College Preparation and Work Culture: Why do they leave?

“Students now come to college not to get a degree or even knowledge, but to get a job. That is all students—whether at Yale or Phoenix. Vocationally oriented community colleges and for-profit schools have got this piece very right. This reality is driving much of their popularity. This is especially true for first generation, low income and students of color. Their families want them to get the traditional job—doctor, lawyer, businessman.  I remember one student at Princeton who grew up in the Bronx and was getting his doctorate in bio physics at Columbia and his parents kept asking when he was going to get a real job. They could not understand that his job was to spend time in the library and to sit waiting for his experiments to gel or whatever they were supposed to do. This is not the vision of work that most families have.

Large research universities and liberal arts colleges are creators of knowledge but are often slow to adapt to new things themselves.  They create the trends and then may be the last to jump on the train.  So, while the world has changed in term of the workplace and career paths and the financing of education and even who goes to college, the faculty in these institutions have not necessarily caught up. Thus, they may not appreciate the vocational focus and anxiety that students and their families are now bringing to the academy. Part of it is driven by the vocational uncertainty that is now part of the work landscape in ways it was not in the past.”

The above was taken from a blog I did in 2012. The situation continues to exist but there is much more attention being paid to the preparation for life after college than ever before. However, the work being done is still problematic. For one thing there is still an underlying assumption of a linear and long, term career path. That ship has sailed long ago. Few will stay in the same jobs, firms, fields over a lifetime. Medical doctors, teachers, perhaps social workers might. Note that those are all service professions and that those in them are generally there for love of what they do and the gratification of the outcomes.  Certainly, for teachers and social workers they are not there for the pay. In Studs Terkel’s celebrated book Working published in 1974, it is clear in the interviews of those in fields like these, that they have the satisfaction of service.

There are those too who have inherent skills that may range from sculpture and playwriting to plumbing and mechanics who find enough gratification in that work to maintain it for a lifetime—the plumbers being more stably and gainfully employed perhaps than the playwrights.

But today others in fields that are characterized as corporate—finance, retail, technology which may dominate the workplace landscape are the best paid and often most transient and least happy. There are certainly companies, Google comes to mind, that try to assure workplace satisfaction.

But part of the issue, I think lies in the fact that students are not taught what the workplace is actually like and why. Parents rarely have talked about what they did all day—glad to get home and away from the grind. Events like “Take Your Child to Work Day” give a sugar coated view. So, the tasks that may be boring or the interminable meetings that seem to lead nowhere or the bosses that terrorize or the cliquishness of colleagues to say nothing of the disruptive new technologies are unknown until one is actually in the job. This is especially true for those who are first generation to go to college and thus first in their families to find themselves in major corporate – or even start-up settings. They have no frame of reference to deal with the highly politically charged workplace, now in a volatile state of constant change with every new technological advance. Those who at least had parents who worked for Fortune 500 or smaller firms may have an inkling. But these are not generally the first gen, low-income and students of color that are increasingly our college populations and hence moving into these workspaces post-graduation.  But when they reach that dual holy grail—college graduation and a job in a recognized firm/industry they are not staying.

Industry specific observations in, for example, the advertising and marketing space points to serious problems even in an environment that one would expect to be culturally attuned. But the low starting salaries are a deterrent. And so being not culturally aware marketers continue to make blunders like H&M’s “Coolest Monkey in the Jungle” with a Black child as the model. Some places like Minneapolis have seen diverse hires leave because of the environment being culturally sterile or even unwelcoming.

This is not only an ethnic issue. Women are still not in significant senior level roles in major firms in the ratios one might expect 50 plus years after the legal barriers to their presence were removed. ME TOO has cast a light on some of the issues women deal with.  Hence, they create their own firms or gravitate to smaller ones that might be more friendly. Perhaps consequently they are the greatest creators of new businesses.

Savvy firms have begun to talk about Diversity and INCLUSION. The evidence is in that better decision making comes from diverse teams. Command and control, once the model for management no longer fits with millennial workers and those who follow. Indeed, those graduating college now are outspoken and political as those of us who graduated in and after the turbulent ‘60’s.  That process of becoming inclusive has to begin before college graduates graduate. Faculty have a role in this. Administrators have a role in assuring there is exposure to internships and meeting alumni and finding other ways to expose students to what they will find in the “real world”. And companies have to find ways to begin before hiring, to share what it is “really” like in their firms and how best to navigate the shoals that will certainly be there.

So, I am going to restate slightly amended recommendations that I made in that 2012 blog directed to faculty and add a couple more.

  • Teaching vocationally — explaining how skills get applied in the workplace. It is important to engage students in experiential, applied, and community- based learning opportunities to show how disciplines are applied in the “real world”.  Students today learn differently.  They learn online, they have shorter attention spans and so the pure lecture format is not always the best. One course I taught did not come together until the students had to go into the community to do projects that helped them see for themselves how the disparities of social class really functioned beyond the texts I had assigned.  This is especially useful for adult learners, who can relate better to experiential learning.  And adult learners or returning students is a growing number – maybe the majority of students now entering college.

Part of teaching vocationally is to be interdisciplinary and to use teams. Collaboration with colleagues in different departments to team teach is exciting.  Take an example—Civil Rights. What if that were team taught by professors from Economics, History, English and Art.  How cool would that be for a student. Or one that intrigued a former student of mine pulling together Geography, Computer Science and the Environment. Bryn Mawr College has, now as a hallmark, it’s 360 courses. A subject is taught from a 360 degree perspective by a team of faculty from very different disciplines and the course ends with a “capstone’ that is in the “real” world. It may be a project with the Philadelphia public schools or mounting a major art exhibit.  It is how the real workplace functions— in teams of people coming from many different perspectives. Students should be given team-based projects where they bring their own diversity of skill and experience to problem-solving on an assignment and they should see this as a workplace simulation. Clinical professors who have one foot in the workplace and one in the academy are useful and this can inform these faculty with insights they can take back to their workplaces as well as offer them more gratification.

Teaching vocationally also means using technology to build technology skills among students. Students use technology every day.  Those skills can be pushed in the work assigned. Employers not only check to see if students have an online presence on Facebook or LinkedIn (a clean one) but also how adept they are at using varied tools like Doodles to schedule meetings, or Powerpoint, or video conferencing, or researching on Lexus/Nexus  or other tools as a baseline for employment.

  • Partner with other college offices –career office, counseling services, even the library.  Faculty can help students to take advantage of the resources they may not on their own. They can encourage students to go to events (often under-attended regardless of how much pizza we serve) where high profile individuals or alumni will be speaking. This is a networking opportunity for students. Students need to know how to network—introduce themselves appropriately, engage in conversation and follow up. Sometimes faculty can take the class to the event or make it part of an assignment.  I used to make one class session meet in the library prior to assigning final papers.  Professors can direct a student to the writing center.  Professors should ask the Career or Alumni office for a list of alumni who majored in their field and what they have done with their degrees so they can answer the “what to do with this major question” with real stories.

In addition, find ways to engage students in workplace settings or with recent alumni to hear from students like themselves what it is like and to feel the spaces and whatever vibe it puts out. Firms should send the worker bees and not just the recruiters to visit campuses. Those they send should be ready to engage in some level of mentorship following the visit. The Associate Board of READ Alliance is made up of young corporate employees who can engage with the READ teen tutors who are college bound and let them know what to expect on the other end. They find it is gratifying to them to do this work.  Organizations like Project Basta, Futures and Options and BUILD all work to give youth real workplace exposure, build connections, understand processes and cultures. But these programs themselves are under resourced and so only can reach a drop in the bucket of college going first gen, low-income and students of color. Supporting and expanding them would be helpful too.

The issue is not just getting into and graduating from college for first gen, low-income and students of color. It is getting into and thriving in the workplace once they do.



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