills associated with professional presence and self-awareness were identified as some of the most important traits sought by employers.

Excelsior community members defined two specific competencies in the professional presence and self-awareness category that are most appropriate for our working adult students. One competency requires students to articulate the norms and conventions of their ideal career field. By requiring students to explain and reflect on these norms, the curriculum is designed to prepare them with the skills and attitudes needed for success in their specific fields. The other competency requires students to develop a career planning strategy that incorporates their strengths, interests, abilities, and values. Through creating individual strategies, students identify the next step in their development as professionals. The revised curriculum also makes students aware of the resources available to assist them on their journey.

Competencies Present from the Start

Undergraduate students will first encounter the general education career competencies in a new component of the curriculum — the Cornerstone course. The Cornerstone is an opportunity for students to chart their career trajectory and to reflect on their mindsets and ambitions. The course was created to help students begin with a strong start as online learners at Excelsior College, and it positions students to be lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and problem solvers. Throughout the course, students learn through responding to questions without a clear right or wrong answer. Through engaging with these questions, students challenge their prior assumptions, consider society’s future dilemmas, and propose solutions to complex problems.

The Cornerstone is oriented thematically around questions about the future, says Mary Berkery, faculty program director for the Cornerstone course. “As part of that focus, the course looks at how the skills learned through general education prepare students for their academic and career futures and can positively impact society, she says. For example, one discussion asks students to consider the future value of higher education and the necessity of teaching concepts like cultural expression and global understanding.”

Once undergraduate students complete the Cornerstone course, they continue into other courses aligned with the general education career competencies and discipline-specific learning outcomes.

At the graduate level, there are nine competency areas incorporated into all programs and these competencies are steeped in general education. “We expect students to focus on their: 1) ethical decision-making; 2) ability to lead and influence; 3) oral and written communication; 4) strategic and analytical thinking; 5) technological literacy and aptitude; 6) innovativeness and entrepreneurial spirt; 7) professional-identity and presence; 8) financial acumen; and 9) awareness of global diversity and inclusion,” says Scott Dolan, dean of the School of Graduate Studies.

Near the end of their undergraduate or graduate studies, students complete a capstone experience. Capstones require students to apply their learning from earlier in their studies or lives. Students demonstrate their mastery of program learning goals and general education career competencies through the integration of what they have learned. Capstone experiences vary by program. In some programs, Capstones involve research projects requiring students to draw upon key skills related to critical thinking, oral and written communication, information literacy, and professional presence and self-awareness. In other programs, Capstones may consist of clinical experiences, requiring them to demonstrate clinical, technological, inter- and intra-personal communication skills, and the ability to integrate professional standards in this work. Regardless of the type of experience, Capstones are intended to foster deep learning and skill mastery.

Both the Cornerstone course and Capstone experiences provide students with the opportunities to engage in deep learning. The mix of general education and program-specific curriculum helps to ensure each of Excelsior’s academic programs effectively prepares students for career entry and advancement in a rapidly changing environment.

Andre Foisy is the executive director of institutional outcomes assessment at Excelsior College and president-elect of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education.

Excelsior’s General Education Career Competencies

According to employers, career-specific skills (hard skills) are no longer enough for long-term success. Research indicates that cross-cutting skills in areas such as communication, problem solving, and ethical reasoning (soft skills) are necessary for career entry and advancement.

To best prepare students to excel in their careers and lives, Excelsior College has developed general education career competencies based on findings from employer-based research. These competencies are the foundation of the curricula in both undergraduate and graduate programs. Students encounter these competencies by meeting the requirements for general education and their program of study.

Oral and Written Communication

Communication serves many purposes in the workplace and in society – to inform, persuade, argue, educate, and entertain. The competencies in this area will help students speak and write effectively for a variety of audiences, use communication technologies appropriately, and apply the standard conventions of the context they are in.

Related skills: Oral presentation, technical writing, interpersonal communication, argumentative analysis, social media, conflict resolution, executive summaries, etc.

Mathematical and Scientific Problem Solving

To advance and succeed in an increasingly complex workplace, professionals require stronger quantitative and scientific reasoning skills than ever before. The curricula helps students develop the ingenuity, problem solving, scientific, and quantitative reasoning skills needed to succeed in the 21st century.

Related skills: Data evaluation, graph and chart analysis and creation, scientific reasoning, logic, critical thinking, big data, inference and prediction, etc.

Information Literacy

Everyone interacts with information daily, via websites, newspaper articles, television, social media, business communication, or scholarly writing. As students engage in their program of study, they learn to be a discerning and effective information consumer, communicator, and creator who can use information in an effective, ethical, and legal manner.

Related skills: Scholarly research, legal information use, evidence review, understanding bias and perspective, resource gathering, source analysis and evaluation, etc.

Cultural Diversity and Expression

This competency helps students develop a grounded understanding of the human condition and an appreciation of the variety of forms of human expression. In addition, this competency promotes a respect for cultural diversity, a desire for equity, and an awareness of social identity, for example, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, social class, religion, ability, and national origin.

Related skills: Cultural fluency, cross-cultural sensitivity, multicultural team building, emotional intelligence, inclusive communication, self-awareness, mindfulness, etc.

Global Understanding

To be effective thinkers and communicators, workers today need an understanding of the global forces that have shaped and continue to shape human behavior and interactions. Through this competency, students develop a better understanding of their own community and of complex and diverse global communities.

Related skills: International leadership, global civic engagement, international business communication and etiquette, cross-cultural sensitivity, contextualization, historical analysis, etc.

Ethical Reasoning

Employers need workers who can find innovative, ethical, and practical solutions to a wide variety of problems. Through this competency, students learn to reflect and analyze positions and issues from a variety of ethical perspectives.

Related skills: Ethical leadership, integrity, understanding and addressing bias, familiarity with legal and ethical guidelines, recognizing and upholding personal morals, comfort with ambiguity, etc.

Professional Presence and Self-Awareness

Successful workers are not only proficient in their roles, but also aware of their own strengths and interests, and able to exhibit the behaviors consistent with the rules, norms, and expectations of a professional setting. Surveys of employers confirm that professional presence and self-awareness are important competencies in the people they hire.

Related skills: Career management, ePortfolio creation and management, understanding job market trends, professional growth, short-term and long-term goal setting, personal branding, digital reputation management, business etiquette, emotional intelligence, etc. 

By Jenna Kerwin