Most of us go to college and grad school with the general assumption that we will graduate ready to launch our careers. But what does “ready” really mean? The definition could include things necessary for a particular profession, like knowing the law or having a teaching certificate. But for those of us pursuing professions that are not defined by a single body of knowledge, readiness is a murkier concept. That murkiness, in turn, makes it more difficult to know how to prepare for and advance your career. What degree will be most useful to you? Which courses will help you build key skills and capabilities?

Happily, there is some great research out there about what employees are looking for. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) defines career readiness “as the attainment and demonstration of requisite competencies that broadly prepare college graduates for a successful transition into the workplace.” Through its research with employers, NACE has identified eight career readiness competencies:

Critical Thinking/Problem Solving: Exercise sound reasoning to analyze issues, make decisions, and overcome problems. The individual is able to obtain, interpret, and use knowledge, facts, and data in this process, and may demonstrate originality and inventiveness.

Oral/Written Communications: Articulate thoughts and ideas clearly and effectively in written and oral forms to persons inside and outside of the organization. The individual has public speaking skills; is able to express ideas to others; and can write/edit memos, letters, and complex technical reports clearly and effectively.

Teamwork/Collaboration: Build collaborative relationships with colleagues and customers representing diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, religions, lifestyles, and viewpoints. The individual is able to work within a team structure, and can negotiate and manage conflict.

Digital Technology: Leverage existing digital technologies ethically and efficiently to solve problems, complete tasks, and accomplish goals. The individual demonstrates effective adaptability to new and emerging technologies.

Leadership: Leverage the strengths of others to achieve common goals, and use interpersonal skills to coach and develop others. The individual is able to assess and manage his/her emotions and those of others; use empathetic skills to guide and motivate; and organize, prioritize, and delegate work.

Professionalism/Work Ethic: Demonstrate personal accountability and effective work habits, e.g., punctuality, working productively with others, and time workload management, and understand the impact of non-verbal communication on professional work image. The individual demonstrates integrity and ethical behavior, acts responsibly with the interests of the larger community in mind, and is able to learn from his/her mistakes.

Career Management: Identify and articulate one’s skills, strengths, knowledge, and experiences relevant to the position desired and career goals, and identify areas necessary for professional growth. The individual is able to navigate and explore job options, understands and can take the steps necessary to pursue opportunities, and understands how to self-advocate for opportunities in the workplace.

Global/Intercultural Fluency: Value, respect, and learn from diverse cultures, races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, and religions. The individual demonstrates, openness, inclusiveness, sensitivity, and the ability to interact respectfully with all people and understand individuals’ differences.

Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers

These core competencies are the foundational skills that help people succeed regardless of what job or field they’re in. Unfortunately, most undergraduate and graduate school courses aren’t explicitly designed to help you acquire these skills. Instead, the theory, especially behind the liberal arts curriculum, is that taking tough courses across a range of subjects will help you gradually become a more competent thinker, communicator, and so on. At E38 Academy we believe very strongly in this theory, but we also believe the nature of modern academia means the priorities in most courses can’t always be well aligned with these competencies.

The research NACE has done illustrates this point. Surveys with hundreds of employers and thousands of students reveal a big gap between how ready most college graduates think they are and how ready their potential employers think they are. In its most recent report, NACE found that, on average, 68% of recent college graduates considered themselves either “very” or “extremely” proficient across the eight competencies, while just 44% of employers considered recent graduates that competent. The gaps between employers and graduates in perceptions about communications, critical thinking, and leadership, in particular, averaged a whopping 33 percentage points.

An important takeaway from the NACE report is that even though both undergraduate and graduate programs play critical roles in preparing students for great careers, there are limits to what you will learn in the classroom. Other life experiences, such as internships, part-time jobs, and training and professional development that takes place outside academia, must also play a big role in helping young professionals gain these skills.

As you launch your career, conducting an honest self-assessment of your competency in these foundational areas will pay great returns. As you get ready to graduate, are you really ready? As you identify your strengths, you can be sure to highlight those for potential employers. And as you identify areas for growth, you can use them to help make the most of your current job, education, or professional development opportunities.

In the comments, we’d love to get your thoughts about these competencies and their role in your career so far.

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