The importance of gaining relevant experience "outside the classroom" is not a new one, but the variety of opportunities available to motivated students is rapidly evolving – and employers are taking notice.
In fact, a select group of Australian employers were recently asked about the key traits they seek when recruiting graduates, raising the issue of the value of "book smarts"compared to hands-on industry experience. Their answers were telling.
Unsurprisingly, all acknowledged the importance of so-called traditional skills such as research, writing and industry knowledge acquired through university study. Each employer was also quick to point out the value of candidates demonstrating practical application of their theoretical knowledge, as well as strong communication, networking and inter-personal skills; with those who could demonstrate previous industry immersion considered more highly than those whose skills were apparently purely on paper.
Most quality universities are strengthening their focus on facilitating situations where students are "learning through doing", not only to provide an opportunity to experience their desired industry at an early stage in their studies, but to help develop genuine workplace interpersonal skills, to begin building a relevant network of contacts and to better equip graduates to make the transition from classroom to workplace.
A key consequence of the increasingly borderless global employment market is intensifying competition for jobs, with employers able to source potential recruits from an expanding, and increasingly mobile talent pool in which graduates with on-the-ground experience are rising to the top.
Findings from the latest Graduate Outlook 2013 survey on "Employers' Perspectives on Graduate Recruitment" by Graduate Careers Australia found that besides the obvious need for relevant qualifications, "Interpersonal and communication skills" was the most important selection criteria for employers evaluating applicants.
Graduates' "passion, industry knowledge, drive, commitment and attitude" was considered the second most important selection criteria; with "critical reasoning, problem solving, lateral thinking" in third place; and "work experience" ranking fifth (coming in just under caliber of academic results), up from sixth five years ago.
Whilst it may seem incongruous that Torrens University Australia espouses the importance of skills gained "outside the classroom" when employers ranked work experience in fifth place, there's good reason for it.
Many of the skills students develop via activities related to their studies yet undertaken outside the classroom are those that genuinely develop soft skills increasingly sought after by employers - such as communication, industry knowledge, negotiation, problem solving, lateral thinking and conflict resolution. The ability to be able to demonstrate how these skills have been honed in real life situations, as well as being able to demonstrate – through active involvement - passion, drive and commitment to a prospective employer is a valuable asset for any CV.
This is why Torrens is focused on ensuring outside of the classroom experiences are incorporated as an integral part of the university experience. Whether this be via international study programs, industry work placements, or through mentoring and networking opportunities – such as at this year's World Business Forum (WBF) in Sydney.
Mentoring has long been seen as a valuable tool in developing future leaders, and this year a cohort of students – including undergraduate and postgraduate students studying on-campus and online – from Torrens University Australia undertook roles as assistants to high profile keynote speakers including John Howard, Randi Zuckerberg, Kevin Roberts, Michael Porter, Lyn Heward, Andreas Weigend, George Kohlrieser, Gary Hamel and Ram Charan - "learning through doing" in an authentic and engaging way.
As demonstrated by the scores of applications received from Torrens students to be part of this program, we know it is this kind of hands-on experience and exposure to industry that is greatly valued by students.
In the many years I have been involved in the education sector, I've found that graduates with the broadest range of learning experiences often gain the most out of their programs, and the value they add to their future careers.
Many institutions are implementing some aspect of industry partnerships and overseas collaboration; however these initiatives need to be extended throughout university programs, and be offered to all students no matter what their mode of study.
It's only a matter of time before savvy students will demand as much emphasis be placed on their learning opportunities outside the classroom as they do on the theoretical knowledge they gain on the inside – and progressive education providers will need to adapt and evolve to meet the challenge.
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