More than 90 percent of employers rate UA graduates as having the skills needed to succeed on the job, as colleges and universities across the nation are working to improve the workforce readiness of their graduating students. (Photo credit: John de Dios/UANews)
More than 90 percent of employers rate UA graduates as having the skills needed to succeed on the job, as colleges and universities across the nation are working to improve the workforce readiness of their graduating students. (Photo credit: John de Dios/UANews)

Four Questions: The New Workforce Solution

Melissa Vito explains how the University of Arizona is addressing gaps in workforce readiness demands.
April 26, 2017
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"Four Questions" is an occasional feature in which UANews asks experts from the UA for their perspective on current events or pop culture.

The UA's 153rd Commencement ceremony will be held May 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Arizona Stadium.

Event details are available online for:

Also, follow Commencement coverage on Twitter and share using #Beardownlife

"Our vision for student engagement is about embedded, intentional application of transferrable, day-to-day soft skills," said Melissa Vito, the UA's senior vice president for Student Affairs, Enrollment Management and Strategic Initiatives.
"Our vision for student engagement is about embedded, intentional application of transferrable, day-to-day soft skills," said Melissa Vito, the UA's senior vice president for Student Affairs, Enrollment Management and Strategic Initiatives.

In higher education, employers, parents and students maintain an unspoken expectation that graduates will leave their institutions with workforce-ready skills.

But reality has shown that this is not always the case. 

Today, employers are looking for different capabilities and identity characteristics than in years past. However, in a 2014 survey by Gallup, only one-third of business leaders agreed that graduates had the necessary skills and competencies to succeed in the workplace. A 2015 study, "Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success," found that a mere 23 percent of employers say that recent college graduates are well prepared to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

In comparison, an Inside Higher Ed survey released that same year found that 96 percent of chief academic officers believed they were doing well in preparing their students for success in the work force.

This disparity has led to a nationwide effort to improve workforce readiness, with colleges and universities at the helm of adaptation.

The University of Arizona has launched programs with work skills embedded into the curricula, such as its Edge Internship Readiness Program and Continuing and Professional Education's coding boot camps, which were held in the Phoenix area.

With the UA's Commencement ceremony to be held May 12, Melissa Vito, the UA's senior vice president for Student Affairs, Enrollment Management and Strategic Initiatives, discusses how the concept of "workforce readiness" has evolved and what that evolution has meant for higher-education institutions.

Q: How is the UA, and other higher education institutions, improving how students are prepared the workforce?

A: Many institutions are changing their organizational structures to better prepare their students for the workforce. When we first began building out 100% Engagement, I understood that there was a gap in the way our career services area functioned and the way students were actually going about their job searches. We recognized that we needed to turn old models of career services on their head by combining career, leadership and engagement under one roof. Another big part of this shift comes from the market's changing landscape. In our discussions with employers and professional groups around the country, we also knew that talent and workforce development were their biggest issues. So there was an obvious need and opportunity for us to adapt our organization to their needs, not just for our undergraduates but for working professionals and online students, as well.

Q: Phrases such as "engagement" and "applied learning" are common among discussions surrounding higher education. How did you develop a model to meet your needs?

A: The biggest thing for us was looking at the national landscape and talking to a lot of smart people. In the end, we weren't satisfied with any existing models, so we built our own. Our vision for student engagement is about embedded, intentional application of transferrable, day-to-day soft skills, such as the ability to project manage, problem solve, or collaborate — but in faculty-vetted settings to ensure that our standards don't waver. These things seem simple, but they are very different from what students pick up in classrooms. And these are the things that employers told us they needed.

Under Vincent Del Casino's leadership, we also embedded student leadership into this structure, creating an organization that supports students' development of soft skills described above and through 100% Engagement. Career Services has been reimagined as an area focused on learning and education. Best of all, though, we know our model is working. According to one national survey, just 23 percent of employers say that recent college graduates are well prepared. But 92 percent of employers rate UA grads with the skills needed to succeed on the job — a 70-percent difference. On top of that, nine out of 10 employers rate UA grads as exceeding the quality of their peers.

Q: How is the UA differing in its approach to workforce readiness?

A: With our unique model in place, we have seen 100% Engagement bear significant fruit. With a notation of engaged learning on a student's academic transcript, we became the only institution of our size and reputation to do so. This serves as a gold seal to employers and graduate schools that our students have gone above and beyond the classroom experience. In just our second year of formal adoption of the 100% Engagement Initiative, more than 60 percent of our seniors will graduate with an engaged experience, double that of last year's class. And as a result, two-thirds of students graduating this May have already accepted job offers or placement in graduate schools before they've even taken their finals. Equally gratifying is that 86 percent of all students, and 90 percent of Arizona residents, have accepted jobs or entered graduate school 90 days out from graduation. We know that those soft skills, coupled with classroom learnings, are making our students better prepared and more employable than their peers.

Q: How do you see workforce readiness changing in the near future for colleges and universities?

A: That is a big question moving forward. How can institutions continue to keep talent pipelines full, year in and year out? It's a concern that Arizona businesses leaders have expressed to me and an issue that we anticipated through the 100% Engagement Initiative. So, in addition to our work with 100% Engagement and our undergraduate support, we have developed a suite of workforce development options to deliver our world-class education to their employees in a customized, flexible way that matches the needs of "Workplace Wildcats." We have partnerships in place with employers such as Cox Communications, the Salt River Project, GEICO and Caterpillar, based upon our ability to provide them and their employees with online education solutions built custom to their needs. While we're doing our part to fill and maintain the base of Arizona's talent pool, we're also expanding and growing the center and upper portions of the of the workforce, as well.