The latest chapter in Sodexo’s President to President series, “From Academic Preparation, through Skills Development, to the Knowledge Continuum” by Vistasp M. Karbhari, Ph.D., President, The University of Texas at Arlington, presents a somewhat sobering picture. It outlines the dichotomy between the U.S. academic model and the needs of American businesses, a clear threat to our future economic well-being.
As Dr. Karbhari points out, the demographics of the average student body have changed forever, encompassing first-generation students unfamiliar with the demands of the campus experience, non-traditional students who often must balance work and family while completing their education, and those who follow the traditional high-school-to-college path. At the same time, a recent survey report from NBC News and The Wall Street Journal found that 47 percent of Americans surveyed thought that four-year degrees were not worth the cost “because people often graduate without specific job skills and with a large amount of debt to pay off.” What’s more, a report from McKinsey stated that “almost 40 percent of American employers say they cannot find people with the skills they need, even for entry level jobs. Nearly 60 percent complain of lack of preparation, even for entry level jobs.”
So, we have the perfect storm—students pursuing degrees that often do not prepare them for today’s job market, amassing significant debt as they do so. The inevitable conclusion is that we need to merge the development of academic talent and workforce-directed skills. How can this be accomplished?
Therein lays a formidable challenge. Changing mindsets to change a paradigm is enormously difficult, but ultimately, that is what is required. We need to do as better job as parents, educators and employers in guiding students as they consider their life’s path. Just as the American economy largely evolved from manufacturing to service, we need to evolve our thinking regarding how students decide their futures as we evolve, ever more fully, into a technology economy. The lucky few discover their passion and purpose early on, pursuing careers that are in demand—engineering, teaching, medicine and technology are just a few examples. But we ask most 17-year-olds to decide on their futures while they’re still figuring out who they are, before they understand themselves or the opportunities for rewarding careers. Education can help close this gap, but colleges and universities can’t do it alone—it will take the proverbial village to bring it to life.
Business can play a major role in this effort, perhaps in concert with secondary education as well as colleges and universities, informing students about emerging opportunities before they’re pressured to choose a school and a major. Secondary and high school students might be intrigued to learn about the chatbots and robots Sodexo is introducing on campuses that are delivering everything from breakfast to pizza—adding a “cool factor” that puts business in a new, favorable light. Starting even earlier, our elementary school Future Chefs program inspires young students, perhaps leading them to culinary or nutrition careers. Internships for college students, like those offered by Sodexo, provide insights and opportunities for a career path.
Clearly, the challenges are huge, but those who know history should be encouraged by past achievements in the face of great obstacles. Sodexo will continue to do its part as we strive to improve Quality of Life, placing people at the center of our thinking. In Universities, everything we do is focused on providing innovative solutions that reinforce the overall college experience as students prepare for their futures.
Jim Jenkins is CEO of Universities East for Sodexo North America where he oversees more than 400 college and university partnerships. With $9.3 billion in annual revenues in the U.S. and Canada, Sodexo’s 133,000 employees provide more than 100 unique services that increase performance at 9,000 client sites and improve Quality of Life for 15 million consumers every day.