Through our work with a wide range of college and university clients, we are highly tuned in to the ongoing – and escalating – conversations about the value of higher education and the need to better define outcomes: both what we consider valid outcomes to be and how to measure them. It is no longer acceptable to go to college merely for the experience and to educate and learn about yourself – which is what I would have cited as my mission when I started college in the early 1990’s. With current price tags rising and student loan debt exceeding $1 trillion dollars nationally, college for the sake of college is a luxury. For better or worse, we are called upon to be thinking one step ahead. And in the case of today’s students, that means thinking about how the steps taken during one’s undergraduate career might lead to a job.
I have recently been working with our client Sarah Lawrence College on a thoughtful, comprehensive endeavor to determine the outcomes that truly matter and will move the needle. For this particular liberal arts institution, discussions culminated in the development of what they refer to as the “Six Critical Abilities” they feel their students must have upon graduation. These abilities serve as part of the foundation for future professional and personal success. Briefly, these are:
1. Ability to think analytically
2. Ability to express ideas effectively through written communication
3. Ability to exchange ideas effectively through oral communication
4. Ability to bring innovation to their work
5. Ability to envisage and work independently on a project
6. Ability to accept and act on criticism
One could argue that the above list applies to nearly every profession, and in fact, this is intentional. This broad set of abilities must not only be applicable for the Class of 2014. It must remain relevant for the Classes of 2019 and 2024, as the career landscape evolves. The wider skills base that graduates should possess must serve them whether or not they choose to become a petroleum engineer or an art historian – and most relevant to CooperKatz, even a public relations practitioner.
Our agency has been involved in quite a bit of recruiting recently, and during this time of year, much of that effort focuses on hiring new account coordinators for entry level roles. So I’ve started to think about how these six critical abilities translate in the PR field, and how we can be looking at potential candidates to ascertain their abilities along these lines. Some are givens in our field: the ability to write well and to be a clear, compelling speaker are desired attributes often cited by employers, especially in PR. But how do the other, more nuanced skills play out? And what can those in our field – at any level – continue to explore and develop in themselves?
The strength of a professional services agency depends on its people. CooperKatz benefits from not only a wide range of clients, but also a broad educational base among our colleagues. Many CK’ers studied PR out right and graduated from some of the best communications programs in the country – Brigham Young University, Penn State, Syracuse and the University of Florida. Others (including myself) followed a liberal arts path, exploring disciplines like English, international relations, political science, American studies and more.
For new hires, the first things we tend to review on a resume are where they went to school, what they studied and what their experience has been to date, either through internships or post-graduate employment. All of this is still valid, but I encourage us to dig deeper. We need to train ourselves to be asking the kinds of questions that will help unearth more about the critical abilities we need. This could include, for example, exploring how a candidate has used his or her past work or academic experiences to illustrate analytical thinking – or it could mean asking a candidate to discuss how they conceptualized and executed a project independently. This is a more nuanced approach and won’t be written in black and white on a resume. But it’s on us to ask the right questions to get to the heart of these skills – and hopefully closer to the heart of those looking to come on board.