Skills Development: a Better Preparation for Work and for Life

Monday, February 25, 2013

Owen WardBy Owen Ward
(reprinted with permission from the 2013 Waterloo Science and Business Magazine,
In 2013, I will retire from University of Waterloo to pursue a less structured schedule, while continuing current business R&D activities as well as expanding my horizons into one or two new exciting entrepreneurial ventures in the Microbial Biotechnology area. By the time this article is published I expect to be ‘listening’ to my outstanding students as we proceed through my Winter 2013 Biology 474 Bioprocessing Class for the last time.  Note the use of the term ‘listening’ rather than ‘lecturing’ because that’s precisely what goes on in Bio 474, where each of 60 students becomes adept at developing communication skills through presentation of 5 individual seminars and preparing a research paper. This course is primarily about skills development and attempts to build personal confidence in some of our senior undergraduate students. And the emphasis on listening to students rather than lecturing also facilitates a much greater level of student-professor engagement and creates an environment conducive to highly productive motivational and mentoring activities. The objectives of these activities are to contribute elements to student personal and professional development, which better prepare them for work and for life.

Somewhat akin to what Science and Business students do, throughout my career I have always straddled two domains, the academic and industry workplaces, which tend to have very different cultures, even though I believe they should not. And retrospectively, I have found myself taking contrasting approaches to interviewing candidates for graduate studies and for company positions.

When recruiting students for graduate school, greater emphasis was placed on grades and relevance of particular subjects because of the strong academic component in graduate courses to be taken, literature to be reviewed and thesis writing and because higher grades better positioned graduate students to win scholarships to help fund their graduate studies. However, I want to emphasise a word of caution about this narrow approach. Since the vast majority of graduates from postgraduate degree programs will ultimately have to seek employment in the business, industry and other private sectors, these postgraduates must develop the attributes, elaborated upon below, that employers in these sectors value.

When recruiting for industry I found my approach to be entirely different. Industry employers generally have little interest in grades. Indeed they may also have limited interest in the specific combination of subjects a particular graduate has taken, other than having a sense that a particular programme, in a particular Department, in a particular University, has a good reputation and that the graduates will be presumed to be academically well trained in a particular discipline. So with my private sector hat on, as I interviewed candidates for industry/business positions, I was much more interested in the non-academic dimensions of the prospective employee.

To what extent will this candidate add value and bring identifiable technical and interpersonal strengths to my company? How will this person impact on our clients, respond to their manager, work in the variety of personalities in our team, including ‘not-easy-work-with X’? Is the candidate well organized? Is there evidence of leadership skills? How good are the candidate’s verbal and written communication skills. Is there an ability to focus on the task at hand and to be concise and to the point. Is there strong evidence of good creative and problem-solving skills?
And what about the candidate’s personal demeanor? Does the candidate have a reasonably well thought-out plan for their future? Is there a sense that our employment opportunity is a good fit with the candidate’s own career outlook and plan? Does the candidate exhibit an appropriate level and balance of personal confidence, personal respect and pride in some prior accomplishments. In my experience candidates who exhibit positive qualities in these areas on a personal basis tend to extend that personal pride in accomplishment to their jobs and tend to be highly committed and beneficial employees.

Professors generally focus predominantly on academic matters, and this, together with the constant pressure of academic performance evaluation and the desire to achieve high grade point averages, may give students the incorrect impression that academic performance should be a student’s singular focus. But there is increasing criticism regarding this academic approach. ‘For a person, organization, economy, or society to be innovative requires wide ranging skills, including “soft skills”, making it a priority to ask how effectively education systems foster them’ (Education Today 2010: the OECD Perspective, p 80). A critical editorial of the Toronto Globe and Mail Oct 11, 2011 calls on Universities to “spell out what an undergraduate education is good for”.  John Milloy, Ontario Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, May 30, 2011 appeared to answer this question by stating a rightful expectation was that students should “receive a high quality education that leads to meaningful employment”. 
But even where it is accepted that the current culture or practice of third level education does not achieve this and needs to be changed, it is unlikely that it will dramatically change overnight. Thus, students need, to a large extent, to take control over their own development. Put simply, in order to be successful in competing for employment opportunities and to achieve one’s true potential, it is vital that every student dedicates sufficient time and resources to focusing on development of the requisite skills for work and for life. This includes identifying personal strengths and aptitudes, setting goals, developing a variety of skills and engaging in career planning and execution related to one’s strengths.

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