Today's shifting industries require "T-shaped professionals," not general "well-rounded" workers, Jeffrey Selingo writes in the Washington Post.
T-shaped students have a deep understanding of one subject matter paired with the knowledge necessary to apply that information across multiple other subjects. They have "balance and the agility to pick and choose from a set of knowledge and skills as they are needed," Selingo says.
But students aren't graduating with these characteristics.
"Colleges don't offer classes, majors, or activities designed specifically for building the T-shaped individual, so undergraduates need to direct themselves—to act independently, be resourceful, and cobble together experiences inside and outside the classroom to better prepare for the evolving workplace they will face," Selingo writes.
At IBM, head of university partnerships Jim Spohrer says they often look to start-ups for applicants, preferring that population over recent graduates. In a start-up setting, people must be able to work in small teams, solve problems, find customers, and learn from failures.
Are T-shaped professionals the answer to the skills gap?
"In school, it’s all about individual performance," Spohrer says "You better get it right the first time, because we're going to test you. If you work in teams and something goes wrong, you blame another team member. I'm less interested in the big successes. People don't learn a lot from their successes, and they usually learn the wrong things."
Focusing on liberal arts can help students develop these skills, David Kalt argues in the Wall Street Journal. Kalt founded Reverb.com and co-founded optionsXpress.
Liberal arts teaches critical thinking. "Critical thinkers can accomplish anything … A critical thinker is a self-learning machine that is not constrained by memorizing commands or syntax," Kalt writes.
Many liberal arts degrees expose students to multiple subject matters. Reverb.com's current COO graduated with a philosophy degree and taught himself engineering.
"He has risen above the code to lead a team that is competitive globally. His determination and critical-thinking skills empower him to leverage the power of technology without getting bogged down by it. His background gives him the soft skills–the people skills–that make him stand out as someone who understands our customers and knows how to bring the staff along," Kalt writes (Kalt, "The Experts," Wall Street Journal, 6/1; Selingo, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 6/1).
Help students grow into T-shaped professionals
As the Great Recession draws to a close, many job seekers still struggle to find gainful employment. Years of operating under hiring freezes, coupled with advances in technology, have taught employers how to maintain—and even increase—productivity with a lean staff. As a result, employers can afford to be even choosier in hiring new talent. Large employers like IBM, IDEO, and Cisco are spearheading initiatives to hire “T-shaped professionals.” Learn how colleges and universities are helping students grow into the kinds of professionals employers want to hire.
READ MORE ABOUT T-SHAPED PROFESSIONALS
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How colleges are expanding access to mental health services