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Prepared Remarks for American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai: “The Way Forward: Preparing College Students for 21st-Century Careers"

Thank you, Shilpi. I’m delighted to be with all of you today.

I understand that several of my UVA colleagues have visited and spoken to this group in the last few years, including several UVA deans and faculty members. Thank you for inviting my colleagues and making them feel welcome in the Shanghai business community.

As you may know, UVA has been an AmCham Shanghai corporate member since 2015, and Justin O’Jack, who leads UVA’s China Office, serves as vice chair of the Chamber’s Education Committee. 

UVA’s connection to this Chamber is extremely valuable for us as a University community, and I hope that you can say the same for your connection with us.

Several of my UVA colleagues are here today, including:

  • Ian Baucom, dean of our College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences;
  • Carl Zeithaml, dean of the McIntire School of Commerce, which is our undergraduate business school;

And several other colleagues who work in various capacities at UVA.

I hope you get a chance to meet my colleagues and learn more about the University of Virginia. 

Today I’m going to discuss how U.S. universities, and UVA in particular, are preparing students for the rapidly-evolving, hard-to-predict 21st-century job market.

Do universities do a good job of preparing students for careers?

As business leaders, you probably have an opinion about this, and I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts during our Q&A. In the higher education community in the U.S., we hear this question all the time. Responses differ, and they sometimes differ by a wide margin.

For example, in a survey, 96% of provosts said that their institutions are either “very effective” or “somewhat effective” at preparing students for the world of work. But in another survey, only 11% of business leaders “strongly agreed” that today’s college graduates have the necessary skills and abilities to succeed in their careers, and 17% “strongly disagreed.”

So who’s right? The real truth probably lies somewhere in the middle: different institutions provide varying quality of preparation. As a result, some students graduate from college very well-prepared for work; others leave college only moderately well-prepared; and others even less so.

The pace of innovation makes the job market a moving target. Consider our Data Science Institute at UVA. The Institute trains students in data analytics, cyber-security, cyber-infrastructure, and other sub-disciplines within the field. But those disciplines are changing all the time. We know what data science looks like today, but the field keeps evolving every day, and our faculty and students have to work constantly to keep pace.

Of course this is true in many fields. At UVA, I teach a course called “The 21st Century Labor Force,” and in this course, we discuss the prediction of some futurists that 80% of current jobs will be automated out of existence within a generation.

What will the new jobs be? And how should today’s college students prepare themselves?

Preparing for this uncertain future is a challenge, both for students and for faculty who teach them. Typically it takes a university four years to produce a graduate, so when we try to prepare a student for employment, we need to anticipate what the labor market will be four or five years from the present. 

How can we train students for a future we cannot see? How can students prepare for jobs that may not exist today, in fields that will spring up from advances that will be made years from now?

Those are the questions I’d like to address over the next few minutes.

Interdisciplinary Training

We can’t see the future, but we do understand some of the qualities that our graduates will need to succeed in the future.

First, we know that solutions to many of our most complex global problems, now and in the future, will arise not from a single, solitary discipline but at the intersection of several disciplines. So we need to train our students to work in diverse, multi-disciplinary teams.

One way we do this at UVA is by creating multi-disciplinary research institutes where students can work together with faculty on complex problems.

I mentioned our Data Science Institute a moment ago. We also have a UVA Brain Institute that draws together faculty and students from across schools and departments to collaborate on brain research.

This year we formed two new institutes, one to address environmental challenges, and another focused on infectious disease.

The Environmental Resilience Institute draws together faculty and students in environmental science, engineering, and other fields to focus on “wicked problems” such as the effect of climate change on coastal erosion.  

The Global Infectious Diseases Institute brings faculty and students in numerous disciplines to address health concerns such as pandemic threats and the most resistant infectious organisms known as superbugs.

Increasingly in the 21st-century workplace, professionals from various disciplines will come together to form multi-disciplinary teams to address specific problems, then disband from those teams before joining other teams to address a different set of problems. Our graduates need to be ready for that style of work.  

Global Leadership

In a century of interconnected nations and economies, our graduates need to be prepared for work on a global scale.

We prepare UVA students for their global future in multiple ways: by sending them into the world to study, work, and conduct research; by bringing international influences to UVA; and by fully integrating global issues into our curriculum and extra-curricular activities.

In one example on the curricular front, UVA students have the option to major in Global Studies. This is an interdisciplinary major composed of four concentrations: Global Development; Global Public Health; Environments and Sustainability; and, Security and Justice. 

The concentration in Global Health, for example, allows students to explore the complex cultural, social, political, economic, and environmental conditions that affect health, health care, access, and quality-of-life around the world.

In recent years we’ve increased our offerings in study-abroad, global internships, research, and service. Back in 1990, UVA had fewer than 10 faculty-led study-abroad programs, with even fewer exchange agreements. Today, we have more than 50 study-abroad programs, through agreements with more than 80 universities, including 18 universities in Greater China.

In addition to study abroad, we believe students should have the opportunity to work abroad. Through our Global Internship Program, last year we helped students arrange internships in 27 foreign countries on five different continents.

Many of the individual schools at UVA have their own global programs. For example, our McIntire School of Commerce has a Global Immersion Experience, or GIE, as a required component of its M.S. in Commerce Program. The GIE begins with a foundational course in global commerce, followed by an overseas course led by McIntire faculty in a particular region of the world. In 2017, five GIE course locations are being offered in the following regions: Europe; Latin America; Southeast Asia; Greater China; and the Middle East, India, and Asia.

McIntire’s M.S. in Commerce program was ranked No. 2 in the world by The Economist this year, and it’s the only U.S. school to appear in the top 10.

McIntire also has a new M.S. in Global Commerce program, which launched last academic year in partnership with ESADE Business School in Barcelona and Lingnan College at Sun Yat-sen University in China. Students in this program earn two M.S. degrees, in one year, studying on three continents.

UVA’s College of Arts & Sciences launched a brand-new global program this fall, with about 25 of our first-year students beginning their undergraduate work in a new “UVA London First” program. The program combines classroom instruction at Regent’s University with exploration of London’s history, cultures, politics and architecture.

And in another “first,” I’m excited to announce that we just finalized plans to launch a “UVA Shanghai First” program next fall, when 20 UVA students will begin their first year taking classes taught at Fudan University. Fudan will select 12 students to study at UVA in the fall of 2019 as exchange students. The UVA and Fudan students who are in the program will start building relationships in Shanghai next fall, and continue to engage with one another in Charlottesville the following year.

These programs are just some of the ways we’re giving students the global awareness they’ll need for work in the 21st century.

A Balanced Education

Another way we prepare students for the future world of work is by providing a balanced approach to education. By “balanced,” I mean an education that includes the STEM fields and also the humanities, arts, and social sciences — liberal arts disciplines.

Beyond technical proficiency in their chosen field, college graduates need to be skilled in critical thinking, the ability to sort and synthesize information, and the ability to work successfully with colleagues from other cultures — all products of learning in the liberal arts.

A few years ago, I co-chaired a special committee of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that focused on preparing the STEM workforce in the U.S.  We found that employers are increasingly focused on hiring people with the right combination of skills and abilities, rather a specific degree or credential. And in fields that rely on STEM skills, we found a growing need for students with skills outside of their core STEM discipline, including skills that are best developed through study of humanities and the arts.

\Making a case for the value of the liberal arts is not always popular because, increasingly today, you hear the argument that a liberal arts education is obsolete. Critics say it’s too costly, too elitist, and fundamentally irrelevant to the skills that are in demand in the workforce.

Those who believe in the value of the liberal arts take the opposite view: We say that a liberal education gives students the most important skills, teaching them to be life-long critical thinkers; to be perceptive of the world around them; to acquire thoughtful habits of mind; to appreciate cultural differences and respect human diversity; to approach decision-making ethically, and to integrate multiple perspectives before arriving at decisions.

Debating this issue has become a sort of national pastime. In recent years, I’ve been asked to participate in at least six events focused on the supposedly-shaky future of the liberal arts. At a time when the value of a college degree is being measured by its job utility, some people seem to believe that students trained in a liberal arts discipline are basically unemployable.

But in fact, the opposite is true. Here’s a story to illustrate my point. The American news journalist Katie Couric is a UVA alumna. A few years ago, she came to Charlottesville to moderate a panel discussion about endowment giving to support faculty. The panelists were all successful UVA alumni who have made gifts to endow professorships in our university.

Eventually, the discussion turned to liberal arts education. Katie Couric asked the panelists this question:  “In your roles as business leaders, would you prefer to hire a graduate with a degree in marketing, finance, or some other specialized field … or would you hire a liberal arts student?”

One of the panelists is the CEO of the largest Anheuser-Busch distributor in the nation. Another is the CEO of a prosperous private-equity firm. Another is chairman of a medical facilities company. Another is a retired partner from a prominent law firm.  Every one of them said that they would hire the liberal-arts graduate over the specialist. One of them said, “I can teach a new employee the work, but I can’t teach him how to think.”

Most business leaders agree. In a survey of more than 300 CEOs, nearly three-quarters said they believe a liberal education creates a more effective, dynamic worker than specialized training does.

And 95% said they look for college graduates who can think clearly and solve problems, and can communicate their ideas with good oral and written skills — precisely the products of a liberal education.

But the liberal arts cannot afford to stand still. Just as the world is changing, liberal arts curricula must change to meet 21st-century needs. This year at UVA, our College of Arts & Sciences is offering a pilot curriculum designed to do a better job of preparing students for our rapidly transforming world. The new curriculum does this by emphasizing open inquiry, shared intellectual experiences, and synthesis across disciplines and fields of knowledge.

More than 200 years ago, UVA’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, said: “Science is progressive. What was useful two centuries ago is now become useless …What is now deemed useful will in some of its parts become useless in another century.”

Constant reinvention is necessary in universities to keep pace with the rapid pace of innovation in the global economy that our graduates will enter.

Closing – Q&A

So those are some of the qualities that I believe college graduates will need to succeed in the 21st-century economy: the ability to work in multi-disciplinary teams; proficiency in global and cultural awareness; and the ability to think critically and to sort and synthesize various streams of information — with a balanced education that combines study in the liberal arts with technical proficiency.

Now I’m interested to hear what all of you, as business leaders, think about these topics...

  • What skills do you think students will need for the future?
  • Are universities doing a good job of preparing students for the job market? How can we do better?

Let’s open the floor to your questions and ideas now.