Higher Education

Q&A With Interim University President on Prioritizing Skills & Work Readiness

See what Athens State University’s interim president says is key to developing skills in students

Catherine Wehlburg, Ph.D., shares her perspective on the challenge of aligning an institution’s mission with identifying and measuring the skills students need to be successful employees. Watch the Full Webinar


Jenny Gordon:

Let’s look a little bit around skills and work readiness. And there’s a widespread movement at the minute to have much more focus on skills and making sure that students have had the opportunity to learn and hone their skills and their practical abilities alongside their knowledge ahead of going out into the world of work. And from your perspective as a university leader, are you leading any changes at Athens State when it comes to this trend of re-looking at skills?

Catherine Wehlburg:

Absolutely. And some of that is coming because much of our funding is coming from our state and our state is looking at job skills and wanting us to ensure that our students, when they leave, are ready to jump into a job or a career or something like that. And there is certainly a balance here, and I personally struggle with this on a regular basis where I ask them, so what’s the purpose of college? Is it learning or is it to get a job? And the answer is of course, “Yes.” And so we’ve got to figure out how to balance the focus on skills and work readiness with the bigger picture things like critical thinking, like problem solving that are absolutely part of work readiness and skills, but they are not usually thought of in that way. Often when we think of skills, we think of very small pieces of behavior that someone has learned how to do, and you learn enough skills you can do more with them and they build into a larger base of behaviors.

And I know as a faculty member, I have always been a little bit leery of this focus on skills because I like to think that I’m teaching learning and I’m teaching understanding, and I’m teaching those kinds of things that are not necessarily easily measurable behaviors, but at the same time, I can only see that learning has happened through a behavior or a skill. I mean, I could ask students, “Have you learned things?” And they say, “Yes.” And I say, “Oh, well, then you get an A.” I mean no one would do that because we want to see that that learning is happening. And so we want to see it in a behavior, whether that’s answering a question on a test or completing a computer program that fits the specs of the industry that’s asking for that coding or whatever. But we want to see that behavior. So finding that balance of making sure that the skills and behaviors we’re looking for are part of our larger, sometimes not easily measured bigger picture kinds of things like critical thinking, problem solving-

Jenny Gordon:

Those sort of transferable durable skills. Yes.

Catherine Wehlburg:

Exactly. And so that means we need to really think about what are we defining as these behaviors so they can be measured and are they actually aligned with our larger mission and purpose as an institution? And that can be done, but it’s not necessarily easy to do.