Every Learner Everywhere

Why Equity in Higher Ed Requires Centering the World of Work: A Q&A with JFF’s Nancy Hoffman & Clare Bertrand

What is the responsibility of higher education to prepare students for the working world and what would it take to prioritize employment in a college’s activities?

Those questions are explored in a new book, Teaching Students About the World of Work: A Challenge to Postsecondary Educators, co-edited by Nancy Hoffman, Senior Advisor at JFF, along with her colleague Michael Collins. The collection profiles community colleges that are confronting structural barriers to putting employment at the center of the curriculum.

Teaching Students About the World of Work stems from ongoing research and collaborative initiatives at the nonprofit JFF where Hoffman co-founded the Pathways to Prosperity Network. She is also the author or editor of several other books on career readiness in secondary and higher education. She was previously a professor and administrator at several colleges and universities and is a member of the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education.

In this interview, Hoffman says equity for minoritized and poverty-affected students depends on colleges that make employment a goal of academic endeavors, as well as an object of study. Hoffman is joined here by her colleague Clare Bertrand, a director at JFFLabs, leading technology-forward initiatives that help young people and their advisors make informed decisions about education and career pathways.

One JFFLabs initiative, for example, is Best Bet Services, which develops and customizes tech platforms that help students choose education programs that connect to fulfilling employment opportunities. Another is the Career Navigation Technology Scan of existing and emerging technology tools that support job seekers and career services professionals.

In this interview, edited for space and clarity, Hoffman and Bertrand discuss the effective alignment of undergraduate scholarship and career preparation, particularly in community colleges. They share what individual faculty can do, how faculty and student affairs colleagues can collaborate, the institutional support necessary for significant impact, the role of technology, and some favorite examples they are learning from.

Nancy, will you begin by describing what faculty can take away from your new book?

Nancy Hoffman: First of all, knowledge about the labor market and ways to think about it. It’s just not something many faculty think about. We’ve found faculty are very interested in figuring out how to apply the skills students learn in their classrooms — how to think like a physicist, how to think like a literary critic, or how to think like a nurse — to real cases and real-life situations. They need support to do that.

Some faculty prefer to focus on domain expertise and not think about the labor market. How do you work with them?

Nancy Hoffman: I got annoyed many years ago with a historian who kept telling me he didn’t care what happened to students after college. He was there to teach them history. These were very low-income students, and I said, “Would you prefer they went off and were impoverished and knew history or that they had jobs?” 

This is not an either/or proposition and I shouldn’t have put it that way. I think this is a moment when faculty are persuadable. You can raise the issues about what students are paying for.

Clare and I, and her team, have been very intrigued by a University of Connecticut program called Career Everywhere. They started with the willing and created a set of career fellows, who could be anyone in the institution as well as alumni and outsiders, who agree to learn about career advising and be identified as part of the initiative. Faculty raise their hands because they do want to be helpful.

Clare Bertrand: It’s completely appropriate to be explicit about the skills students are actually building in a history course or a general education course. Educators sometimes need reminding that students enter postsecondary for a reason. Most students are in a college or training program to get a great job after they graduate, and really, that’s what they’re thinking about. Even briefly recognizing the skills students are developing during a course is a good place to start. More companies are doing skills-based hiring and being able to speak this language out of school will put students in a better position.

What does a focus on career outcomes look like in the classroom?

Clare Bertrand: Faculty and staff need to be supported and be provided relevant information about the labor market, and an understanding of how that LMI is relevant to the work students are learning in a given course.

Nancy Hoffman: A chapter in our book is about the Guttman Community College Ethnographies of Work course. Of all the things we’ve explored, it’s the most academically rigorous and helps students learn skills they need for the labor market. It is being adapted at a number of community colleges.

It’s a liberal arts sociology course, and the topic is work. Students do interviews and observations in workplaces they might find interesting. They’re reading classic works like Marx, but they’re also reading about various occupations and power dynamics in the workplace. Students catch on quickly and see the world of work in a very different way.

We did focus groups, and one of my favorite students said, “I used to just put my head down, do the stuff I had to do. Now it’s like watching television. I watch the boss when he goes out, his number two guy goes to sit at his desk and then he starts telling everyone what to do, and I see their body language.”

At Bunker Hill Community College, which has done the most with it, faculty in about eight or nine disciplines, including art, English, and anthropology, are adapting it into learning communities and their discipline-based courses. For example, the professor who teaches painting is teaching students about the business of art — how he makes his living.

How can a college move toward incorporating a career focus?

Clare Bertrand: Provide enough information at a program or major level, including labor market information as well as return on investment, that helps young people make good decisions about which program to enter into. Across JFF, we’ve been thinking about how we might share tools and resources with a faculty member, so they can say, “Here are criteria for what a good career looks like. How do I think about that in the context of what I’m teaching?”

Also, academics and career services shouldn’t be separate. We mentioned the Career Everywhere model earlier. There isn’t separation between career services staff and the academic side of the house. There’s a lot of career and “real world” knowledge across all campus staff and faculty, and sharing and mobilizing that knowledge leads to better student outcomes.

Nancy Hoffman: I had a conversation with Paula Krebs, the executive director of the Modern Language Association, who is trying to deal with this question, partly because she thinks the romance languages and English actually teach a lot of skills that are helpful in the labor market. She worked successfully, when she was at Bridgewater State University, with CVS to get a number of her students hired.

The link wasn’t obvious, and I think that’s something that we really need to work on. I have a Ph.D. in Renaissance Literature, and I don’t think I ever thought about students’ jobs. I don’t think I would have known how. So an instructional designer coming in to work with the willing, which I certainly would have been — I would have preferred to think my students had a pathway to do something other than read Shakespeare [as a career] since very few of them were going to do that.

If you could go back and talk to yourself at the start of a semester teaching Renaissance Literature, what would you say about thinking more about career outcomes?

Nancy Hoffman: Most faculty are too smart to have you come and tell them that reading Edmund Spenser is good preparation for becoming a computer scientist. I think we fall back on the writing skills, the communication skills, all of the things that go into good teaching.

David Deming suggests what employers value most are empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes, being able to read emotional signals from other people — all of those kinds of things that are very hard to measure but are often the things that really make a difference in your life.

Clare Bertrand: This is where interdisciplinary work is really key to a career — understanding how disciplines are related to the future of work and also how career services can fit in. More and more human beings will be finding themselves in jobs where they need critical thinking and creativity.

How would you advise faculty to work with their career services colleagues?

Nancy Hoffman: At Bunker Hill Community College, this just happened in an interesting way. A number of faculty teaching Ethnographies of Work went to Career Services with this question of what to do next. The dean agreed to set up workshops and individual coaching sessions for students.

I know, having been in higher ed for 30 years, that several places have tried to combine academic affairs and student affairs, not always with great success. But I think it’s a moment for collaboration. Given that enrollments are down in most community colleges, progressive people, of whom there are many, are probably seeing this as an opportunity to bring those things together. Community colleges do a much better job. The more prestige, the less well they do with these things.

Clare Bertrand: What’s great about career services is that they’re very innovative. They’re connected to employers. They’re trying to help students land internships. But they’re quite under-resourced. We’ve been talking to several colleges about the fact that  career services need capacity and professional development. The future of career services needs to be as dynamic as the future of work.

Strada Network and Gallup polls surveyed students on their confidence in the job market and they found there were six experiential learning opportunities that indicate a student will self-report they’re more confident in the job market. Not surprisingly, having an internship is one of those experiential learning opportunities. The poll found that 15 percent of freshmen had internships and that increases year to year, with 60 percent of seniors reporting having had an internship. Thirty percent of college freshmen drop out before their sophomore year.

Integrating a relevant career connection, like an internship, to serve more freshmen could assist with persistence. Students drop out or stop out of college for many reasons, but rapid attachment to the labor market could increase retention and persistence rates.

Nancy Hoffman: To be simple minded about it, students get all this information when they enter college when they can only absorb about 10 percent of it. And then at the end, about 20 percent go to career services without very satisfying results. And in the middle is a non-system.

How can a better career focus help colleges work on equity efforts?

Nancy Hoffman: Teaching Students About the World of Work is the latest in the Work and Learning Series. The six books in the series are about education strategies that build pathways to economic mobility. The focus is on students in families experiencing poverty and on students of color.

That grew out of my 20 years of working on Early College. There, after careful external evaluations, we saw that Early College had a stronger and more powerful impact on students of color than on white students in launching them forward, connecting them to the labor market or to secondary education, and then to the labor market. This is what JFF’s work is all about and, if anything, more so since the civil rights uprising.

Clare Bertrand: Equity is what anchors all of our work at JFF and JFFLabs. In terms of helping young people make decisions about postsecondary programming, we developed the Best Bet framework and criteria because we saw too many kids with debt and no degree or with debt and a degree that had no value in the labor market.

A student with the goal of getting an associate’s degree in nursing in the Boston area may think they will land a job in a major hospital right away. That may not be the case. And that should have been a conversation with a high school guidance counselor. What will a credential or a degree actually get you in the labor market?

Passion and interest drive most people. But students need to enter a college or postsecondary credentialing program with eyes wide open. It is a complicated and big decision. Knowledge about the potential value of a degree or credential in the labor market, and being able to compare programs and institutions, should be the baseline for all students, especially those who reside in low-income communities.