Why everyone's talking about 'T-shaped' professionals

Employers seek graduates with broader skills

The EAB Daily Briefing spoke with senior consultant Megan Adams about what today's employers want from graduates.

Q: Why has the concept of the T-shaped professional gained so much traction recently?

Adams: Until now, most of the buzz in the media and the public discourse has been about the stem of the 'T'; the technical skills and the mastery of a process, product, or body of knowledge. What gets lost in that conversation is the top of the 'T'; those universal competencies are what employers say they're missing most of all.

You could in some sense see this as employers and educators starting to think more broadly about what it means to graduate with the right skills to be ready for a job.

Q: What's prompting employers to make that change?

Adams: In some broad ways we could connect this to the way that the economy is changing. These days, it's about being able to invent things, build a new product, or launch a startup. Startup founders aren't just good at code or just good at raising money—a lot of times they're both. It requires both parts of the T.

What this new attention on T-shaped professionals signals to me is moving beyond either the soft skills or the technical skills—either you were a humanities major or you were an engineering major—and moving toward a conception of job readiness that is about bringing those types of skills together.

Already winning at building T-shaped professionals? Make sure your program catches the attention of prospective students

Q: How has the importance of the T-shaped professional changed since the beginning of the Great Recession?

Adams: There is now a greater focus on outcomes, [such as] the College Scorecard and new scrutiny on salary data. There's at least—from an institutional point of view—greater attention to preparing people to succeed in an economy that looks completely different from anything we've ever known, and a recognition that not only are the skills sets [necessary for success] different, but the types and combinations of skills are also different.

Q: There's also been a lot of discussion lately about the soft skills gap. How does that play in?

Adams: When we talk about soft skills for entry level [positions], sometimes it's showing up on time or being able to just communicate clearly. This is something that our community college members talk a lot about: How do we teach that in the classroom and really get students job-ready?

We also find that for graduates of four-years this is an issue, too. But when it comes to the liberal arts, it's a tricky argument to make because you could say liberal arts skills are transferrable to just about any career: The ability to form an argument and back it up, to communicate clearly, and to be able to read difficult texts and understand what they mean.

Q: That's not the narrative we usually hear about liberal arts grads. Do you think the liberal arts are undervalued today?

Adams: We have to be careful about how we're defining liberal arts because liberal arts technically includes science and math, but usually when we're talking about liberal arts or when it's talked about in the media you're talking about the humanities. The ability to develop analytical skills, critical thinking, and constructing an argument are common across all of those disciplines.

But there's a caution to be made against saying that the liberal arts [should be valued in terms of] career preparation, because there's a deeper value to the liberal arts, which is the underpinning for a democratic society. The ability to think for yourself as a free citizen, and to be a participant in a representative democracy is bigger than jobs.

Every graduate should be able to talk about how what they studied can translate to the real world, but I would caution against reducing the liberal arts, or any discipline within the liberal arts, to a purely outcomes-focused [pursuit], even as our institutions face greater scrutiny. I don't want that to overshadow the greater purpose, not only of the liberal arts but of higher education.

Q: In what ways can institutions help students develop T-top skills?

Adams: A lot of these schools or units are already developing the top of the T; students might just not be aware of it. We've got this great tactic from Memorial University, where they figured out all the things that new graduates need to be able to do: Give a presentation, participate in a meeting, be able to write a convincing email or paper, and be able to construct an argument.

What [administrators] said to faculty is you don't have to remake your syllabi, you don't even have to change your content. All you have to do is call out where you're already teaching those soft skills. We're already teaching you how to do that just by the course content that you're already doing. We're teaching you how to communicate in class; you have to participate every day. We're teaching you to be on time.

Q: So sometimes it's less about teaching new skills, and more about teaching students to talk about their experiences?

Absolutely. For example, Wake Forest University does a great job of saying, "Study philosophy, and we're going to provide wrap-around career services that help you do that translation exercise, that will help you get ready for your first day on the job. But we're not going to tamper with philosophy itself. We're not going to try to make philosophy more career-applicable, we're going to just provide the services that make that translation exercise easier."

It's not necessarily that the colleges have to change what they're doing, but to help students with the translation exercise, to help them realize the skills that they're actually getting in these classes that go beyond the content itself.

Q: What should institutions be taking from this T-shaped professionals trend?

Adams: It's recognizing that job readiness isn't just about these technical skills—emphasize what it means to be a well-rounded graduate. It's not just investing in professional programs, it's about investing in services and support to help students bring it all together; to really understand what T-top skills like collaboration and communication and leadership they're already learning.

Two best practice strategies for creating T-shaped professionals


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