Best Practices

The Ever-Fluctuating Skill Set, the College-to-Career Transition, and the T-Student

May 10, 2023 | By Heather N. Maietta and Philip D. Gardner

CAREER DEVELOPMENT
A group of college students.

TAGS: career readiness, competencies, journal,

NACE Journal / Spring 2023

When economic uncertainties arise, organizations adjust by shifting their business priorities, amending budgets and staffing outlooks, and introducing technologies to enhance efficiencies. These actions, plus other choices employers may have to make, influence the college labor  market.

Employers responding to 2021 and 2022 surveys from Michigan State University (MSU) focused their thoughts on new hires being adaptive, curious, creative, and flexible. These soft skills become ever-critical as we adapt to rapid changes in science, technology, and the digital economy.1 Traditional, “one-and-done” degrees are no longer enough: Successful American workers will be lifelong learners, adding new skills and credentials throughout their careers. But, what are those “right” skills and credentials employers need?

Shifting Employer Needs

If living through COVID-19 taught us anything, it is that the world is unpredictable and change is constant. As we negotiate our position in a COVID-19 society, our definition of work and workplace mindset continues to shift. Adaptability, as employer respondents mentioned in the 2021 and 2022 surveys, is key.2

Adaptive leaders focus more on contingency plans and/or multiple options to solve problems rather than getting stuck on one solution. One employer respondent to the MSU survey encouraged students to “be flexible. Having a growth mindset is key.” Adaptivity supports curiosity, which was the second most mentioned skill employers thought necessary in navigating the uncertain and fluctuating job market. Curiosity creates opportunities to gain new experiences, something many employers encourage, even in unexpected places. As one employer noted, “You can learn from many experiences that, on the surface, may seem insignificant. [Applicants should] think thoughtfully about how [they] present [their] resume and not be afraid to expand upon these learnings.”

Others noted that learning in new contexts adds new skills and insights. According to one respondent, “One learns and grows while working in any capacity, and skills are picked up in some of the least likely positions.”

This advice recalls the construct of the T-professional or adaptive innovator. The T-professional was introduced in 2009 and found a strong advocate in IBM, which embedded the concept in its staff development planning.3 IBM and MSU partnered to bring the T-professional into undergraduate education. A T-individual can adapt and flex with changing conditions in the workplace—like an elastic band that can stretch and contract as needed—to take advantage of emerging opportunities. Curiosity and a penchant for learning curate a T-individual’s path toward sustained employability.

The T-professional

Employability is “the skills and personal attributes considered important by industry and needed by graduates in order to secure employment.”4 One with these skills and attributes can be described as having depth and breadth, referred to as the T-professional.5 Depth comes from the disciplinary knowledge required to understand how to function and interact to accomplish desired outcomes within and across system(s).6 Specialized disciplinary knowledge often refers to the main ideas and concepts central to subdisciplines: deep disciplinary knowledge and systems knowledge.7 Breadth is characterized as “possessing the professional abilities that allow someone with profound disciplinary knowledge to interact meaningfully with others with different disciplinary knowledge to affect an outcome that might not otherwise be possible.”8

At the intersection of T-professionals’ depth and breadth (see vertical and horizontal axes in Figure 1) is the ME. The ME of the T is a knowledge of the self, including values, attitudes, and beliefs. The ME understands one’s purpose, has heightened self-awareness, and possesses a high confidence level.9 As a result, T-students are well-prepared to respond and adapt to ever-changing landscapes indicative of the current and post-pandemic workplace. Developing deep disciplinary/systemic knowledge and boundary-spanning skills meets employer expectations.

Figure 1: T-Model

Using definitions adapted from earlier works, the T comprises:10

  • Deep disciplinary knowledge (DDK): The foundation for one’s professional expertise, DDK signals mastery of knowledge held by all professionals in that discipline, including knowledge unique to a specialization or subdiscipline. In addition, DDK incorporates both the psychomotor and affective abilities critical to a practitioner’s success.

  • Deep systems knowledge and systems thinking: This refers to understanding intra- and inter-system complexity that embraces the system's physical, biological, economic, financial, social, and organizational dimensions. Systems develop behavior patterns that necessitate open, imaginative, and flexible thinking and self-learning that incorporate other people's viewpoints and perseverance in facing external and internal hurdles that can impede finding feasible solutions. There are 13 system groups that all individuals, including students, interact with daily.11 Their approach connects students to the real-life aspects of the T and encourages immersion in one system to gain a deep understanding of how it functions.

  • Interdisciplinary understanding (IU): An individual who integrates knowledge and ways of thinking from other disciplines into one approach and then provides novel solutions to multidimensional, complex problems can be referred to as having interdisciplinary understanding.12

  • Boundary-spanning: Individuals who possess communication, teamwork, critical thinking, global understanding, which allow more effective partnerships, collaborations, and sustainable relationships, are boundary-spanning. These individuals manage through influences and negotiation and seek to understand motives, roles, and responsibilities.13

The ME is at the center of the T, focusing on an individual’s personal and professional development, which is at the core of one of NACE’s eight career readiness competencies—career and self-development.14 The ME comprises three elements: purpose, awareness, and confidence. (See Figure 2.)

  • Purpose is the "stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond the self.”15

  • Awareness is the knowledge and understanding of others, which can be described as empathy and the knowledge of self and one’s capabilities. Awareness may include strengths, weaknesses, ways of knowing, and understanding. Awareness is also the recognition of the importance of others, embodied by diversity, which brings resolution to challenges/problems.16

  • Confidence is the ability to take risks, understanding that mistakes are necessary to succeed. A secure learner who is tolerant of ambiguity seeks and embraces others’ knowledge and willingly suspends one’s mental models to consider alternatives.17

In short, the ME of the T “highlights the importance of understanding self as the ability to articulate what the individual wants to accomplish (purpose), comprehend how one’s purpose fits in the world (awareness), and reach outside of themselves to act (confidence).”18 Moreover, the past few years' disruptions and the pandemic's lingering impact require that individuals command a deep understanding of self to face the tumult and continuous workplace pivots. The ME fosters this understanding.

Figure 2 depicts essential overlaps in the ME domains. Below is a summary of the interface overlaps:19

  • Interface of Purpose + Awareness: In the overlap of purpose and awareness, one understands others’ differences, strives to work as a team, and mobilizes resources. There is a strong understanding of self, and the individual works to increase self-awareness by gathering feedback from others. In addition, there is an appreciation of others’ values and perspectives.

  • Interface of Purpose + Confidence: In the overlap of purpose and confidence, individuals act as resources, and insights are organized into short-term goals and plans. As a result, individuals build resiliency as they act and are forced to manage uncertainty and adversity.

  • Interface of Awareness + Confidence: In the overlap of awareness and confidence, individuals adapt to differences and situations of change as they learn from and work with others. They cultivate a growth mindset and build trust in interdependence through this process.

Figure 2: The Elements of Me

The T and Career Professionals

Campus career professionals sit in a pivotal position to assist students in constructing and crafting their T story.

T development is an ongoing process requiring regular, periodic reflective review to identify common threads and then weave those threads into coherent stories of achievement. Career professionals serve as a guide during students’ reflection—editorial assistants in integrating themes and empathic listeners to early drafts of students’ stories. Engaging in this role necessitates being proactive with students’ pre-college, throughout their undergraduate studies, and well past graduation. Being a T guide calls for reflection, integration, articulation, and consideration of the student’s ME.

Reflection

Agency is "the capacity to exercise control over one's thought processes, motivation, and action," through which "people can effect change in themselves and their situations through their efforts."20

Several mechanisms are essential to developing agency, including self-efficacy beliefs, goal representations, and anticipated outcomes. Self-efficacy, or the belief in one's ability to exert control and impact over one's circumstances, is the most important contributor to agency.21 Career agency is one’s ability to control thoughts, motivation, and actions relating to vocation. Active learning requires students to constantly engage in reflection on their coursework and co-curricular engagements. However, in most cases, this reflection is superficial and is undertaken to fulfill academic requirements, often without much enthusiasm. Career professionals are familiar with reflective practices when assisting students in preparing their resumes or for interviews. However, for both the student and the career professional, constructing the T requires a much deeper level of reflection that is more frequent, takes longer, and asks for personal commitment.22 Reflective practices can be a powerful tool in increasing career agency because students with high efficacy expectations of themselves will be more successful in their efforts.

Integration

Students engage in various academic, co-curricular, and nonacademic experiences throughout their college years. Too often, in preparing internship or full-time position search materials, students simply list their experiences under different resume headings without understanding how one activity shapes, augments, or enhances another. Relying on single-strand ideas during interviews or arbitrary bullet points on resumes misses the importance of integrating experiences into the whole cloth. By weaving components together, the strands take shape, and the connections stand out. Employers can understand how skills and competencies were developed and how one experience leveraged another. Students need guidance from career coaches as they undertake the reflection process to accomplish integration.

In most institutions, career services support students in connecting their interests to a career plan or pathway but often fail to help students integrate their natural aptitudes. Without this integration, the student becomes misguided in making career pathway connections. Unfortunately, when integration does occur, it happens in a rush in the months before graduation, in anticipation of a career fair or employer visit. As a result, this integration is hurried and abbreviated. True skills integration cannot be achieved in a short period of time with little thought or planning. Guidance from career professionals should provide depth of input. Proactive career professionals should work with students from orientation to graduation, helping them integrate continually along the way.

Articulation

Everything counts! All campus experiences, engagements, and off-campus activities, whether work or social, come together into a story. Crafting four-plus years of college experience into a coherent story challenges many students. A 2013 study among employers found that a candidate's inability to articulate their personal story throughout the interview process was a critical shortcoming that derailed many candidates.23 Candidates commonly get trapped into focusing only on the few bullet points on their resume, failing to bring these pieces into a larger context. Job seekers cannot assume hiring managers think the same way or have had the same experiences, so delivering their message clearly and concisely can yield higher returns.

Career professionals can assist students with constructing their stories and coaching them with the voice and language of employers. Though the words used to describe a skill or competency may be the same on campus, the skills/competencies may take on a different meaning when in action in the actual workplace. Assuming they maintain close partnerships with businesses and hiring representatives from education, health, nonprofits, and government, and enjoy proximity to observe learning environments, career professionals are in a unique position to assist students in their narrative by translating their college experiences in ways that are meaningful to employers.

The ME

The Heroic Mindset
Hope (H): A thinking process to actively pursue goals, bringing together will; a sense of investment and energy, and way; the resources used to generate viable avenues or pathways to finding purpose in work.

Self-Efficacy (E): A learner’s sense of “I can” where they trust their own ability to organize and execute a course of action.

Resilience (R): Results from how a learner defines, reframes, and constructs meaning of events. Rigid or habitual self-defeating thinking limits bouncing back and moving ahead.

Optimism (O): The ability to seek solutions, see the upside of things gone wrong, and reduce the gap between present and future.

Intentional Exploration (I): Looking for positive clues, taking inspired actions, and welcoming planned (and unplanned) opportunities as a way to grow.

Clarity and Curiosity (C): Possessing clear intentions and acting on purposeful commitments with curiosity, which creates focus, reduces distractions, and maximizes energy.

Source: Feller, R. (2017, May) What Is a HEROIC Career Mindset and How to Have One? MCDA. Wellspring. Feller, F., & Franklin, M. (2020). The HEROIC Narrative Assessment System: Helping Undergrads Navigate Transitions. In P. Gardner & H. N. Maietta (Eds.). Advancing Talent Development: Steps Towards a T-model Infused Undergraduate Education. Business Expert Press.

In 2019, author and educator Mark Savickas noted that, “Work in the 21st century leaves people feeling anxious and insecure.”24 As societal changes continue to affect employment, workers endeavor to chart their post-pandemic futures, reshape their identities, and rebuild severed personal and professional relationships. However, it is those learners who embrace the word “career” as “the full expression of who you are and how you want to be in the world, which keeps on expanding as it naturally goes through cycles of stability and change” who are most empowered.25 But how do we encourage students to be fully vulnerable to their ME?

Focusing on an individual’s personal and professional development—purpose, awareness, and confidence—is necessary for success in the workplace and life. To change mindsets means becoming explicitly conscious of them. Society continues to limit students’ ability to absorb and process information, challenged daily by complexity, ambiguity, and information overload.  Filtration is the natural process of absorbing or discarding information, and adopting a HEROIC mindset can help students move forward with stability and change.26

Specific to the ME, a HEROIC mindset can foster purpose, which has been shown to positively impact students’ lives in and after college, including clarity and confidence around major and career.27 Furthermore, students with a strong sense of purpose have shown increased post-college preparedness, often exhibiting higher levels of satisfaction and well-being into adulthood.28 Research suggests that those with a strong sense of purpose view work as a calling, and that regarding work as a calling often leads workers to be more engaged and satisfied with their career choice.29

A HEROIC mindset can also foster awareness. Career professionals play a pivotal role in supporting students to make meaning of their academic and experiential learning experiences. 

Finally, a HEROIC mindset can foster confidence. Through various academic and nonacademic experiences, students are exposed to confidence-building opportunities. Students must confidently articulate and execute their competencies through various roles they will find themselves in when they enter the workforce. Career services professionals can help students describe these competencies in print and verbally, simultaneously building confidence through preparation and practice. As the workplace continues its state of flux post-pandemic, elasticity will be an important workplace skill. Confident individuals are those who regularly engage in reimagining themselves and their work.

Developing the T-student

A mindset filled with hope, self-efficacy, resiliency, optimism, intentional exploration, and curiosity helps develop a T student—a student with a deeper knowledge of the systems, skills, and abilities needed to work within and across disciplines in our ever-changing workplace landscape. T-students who adopt a HEROIC mindset are deeply in touch with their ME, filled with purpose, awareness, and confidence and well-positioned to navigate the constantly evolving relationship between college and career. They are emotionally and cognitively flexible, more open to change, motivated to contribute, take risks, and move forward as T-professionals.

Endnotes

1 Auger, J. (2019, May). The Future of Skills in the 21st Century. D2L News. Retrieved fromwww.d2l.com/blog/the-future-of-skills-in-the-21st-century/. Selingo, J. (2018, October) The New Job for Life: Learning. Washington Post.

2 In her 2016 article “Becoming Indispensable: 9 Ways to Cultivate an Adaptive Mindset at Work,” N. McGill defines an adaptive mindset as a mental attitude where individuals can assess the facts and circumstances of the current situation or environment and make appropriate adjustments to thrive in any scenario. Individuals adjust their expectations and plans according to the prevailing conditions. (Retrieved from https://getheroik.com/9-ways-to-cultivate-adaptive-mindset-work/.)

3 Spohrer, J. & Maglio, P.P. (2009). Service Science: Toward a Smarter Planet. In Karwowski &
Salvendy (Eds.). Service Engineering. Wiley.

4 Rowe, A. D., & Zegwaard, K. E. (2017). Developing Graduate Employability Skills and Attributes: Curriculum Enhancement Through Work-Integrated Learning. Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, Special Issue, 18(2), 87-99. https://hdl.handle.net/10289/11267.

5 Gardner, P., & Estry, D. (2017). A Primer on the T-professional. E. Lansing, MI: Michigan State University. Retrieved from https://ceri.msu.edu/_assets/pdfs/t-shaped-pdfs/Primer-on-the-T-professional.pdf.

6 Gardner, P., & Spohrer, J. (2020). Grasping Necessary T Foundations for the Future of the T-Professional. In P. Gardner & H. N. Maietta (Eds.). Advancing Talent Development: Steps Towards a T-model Infused Undergraduate Education. Business Expert Press.

7 Estry, D. W. (2020). Disciplinary, Deep Disciplinary, and Interdisciplinary Knowledge: The
Stem of the T. In Gardner, P. & Maietta, H. N. (Eds.). Advancing Talent Development: Steps Towards a T-model Infused Undergraduate Education. Business Expert Press.

8 Gardner, P., & Spohrer, J. (2020). p. xviii.

9 Hunsaker, M. & Rivera, J. (2020). The me. In P. Gardner & H. N. Maietta (Eds.). Advancing
Talent Development: Steps Towards a T-model Infused Undergraduate Education.Business Expert Press.

10 Gardner & Estry (2017). Gardner, P., & Maietta, H. N. (2020). Advancing Talent Development: Steps Towards a T-model Infused Undergraduate Education. Business Expert Press.

11 Spohrer & Maglio (2009).

12 Estry (2020).

13 Rowe, P. M., & Drysdale, M. T. B. (2020). Boundary Spanning and Performance: Applying
Skills and Abilities Across Work Contexts. In P. Gardner & H. N. Maietta (Eds.). Advancing Talent Development: Steps Towards a T-model Infused Undergraduate Education. Business Expert Press.

14 National Association of Colleges and Employers (2022). Career readiness defined. Retrieved from www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/career-readiness-defined/.

15 Damon, W. (2008). The Path to Purpose: Helping Our Children Find Their Calling in Life. Free
Press, p. 33

16 Gardner & Estry (2017). Gardner & Maietta (2020). Maietta, H. N., & Gardner, P. G. (2021). The Elasticity of the T-professional: Skills and Competencies for Job Crafting Success. In Q. Martin III. (Ed.). Career Development and Job Satisfaction. Nova Science Publishers, Inc.

17 Wilson, D. (2009). Summit Briefing: The future of learning in organizations. Sun Microsystems: Challenges 2008-09.

18 Estry (2020), p. 3.

19 Gardner & Estry (2017). Hunsaker & Rivera (2020).

20 Bandura, A. (1989).Human Agency in Social Cognitive Theory. American Psychologist, 44(9), p. 1175. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.44.9.1175.

21 Ibid.

22 Hunsaker & Rivera.

23 Chan A. & Gardner, P. (2013). An Arts & Science Degree: Defining the Value in the Workplace. CERI Research Brief 5-2013.

24 Savickas, M. L. (2019). Career Counseling. American Psychological Association. p 3.

25 Franklin, M. (2014). CareerCycles: A Holistic and Narrative Method of Practice. In. B.C. Shepard & P. S. Mani (Eds.), Career Development Practice in Canada (441-463). CERIC. p. 451.

26 Feller, F., & Franklin, M. (2020). The HEROIC Narrative Assessment System: Helping Undergrads Navigate Transitions. In P. Gardner & H. N. Maietta (Eds.). Advancing Talent Development: Steps Towards a T-model Infused Undergraduate Education. Business Expert Press.

27 Clydesdale, T. (2015). The Purposeful Graduate: Why Colleges Must Talk to Students About Vocation. University of Chicago Press. Dik, B. J., Duffy, R. D., & Eldridge, B. M. (2009). Calling and Vocation in Career Counseling: Recommendations for Promoting Meaningful Work. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 40(6), 625–632.

28 Mariano, J. M., & Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Youth Purpose Among the ‘Greatest Generation.’ The Journal of Positive Psychology, 7(4), 281–293.

29 Dik, B. J., & Duffy, R. D. (2012). Make Your Job a Calling: How the Psychology of Vocation Can Change Your Life at Work. Templeton Press. Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, Careers, and Callings: People’s Relations to Their Work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31(1), 21–33.

A photo of Heather Maietta. Heather Maietta is the national director of training and talent for reacHIRE, a talent shortage solution for companies supporting the career re-entry of mid-career female professionals. Maietta has worked in the training, development, and strategy function in higher education for more than 15 years, most recently at Merrimack College as associate vice-president of career and corporate engagement. She been researching and educating on the topic of first-generation college students for 10 years. She is the owner of Career in Progress, a private career and professional development coaching business for all ages and stages, a member of the NACE coaching faculty, and a global career development facilitator. She can be reached at heather@careerinprogress.com

Philip Gardiner Philip D. Gardner, Ph.D., has directed the Collegiate Employment Research Institute, exploring the transition from college to work, early socialization and career progression of young professionals, and the impact of experiential learning on student outcomes for 35 years. Michigan State University’s widely used annual college labor market outlook, Recruiting Trends, is conducted under Dr. Gardner’s direction. He can be reached at gardnerp@msu.edu.

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