Higher Education and Employability: New Models for Integrating Study and Work

reviewed by Daniel Klasik - February 02, 2016

coverTitle: Higher Education and Employability: New Models for Integrating Study and Work
Author(s): Peter J. Stokes
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 161250826X, Pages: 224, Year: 2015
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Peter J. Stokes introduces readers to the ways colleges address employability concerns regarding their graduates in his book In Higher Education and Employability: New Models for Integrating Study and Work. At the heart of Stokes’ view of employability is the idea that students need to be taught skills like inquisitiveness, resilience, and empathy—qualities already incorporated into a typical liberal arts curriculum—but also understand how those skills apply in the workplace. Stokes argues that accomplishing this goal requires increasing collaboration between universities and employers, and providing more experiential learning opportunities. He explores the ways colleges can tackle employability issues through case studies conducted at Georgia Tech, New York University (NYU), and Northeastern University. Stokes argues that these institutions provide strong examples of how research universities are explicitly concerned with developing student workplace skills in contrast to more vocationally-focused schools.

Stokes addresses potential critics of his employability focus by explaining that universities should pay more attention to this issue but that this need not come at the expense of liberal arts values. He notes that he is neither calling for an overhaul of higher education, nor critiquing current curricular practices. Instead Stokes hopes that universities can augment what they already do well with opportunities for their students to gain valuable workplace skills. He posits that the “combination of academic study and work preparation” is “a both/and rather than an either/or proposition” (p. 4).

Stokes reviews the landscape of employability innovations in higher education in the second chapter. This sprawling overview covers everything from competency-based education reforms, to MOOCs, to new technologies that efficiently match students with employers. It is not always clear how these reforms connect with developing employability—for example, online coursework is a new development in course delivery, but whether it prepares students for the workplace any differently than traditional modes of content delivery is uncertain. Stokes does, however, offer a good survey of initiatives like bridge programs that offer intensive business-skills classes to supplement a liberal arts curriculum, sometimes specifically cooperating with particular employers.

Chapters Three through Five constitute the core of Higher Education and Employability and consist of case studies detailing three universities’ innovations that were implemented to develop student employability. For example, Georgia Tech emphasizes not only a new university strategic plan that acknowledges the employability of students, but also actively promotes a long-standing co-op program where students have the ability to apply lessons learned in the classroom to real workplace environments through partnerships with local firms.

In his second and most compelling case, Stokes describes how NYU has emphasized employability skills by creating structures for students to reflect on how their internships and study abroad experiences—already a core part of the NYU curriculum—have helped them develop skills that will be applicable in the workplace. He also highlights a partnership between NYU’s College of Arts and Sciences and its School of Professional Studies that allows traditional undergraduates to earn noncredit professional certificates. Although many examples of innovations in higher education and employability involve STEM programs (e.g., innovations in the delivery of computer science curricula), the typical critique of STEM programs is that colleges are not producing enough graduates, not that they are unemployable. Stokes pays attention to initiatives focusing on where current employability challenges typically exist by describing the potential for English majors to hold publishing internships and art historians to benefit from experiential learning in art galleries through NYU’s non-STEM employability innovations.

Finally in the case of Northeastern University—Stokes’ former employer—he emphasizes how the university plans academic program development in careful collaboration with local industries. Northeastern wants to ensure that it produces students prepared for the local job market of the university and its branch campuses. Stokes points to what may be the defining feature of the evolution of longstanding efforts to maximize the employability of college graduates—specific attention to the needs of local employers. Institutions that work closely with local employers will likely produce graduates who are able to successfully find jobs rather than working toward developing general employability skills.

Higher Education and Employability is non-technical and easy to read, but readers will occasionally run into sentences with jargon that reflect Stokes’s professional position. Higher education administrators will likely find the book of interest, and particularly if they are already concerned about student employability. However, the book is not a how-to for increasing employability—instead it provides intriguing models of how a few universities have tackled this issue. This distinction is key because Stokes does not provide evidence that any of the innovations actually improve employability despite the many examples included. All of the collaborations and partnerships sound exciting and new, but there is no way to judge if new is necessarily better–have Georgia Tech, NYU, or Northeastern students been more successful at finding jobs than their peers? Readers are left to assume success since the case study schools fit Stokes’ vision of how higher education institutions can make their students more employable.

One lingering conceptual challenge in Higher Education and Employability is defining what employability means. Stokes gives a few speculative definitions gathered from interviews, but ultimately chooses to leave the meaning vague after demonstrating there isn’t much existing consensus. This vagueness is likely unavoidable—if we knew what employability looked like, or how to develop it, we would not require a book describing how different universities attempt to increase this quality in students. Similarly, different employers look for different skills so it may not even be possible to develop a general definition of employability. The final result is a book that feels unfocused—no higher education innovation is out of bounds for Stokes’s discussion without a clear definition of employability. Thankfully Stokes’s expansive understanding of the field makes him a mostly able guide to navigate this vast and shifting terrain.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: February 02, 2016
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 19374, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 1:30:10 PM

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