Future of Work and Learning: The Big Blur

Today's college students are focused on skill development gained through a combination of educational programs and work experience.
portrait of Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
Melissa Venable, Ph.D.
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Melissa A. Venable, Ph.D., has 15 years of experience in online education as an instructional designer, curriculum manager, and adjunct professor. She is also a certified career coach. Her work in higher education began in career services working wit...
Published on Dec 08, 2022
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Darlene Earnest
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Editor & Writer

Darlene Earnest is a copy editor for BestColleges. She has had an extensive editing career at several news organizations, including The Virginian-Pilot and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She also has completed programs for editors offered by the D...
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Data Summary

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    Job skill development is a primary goal for 89% of college students.
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    An overwhelming majority of students (94%) report having practical experience opportunities in their classes and programs.
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    A majority of both undergraduate (89%) and graduate (90%) students have pursued or plan to pursue learning opportunities in addition to their academic programs.
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    An always-learning approach is critical for developing and maintaining relevant job skills.

College enrollment may be declining overall, but it's still the most popular path after high school graduation, with more than 61% of recent high school graduates enrolling in college in 2021.

But the lines between school and work are blurring as fewer students take a break from work to study, or between school and work. In 2018, 43% of full-time undergraduate students, and 81% of those enrolled part time, were employed.

Work-integrated learning and learning-integrated work offer a glimpse at the future of employment and higher education.

Gaining Skills While You're in College

It's widely accepted that employers' hiring decisions are based on skills, whether they are technical (i.e., hard skills) or transferrable (i.e., soft skills). We're even starting to see hiring managers drop college degree requirements for some roles.

In a BestColleges survey conducted in November 2022, a vast majority (88%) of current online students said that skills-based training and education were "important" to their career development. More than half (52%) said that it was "extremely important."

So, where and how are these skills developed? Many students report having the opportunity to develop skills while they are in school. And many of these opportunities are tied to their jobs. Of the students surveyed who were enrolled in academic programs, almost half (47%) said they could relate some of their class assignments to their current jobs and (46%) were able to use their class assignments to explore careers.

Prepare for Your Future

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    Ask your professors about how you can connect class assignments to your current projects at work or to fields you are interested in exploring.
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    Explore opportunities to learn outside the college classroom, including through volunteer work and job shadowing.
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    Consider participating in an externship or internship to experience the skills you are learning on campus in a workplace setting.

Reliance on Employers for Skill Development

In a separate survey conducted in 2021, BestColleges asked adults in the U.S. about their primary source of education or training for the skills they used in their most recent jobs. While the top response, indicated by 1 in 4 respondents (25%), was a four-year or graduate degree, a similar number of respondents (24%) said their primary source of training was their employer.

Prepare for Your Future

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    Ask your current employer about opportunities to participate in scheduled training events offered through the company or organization.
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    Ask questions about professional development and continuing education when you interview for your next job.

Learning Is a Continuous Process

While many of the students participating in our recent survey were in a degree program or had completed a degree, that wasn't their only source of education or training.

Only 11% of those who were enrolled in or had completed a bachelor's degree program said that they had not completed any additional education or training and had no plans to do so in the future. Graduate degree (i.e., master's, doctorate, professional) students and holders indicated a broad education and training background in similar numbers.

This is an overwhelming response indicating that a college program alone isn't enough. And it's in line with some predictions about the future of work and learning. According to the World Economic Forum, "the world is facing a reskilling emergency." Upskilling and reskilling will be essential to maintain a workforce with the skills needed to fill current and future jobs that are increasingly technical in nature.

Prepare for Your Future

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    Use online learning platforms like Coursera and LinkedIn Learning to augment what you are learning in school and explore careers.
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    Look for and connect with potential mentors who can field questions about in-demand skills in your field of interest and model different work and learning paths.

Blurring High School, College, and Careers

While our survey did not capture the experience of high school students, there are calls for reform to the education system that would further connect learning and work.

Jobs for the Future (JFF) proposes "a radical restructuring of education for grades 11-14 by erasing the arbitrary dividing line between high school and college," which they call "The Big Blur." Participation in career and technical education (CTE) programs, designed to provide occupational training, is already high. Today, more than 12 million high school students are enrolled in CTE in the U.S. But there's more that can be done.

The goal of JFF's restructuring plan is to address disparities in not only access to college and college completion, and their resulting increase in lifetime income, but also alignment of curriculum and training with the current and quickly evolving needs of employers.

Connecting students with learning and work opportunities that lead to successful careers, while minimizing debt, is a goal of career-focused high schools. These programs could serve as the building blocks or foundation of a big blur approach.

For many, if not most, of today's college students, motivation to enroll is related to preparation for a job or career. Job placement is a top factor in college choice, according to a survey from the U.S. Department of Education. Take the initiative to connect your classes with the workplace, whether you are working now or preparing for a future job search. Embrace the big blur of learning and work to launch and build a sustainable career.