“Closing the skills gap by ending the monoculture of degrees, ending pedigree- and degree-based hiring, and growing a diversity of faster, less expensive pathways to high-value employment is the calling of our time.” –Ryan Craig, MD University Ventures
What was your first job? Mine was working in a prep kitchen at the Minnesota State Fair at age 13. Perhaps a better question is what was the first job where you connected your skills and talents with something you really cared about? For me, that came seven years later in Washington, D.C., where I interned for U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar. The two experiences were vastly different — from dicing vegetables to researching legislative policy — yet equally valuable in building my confidence and informing my professional path for years to come.
From those first jobs to my current role at Minerva, my path has been anything but linear. At every juncture, I made the best decision I could with the information at hand, weighing various opportunities against my capabilities and my values. In some cases I succeeded, in others I stumbled, but throughout my career, I knew I had the ability to connect my interests with a fulfilling role. Unfortunately, my experience is far from the norm for most young professionals and those preparing to enter the workforce. For many, the education-to-career “skills gap” is all too real.
Take a look around your country. Take a look around our world. Communities of all demographics are distrustful of their governments, disillusioned with educational systems, healthcare policies, and above all, their current and future work prospects. Underlying these concerns is a suspicion that life for future generations will not be better than it is today, as at every turn we seem to confront the same question: where is my place in this economy, in this changing world?
This concern is at the core of the skills gap. Four-year colleges, universities, and community colleges all face increasing pressure to deliver a tangible, lasting return on investment for graduates. At the same time, venture speculation on for-profit and vocational programs abounds, with a resulting influx of capital into education technology companies and competency-based services and programs. Regardless of their education level, under-employed millennials are frustrated, mirroring the feelings of many of their parents and grandparents, who found themselves unemployed in a labor market that had outpaced the training and education they invested in earlier in life.
Communities around the world that experience this lack of access and agency are those most deeply impacted by the skills gap; low-skilled workers, women re-entering the workforce, and middle-aged job seekers are all confronted with the harsh reality that their fields are being rapidly automated. Closing the skills gap and keeping pace with the irreversible dynamics of globalization and innovation is indeed the great challenge of our time. I’ve found an avenue, through my role at Minerva, to help prepare a particularly promising group of young people, looking for immediate and adaptable professional skills that will anchor careers in positions of consequence.
A Trajectory from Mission to Action
The first three chapters of my career were influential in my quest to find a more efficient and effective solution to approaching the education-to-career transition. Looking back, the continuity is all the more evident — grounded in mission-driven work that eventually compelled a more direct contribution. I began my career supporting the Women in Public Service Project, an initiative focused on accelerating women’s equal participation in policy and political leadership around the world, through targeted training, partnerships, and professional networks across generations and geographies. Founded by then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in partnership with women’s educational institutions, the project provided my first opportunity to equip a diversity of women with the content and competencies necessary to not only fully participate in a particular sector, but to play leadership roles. Subsequent opportunities at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and Fullbridge, a college-to-career education technology startup, further underscored the urgent need to revitalize educational systems to ensure they provide the core competencies that organizations need to thrive in our modern world. At the same time, I was confident that a more efficient and effective model for holistically teaching these skills was possible and within reach — and I wanted to be part of that solution.
However, since most institutions structure career services as a department separated from academic and extracurricular programming, it took several more years to find a model where professional development was deeply embedded within a program.
By building a university program from its foundations to meet the demands of the 21st century, Minerva has had the unique opportunity to reconsider every aspect of higher education, and improve upon those elements most critical to effective learning and student success. One such component is the revolutionary approach Minerva takes to prepare students for careers: the Professional Development Agency. Our mandate is to help them define their personal goals, connect them with relevant opportunities that fulfill those goals, and continue to promote and support them throughout their careers. Regardless of the sectors they choose, Minerva’s combination of practical knowledge, experiential learning, and professional opportunities, equips graduates for positions of leadership in the world’s most innovative organizations.
A recent Gallup Purdue Index Report revealed that only one in six college graduates found the career services available at their institutions “very helpful.” We at Minerva intend to fix that, delivering not only a “helpful” experience, but one that will enhance students’ prospects for the rest of their lives, helping them trace an engaging, evolving, and fulfilling professional path. The Professional Development Agency has already begun to deliver on this promise, introducing the most essential elements of professional development to our students in their very first year. We then help identify opportunities, throughout their undergraduate years, to learn and practice the skills they need to be successful. Because of these ongoing professional experiences, Minerva students will be exceptionally capable of making meaningful contributions from the day they enter the workforce.
Outdated Practices, Widening Gaps
Why are most university graduates dissatisfied with the career services they received? The results are not surprising given the existential crisis faced by career services at colleges and universities across the U.S. With median ratios hovering around one staff member for every 850 students, support is limited to foundational services like résumé reviews, basic advising for third- and fourth-year students, and mock interviews. This under-resourced and outdated model cannot keep apace with the recent, significant shift in the reasons students enroll. New America found that today’s students attend universities for very practical reasons: to improve employment opportunities (91%); to make more money (90%); and to get a good job (89%).
Employers are well aware of the inefficacy of the current college-to-career model. Gone are the days when professionals remained at one company for decades, taking on progressively greater responsibility, or reinvesting their time at organizations that provided training and development, equity, pensions, and other benefits. Where a “successful” career was once defined by longevity, the job tenure of millennials working in the U.S. is only 1.3 years, regardless of industry. Today, employers are focused on identifying talented students who possess the skills, aptitude, and cultural fit to excel at their organizations. Their hope is that these attributes will yield higher retention and longevity, beyond the one-year mark.
The fundamental disconnect between the understanding of which abilities modern organizations actually need, and by extension, students’ readiness to participate in the workforce, should be driving innovation in career services at universities across the country. The same Gallup poll also found that an astounding 96% of chief academic officers rate their institution as “very” or “somewhat” effective at preparing students for the workforce. By contrast, the same study found that a mere 14% of Americans “strongly agree” that college graduates are well-prepared for success in the workplace — a staggering difference in perceptions — underscored by the finding that just over one in ten business leaders “strongly agree” that college graduates have the skills and competencies that their industries need.5
One might expect institutions to take findings like these seriously and proactively address the skills gap. Not only is it clearly evident, but it poses a threat to individuals and organizations, and more broadly, to economic and labor dynamics throughout the U.S. and the world.
An Embedded Solution
Minerva’s Professional Development Agency is engaging in an authentic conversation with top employers, striving to understand the impact of the skills gap, and more importantly, use insights from this discourse to inform and adapt our educational programs to help ensure Minerva students are competitive for the jobs of today, and those of the future. Our goal is ambitious, but not impossible: every Minerva student will graduate prepared to actively participate in the modern world, equipped with the competencies required for success. They will also have an unprecedented level of career experience, thanks to a holistic educational approach that unites academic and intellectual inquiry with real-world application.
I am further inspired by two additional characteristics that I have consistently observed among our students: an empathetic awareness of complex global issues and a genuine commitment to confronting these challenges. I am confident that Minerva students will take action where it is most urgently needed, eventually leading meaningful progress in every sector. Their potential for impact on our collective future is, for me, the most compelling argument for heeding the calling of our time; we are empowering our students to make decisions of consequence. My greatest hope is that Minerva’s Professional Development Agency will serve as a model for other institutions, as they endeavor to do the same.
 2011–2012 Career Services Benchmarking Survey, National Association of Colleges and Employers
 The 2016 Deloitte Millennials Survey (link)
 2013 Gallup-Lumina Report on Higher Education (link)