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The Skills Agenda

Three reasons to include skills training in your classes

As instructors we need to draw clear lines between what we teach and students’ future careers.


I am a believer in Simon Sinek’s argument that to inspire action, leaders should “start with why.” In this month’s Skills Agenda column I will explain why you, as an individual instructor, should build career skills training into your own university teaching. I have three arguments for you to consider, but my hope is that the final one will be the one that particularly motivates you.

Reason Number 1: Your department and discipline already claim your programs are teaching career skills

One reason to build career skills training into your classes is to help your department, university, and academic discipline avoid accusations of false advertising. I say this because while individual faculty may feel reluctant to talk about future careers, academic disciplines and university departments share less hesitation.

Across STEM, humanities, social sciences, and fine arts disciplines, programs make subtle and not so subtle claims that they provide career-relevant skills training. Check your own department and professional disciplinary association’s web pages and chances are good that you will see either hints or direct claims of career skill preparation. If we are going to claim to do something, shouldn’t we do it well?

“Whatever,” you may be thinking. “I didn’t write those claims and it is not my job to fulfill them.” Fair enough. Let’s move to my second argument.

Reason Number 2: The public and governments expect higher education to link to career outcomes

A second reason for faculty to build skills training into their courses, and one that is certain to bother some readers, is that there is a societal expectation that higher education has career value. As the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) writes, “The message to the public for decades has been that education is key to both personal success and national prosperity. Postsecondary education is the key to good, secure jobs; a better-educated labour force, with the appropriate mix of skills, can deliver full employment.”

The problem is that while labour market data support the link between education levels and salaries, this link may reflect market signalling rather than true career preparation. Evidence of a poor link between higher education and career skills is seen both in studies that find Canadian workers are over-qualified for the positions they hold (i.e., that all of that university training was unnecessary) and that postsecondary graduates are under-qualified to meet employers’ needs (i.e., that all of that university training was insufficient).

How will universities fare if higher education is increasingly seen by the public and governments as unrelated to or unnecessary for students’ future career success? In my last Skills Agenda column, I spoke about my concern that a (mis)perception that higher education is not linked to careers will lead to a public undervaluing of postsecondary education. As academics we are working against ourselves if we ignore or disregard the broader public expectation that higher education should have career benefits.

“I object,” you might be saying. “This entire discussion reflects the corporatization of the university. I am not here to benefit employers or governments. I am here for the students.” Glad to hear it. Let’s move to my final reason.

Reason Number 3: Teaching career skills is intrinsically rewarding

Most faculty believe, or at least hope, that their class will benefit their students. They aspire to have students learn important content information and new ways of thinking and understanding issues, and to inspire students to carry this knowledge forward in their lives.

Career skills training is complementary to and reinforcing of these goals. In my experience, students appreciate a clear connection between coursework and career competencies. Students express considerable career anxiety, and these anxieties are heightened since COVID. For instructors, linking classroom material and skills to careers can augment the feeling of purpose in one’s teaching.

Why I care about career skills training

I started this month’s column referencing the idea that one should “start with why,” so I will be clear about my own reasons why I include career training in my teaching and why I hope you will do the same in your own teaching.

I believe higher education matters. I believe higher education has both a personal (private) and a societal (public) benefit. I believe that attention to career skilling training will help to increase general appreciation of the societal benefits of higher education, and thereby help to protect the longevity of the curiosity-driven parts of higher education that inspire me and so many others.

But most of all, I believe that as an instructor I am supporting my students to achieve their goals by drawing clear, direct lines between my teaching and my students’ future careers. And this, for me at least, is reason enough.

Continuing the #SkillsAgenda conversation

What are your own thoughts on your role in career skills training? Do my arguments convince you? Do you have different motivations to build career skills training into your classes? Please let me know by connecting with me on Twitter at @loleen_berdahl and sharing your thoughts using the hashtag #SkillsAgenda.

I welcome your opinions on this. Until next time, stay well, my colleagues.

Loleen Berdahl
Loleen Berdahl is an award-winning university instructor, the executive director of the Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy (Universities of Saskatchewan and Regina), and professor and former head of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan. Since 2016, Dr. Berdahl has spoken about student skills training and professional development at conferences and university campuses across Canada. Her research on these topics is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Grant program. Her next book, For the Public Good: Reimagining Arts Graduate Programs in Canadian Universities, is coauthored with Jonathan Malloy and Lisa Young and will be released by the University of Alberta Press in March 2024.
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