COLLABORATION

Collaborative, experiential, work-integrated: Designing the classroom of tomorrow

SOURCE: By G-Stock Studio/Shutterstock
CapSource has found a way to bridge the gap between work and study.

More and more these days we hear the complaint that today’s graduates are simply not ready for the workplace. Employers, across all industries, are struggling to find talent that is the right fit for their company.

Of course, it’s never been easy to find the perfect fit, regardless of profession. But, evidently, finding the ideal balance of technical expertise and versatile soft skills is only getting harder.

According to a 2015 Gallup poll, only 13 percent of Americans strongly agree college graduates are well-prepared for success in the workplace. That was down from 14 percent two years earlier and 19 percent three years prior.

The shockingly low figures essentially represent a vote of no confidence in college graduates’ work readiness and presents a damning indictment of America’s higher education system.

Considering the astronomical amounts students spend to attend college, it seems incongruous that institutions are not doing more to instil in students one of their most basic requirements – job readiness.

There is an evident disconnect between work and the classroom, one that has major implications for the future of the US economy and education system. So how can this be solved? How can colleges bridge the gap between work and study?

The answer: Experiential Learning

To Jordan Levy, Executive Director of CapSource, the answer is “obvious.”

Levy believes “you cannot solve that problem without integrating companies into the education process.”

When he started CapSource in 2016, he was amazed more institutions weren’t marrying the two. Drawing inspiration from his own experience, the young entrepreneur set up CapSource to do just that.

After graduating from an Accounting and Finance degree, he quickly found it wasn’t the right course for him or the direction he wanted to take his career. Despite choosing the course because it supposedly offered great job prospects, he soon realised the hours spent poring over a textbook weren’t paying off.

“How am I supposed to learn what I want to do with my life if I don’t get a chance to get out there and try things?,” Levy told U2B.com from CapSource’s New York office.

He believes the key to prepared graduates is a simple one – experiential learning.

This is the primary focus of CapSource, a platform that connects universities and businesses to collaborate on real-life projects.

Colleges develop narrow academic requirements their students need to fulfil to gain university credits, and then CapSource finds relevant companies to team up with; taking students away from the textbook and into the real world of business, with real stakeholders.

Seeking out real-world learning

One of those students is Ankush Manchanda, an old CapSource alumni and recent graduate of the University of Maryland.

Manchanda participated in CapSource’s Live Business Case – a strategic, research-oriented collaboration that connects a class of students with companies, exposing learners to new industries and different types of job roles.

Virginia-based catering startup Hungry was the company that saw the value in experiential learning and wanted to bring in students to work with their innovation team to grow the company’s reach. The project not only benefited Hungry by expanding its scope and streamlining its delivery, but Manchanda says it changed his outlook on employment and effectively determined his entire career path.

“Actually going out and applying the theory and understanding the nuances of what happens in the real world compared to the textbook is so very different,” Manchanda told U2B.com.

While class-based case studies go some way to teaching students about the business world, getting out and doing it had a far deeper impact, he explained.

“This gave an opportunity to work on something that felt valuable and also, as a great learning experience to work with real people, you have a responsibility to deliver on that work. With that, it allows you to really ingrain yourself in the process.”

The project gave Manchanda an insight into the world of startups, an industry he always knew he wanted to be a part of but didn’t know where to start. Having that exposure to see how a young startup works and then having the opportunity to intern with them after was an “unreal experience.”

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Experiential learning gave him the chance to figure out exactly what he did and didn’t like about certain lines of work, something theory and class discussion are missing.

Figuring out a suited career path is often half the battle for young students. The pressure to enter into work when saddled with debt can easily result in people ending up in positions they simply aren’t suited for or didn’t have a full understanding of before setting off down that route.

While understandable under mounting debt, this is damaging to both the graduate and the company they find themselves in – both of whom are struggling with an ill-fitting match up.

Creating a talent pipeline

Working with live projects, however, students get to know the business, and the business, ultimately, gets to know them – something that has proven highly valuable to many of CapSource’s industry partners.

Levy estimates about 30 percent of CapSource’s work is talent acquisition. Dozens of competent and passionate graduates have gone into full-time positions with their CapSource project company. The collaborative process is not only a great experience for students, but a reliable talent pipeline for employers, Levy says.

“The primary focus of these collaborations is educational. We want the students to walk away with reference worthy work experience and a perspective on their career that they otherwise wouldn’t have because they never got a chance to sink their teeth in. That’s our core goal,” he explains.

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“But ancillary [to this]…it is also a great way to assess new talent. Rather than hiring blind, companies give students a project and they either deliver and they’re excited, or they don’t and they move on.”

This kind of vetting process essentially hurdles the original problem of employers struggling to find graduates that are ready to enter the workforce and are a good fit for their company. While it may be a longer process, it proves more valuable in the long run and companies can rest assured they are taking on the right person before anyone signs on the dotted line.

Gaining valuable work experience

Of course, not everyone can end up working for their CapSource partner. But for those that don’t, they still walk away with credits towards their degree and respected work experience that is valued by employers across the board.

An overwhelming majority (91 percent) of US employers say they prefer candidates have work experience, according to NACE’s 2017 Job Outlook survey. And 65 percent of the total group indicate that they prefer their candidates to have relevant work experience.

CapSource’s projects tick both of these boxes. As a current employee at Fortune 500 consulting company, Accenture, Manchanda is convinced his work experience with Hungry helped him stand out and secure a permanent position.

“It’s hard to get that first job, especially when you’ve just graduated from college but entry-level jobs still require years of work experience,” Manchanda explained.

“For the university to step in and provide that experience is really bridging the gap and fixing the problem where you have this grey area where people get stuck.

“To be able to go through [a live business case] and have something solid that you did, and did particularly well, that’s invaluable.”

Working within the team to achieve clearly defined goals not only helped him understand the technical side of startups, but also helped when integrating into new work environments.

Honing those soft skills

Being underprepared for work doesn’t just mean a shortcoming in expertise; soft skills are also crucial when entering a new company and remaining versatile in the ever-shifting job market.

The skills needed in any workplace when it comes to achieving team goals and working collaboratively are learnt and require practice. As the least working generation in US history, many graduates have yet to have the opportunity to hone these.

Recent studies by Pew Research show today’s young adults (between the ages of 15-21) are much less likely to have had a paid summer job or to have been employed in the last year in comparison to every previous generation for which data exists.

Such experiential learning projects give students this opportunity to learn before having to send out an application.

On embarking on his new position at Accenture, Manchanda found he was able to interact better in the workplace and was stronger at articulating himself to management thanks to the experience he gained working with Hungry.

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Everyone’s a winner

What pays off for the students is significantly paying off for the companies too. Levy tells us 95 percent of their industry partners return to do more CapSource projects. It’s easy to see why when you consider the service is entirely free for companies and, in return, they get diverse input on real working issues, together with a pipeline of quality talent.

Students, in turn, gain valuable work experience and a genuine feel for the industry and job role they will later pursue.

With such clear benefits, experiential learning could be paving the way as the future of higher education teaching. Given the positive results, Levy is certainly confident in the innovative new approach:

“This is pretty revolutionary in transitioning the classroom into a collaborative, cooperative, work-integrated experience.”