For college students and their future employers, a central purpose of pursuing higher education is to develop the core competencies necessary to enter the workforce and launch successful careers.
“Ideally, students leave their universities with the transferable skills necessary to navigate the job market, transition into their first professional roles after graduation, and become valuable contributors to their organizations and employers,” says Dr. Rosie Clark-Parsons, Associate Director of Academic Platforms at Saxbys.
“But while both stakeholders historically have viewed the purpose of college as career preparation, employers consistently and increasingly identify a ‘skills gap’ among graduating seniors.”
According to research by NACE, the Chronicle for Higher Education, and others, new graduates seeking jobs and their potential employers differ on how proficient new graduates are in the skills they need to be considered career ready. She explains that the skills gap puts higher education at a critical juncture as:
- Students need career-ready skills to kickstart their entry into the workforce;
- Employers need career-ready graduates to help their organizations thrive; and
- Higher education institutions need programming that fulfills their mission to prepare the next generation of leaders and professionals.
“At Saxbys, we believe that to build the competencies they need to succeed in any field after graduation, students’ education needs to go beyond classroom learning,” Dr. Clark-Parsons says.
This is where the Saxbys Experiential Learning Platform™ (ELP) comes into play.
“Through our Experiential Learning Platform™, we build individualized academic partnerships to open cafes that provide exceptional paid experiential learning opportunities for students,” Dr. Clark-Parsons says.
Managed by a Student Cafe Executive Officer (Student CEO) and Student Leadership Team, Saxbys ELP cafes on university campuses are exclusively designed for and run by students who earn full credit, full wages, and have full responsibility for the business’ profit and loss statement.
The Student CEO and all other student leaders leverage hands-on experiences that bolster their academic, career, and personal outcomes through coursework, crediting, and microcredentials aligned directly with the practical applications gained at the Saxbys ELP cafe.
Developing “Power Skills” in students
Dr. Liz Langemak, Director of Academic Platforms at Saxbys, explains that the company is deeply invested in helping learners develop transferable skills in addition to technical skills.
“Internally,” she says, “we refer to these transferable skills as ‘Power Skills,’ many of which correspond to the NACE competencies. Of course, we have a strong program of technical training and coursework for the student leaders we work with, but the heart of the Experiential Learning Platform is about setting students up for success in their lives, regardless of major or career path.”
The Saxbys’ Power Skills are:
- Cultural Agility;
- Change Agency;
- Emotional Intelligence;
- Influential Communication;
- Thrive Drive;
- Critical Thinking;
- and Resilience.
“In addition, we break each one of these out into five characteristics,” Dr. Langemak says.
“The Saxbys program of competency-based education infuses everything we do with Student CEOs, from their initial interviews to the classroom training component with us at the beginning of their experience with us, to their weekly written reflections, and their final presentation to stakeholders at Saxbys HQ and their college or university.”
Saxbys has also purposefully built these Power Skills into its corporate microcredential program. Its current roster of microcredentials offers badges to students in:
- Corporate Sustainability;
- Strategic Marketing;
- Supply Chain;
- Talent Acquisition; and
- Training & Development.
In addition to academic and practical introductions to each of these subject areas, badges include interviews with former Student CEOs on specific Power Skills, alongside opportunities for learners to reflect on how they are developing these skills in their own lives.
“The Saxbys Power Skills aren’t discipline-specific,” Dr. Langemak says.
“We encourage learners of all majors to explore and complete these badges, which are free to enroll in, result in a completion bonus, and lead to opportunities for promotion as well as a badge that posts out to LinkedIn.
“While we’ve developed our own corporate set of competencies, the NACE Competencies are a crucial companion piece to this work. We’re in the process of articulating the NACE Competencies to the badges we offer through our microcredential program as a way of further clarifying badge value to both our higher education partners and employers.”
Nick Bayer, Founder & CEO of Saxbys, says that students and educators who work with Saxbys are “the embodiment of our vision as a national education company.”
Explains Bayer: “Students have opportunities to develop transferable, industry-agnostic Power Skills and real, tangible stories of leadership, while our higher education partners offer distinctive learning experiences, nurture student success, build a sense of belonging among students on campus, and graduate learners who go on to great outcomes.”
How the program operates
Each Saxbys ELP cafe includes three main student roles:
- The All-Student Cafe Team;
- The Student Leadership Team; and
- The Student CEO.
Ideally, students apply to join their cafe at the All-Student Cafe Team level and work their way up through the pipeline toward the Student CEO position, Dr. Clark-Parsons says. However, Saxbys also accepts outside applications for the Student Leadership Team and Student CEO.
“Our recruitment team screens applicants for each of these roles,” she points out.
“People might assume that our recruiters are looking for students with experience or interest in the food and beverage industry, but that’s not the case. We believe in human potential and recruiting people who enhance our company’s culture and embody our core values. With the right attitude and drive, we can train students on anything they may need to know to be successful. It's about finding the right people who will contribute to our mission to ‘Make Life Better.’”
When it comes to recruiting Student Leadership Team Members and Student CEOs, Saxbys also works with its university partners to identify candidates. Each of Saxbys’ university partnerships includes a unique academic agreement.
“Our Student CEOs, who step away from classroom learning for a semester to run their cafes, enroll in a unique academic pathway specific to their university,” Dr. Clark-Parsons says.
“Additionally, Student Leadership Team Members at many of our partner universities are eligible to earn three-credit leadership internships that include the completion of our experiential learning badges.”
There are elements infused throughout the program that strongly contribute to its success.
“Saxbys is a dual campus amenity,” Dr. Langemak says.
“Of course, we’re a cafe that serves an exciting menu of student-centric food and cold brew. We’re a Certified B-Corporation, we’re a fun place to work, and students know and respect that Saxbys is entirely run by their peers. Students resonate with our mission and core values, and our academic partners appreciate that we can revitalize real estate on their campuses to bring students, faculty, and staff together.”
However, she adds that what makes Saxbys unique is that it is also an academic amenity.
“Our work helps our academic partners to meet the goals of their strategic plans, and complements what happens in the classroom by asking students to put their education into practice in a real, consequence-rich environment that deepens an institution’s experiential learning outcomes,” Dr. Langemak says.
For example, the job descriptions of the student leadership team are built entirely on student learning outcomes, which Saxbys assesses and revises regularly.
“Our Student CEOs complete weekly reflections, which they discuss with a team of professional mentors,” Dr. Langemak notes.
“We bring the efforts of an entire education company to the problem of offering a large number of paid, on-campus internships for students across majors.”
Dr. Langemak says one of her favorite conversations with a Student CEO underscores the effectiveness of the Saxbys experience as life changing.
“After his term had ended, he told me that at his other internships, he had only a vague understanding of how he was contributing to the company's goals,” she recalls.
“At Saxbys, he said he understood how every conversation he had with a teammate, how every event he had, and even how every ounce of caramel sauce he poured into a drink affected the business he was running, and that improved his understanding of not only business finances and of managing people, but of himself. Our alumni graduates move so quickly into leadership positions after graduation because they’ve done a lot of really life-changing things in an education environment years before their peers get the chance to do so.”
Assessing the program’s effectiveness
To measure the effectiveness of the ELP cafe program, Saxbys has developed an institutional research program to track and evaluate student outcomes, with a central focus on competency development and career placement.
Currently, the outcomes research is focused primarily on Student CEOs, but Saxbys is in the process of expanding this work to include the full Student Leadership Team at each cafe.
Before, during, and after their terms, Student CEOs engage in assessments and weekly reflection exercises to evaluate their growth across Saxbys’ Institutional Learning Outcomes (community engagement, team development, and financial management) and their development of the Power Skills necessary to succeed in each area.
In a final capstone presentation to the Saxbys corporate headquarters team, its CEO, their cafe teams, and their faculty, Student CEOs report back on their terms, using both qualitative and quantitative data to describe their learning and development journeys.
“Across all of these milestones, Student CEOs demonstrate core competency development,” Dr. Clark-Parsons says.
“Their performance on assessments before, during, and after their terms consistently charts upwards. More importantly, their written and oral reflections point to real growth and evolution as emerging professionals, but also as human beings.
“Being a Student CEO is not an easy job. These students face all of the challenges that come with running a real food and beverage business, with the added complexity of leading a team of their peers. They have real successes that positively impact their cafe’s bottom line, but we also have built a safety net that allows them to experiment, struggle, fail, and learn from failure. Their weekly reflections and final presentations offer firsthand accounts of their experiences building the resilience, adaptability, critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and communication skills necessary to meet these challenges.”
At the time of their graduations, Saxbys surveys former Student CEOs to gather more information about their college experiences and understand where they may be heading after college.
“We then invite students to participate in a follow-up survey one year after their graduation dates,” Dr. Clark-Parsons says.
“We’ve modeled this survey off of the NACE First-Destination Survey, with the goal of understanding the path from Saxbys Student CEO to career placement, and ultimately, professional growth and success. We also stay in close contact with Student CEO alumni on LinkedIn, so we can continue to track their career trajectories long after they’ve graduated. Our outcomes data show that Student CEOs are ahead of the curve on just about every metric related to college graduation and career placement.”
For example, she says these data show that:
- All Saxbys’ Student CEOs who completed their degrees between 2017 and 2022 graduated on time. Meanwhile, less than half of college students enrolled full-time in four-year institutions graduate within four years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
- Despite being early in their careers, 43% of Saxbys’ Student CEO alumni have held leadership positions with their employers. According to the Harvard Business Review, it takes the average college student seven years to achieve a leadership position. Student CEO alumni who have taken on leadership positions have done so, on average, within one year of graduation.
How the program benefits Saxbys
Saxbys’ ELP cafe program yields a range of benefits for the company, such as a high retention rate among its cafe team members and the cultivation of a robust talent pipeline.
“Many of our Student CEOs started out as freshmen or sophomores who needed a great part-time job on campus,” Dr. Langemak says.
“Because Saxbys is so hands on and invested in developing our team members, our Operations Team has the opportunity to mentor those students up into leadership positions like Student CEO. Many Student CEOs continue on with Saxbys on the Student Leadership Team in their cafes. We have also had a large number of alumni go on to join the Saxbys corporate headquarters team.”
For example, she points out that all of Saxbys’ Leadership Training Team members are former Student CEOs and more than half of its current Operations Team members are former Student CEOs.
“There is huge value in our ability to identify, retain, and cultivate great talent, and we’re able to do that because of the resources we had devoted to developing student team members’ competencies,” Dr. Langemak says.
Suggestions from Saxbys
For other organizations considering developing a similar program around competency development, Dr. Langemak stresses that nothing is more powerful than a trust-based relationship.
“You establish the foundation of that relationship with an academic partner through deep investment in learners, outcomes, and company-wide collaboration that partners will hear about long before your first conversation,” she says.
“Any educator will tell you to meet the learner ‘where they’re at,’ and that’s what competency development is: It’s the building of a shared language that connects the shared goals of an academic institution and a company, as well as the goals of learners.”
Developing this language within a company is important, collaborative work. Dr. Langemak says Saxbys developed its Power Skills by bringing together not just members of its Academic Team, but leaders from Operations, Marketing, Team Resources, and even its CEO.
“This work is about more than listing competencies,” she explains.
“It’s about building robust systems for teaching and assessing those competencies in a variety of different settings, and then being ready to revise as necessary.”
Above all, Dr. Langemak says it is crucial to have a genuine reason to develop and deploy learner competencies that the whole team resonates with every day.
“At Saxbys, our reason is that we’re ‘investing in the Power Skills to put us in charge of our own happiness,’ not only because we believe that the ultimate goal of competency building for the individual is happiness, but because believe that the best educator mindset is a learner mindset,” she says.
“If we’re doing our jobs well, then, like all great educators, we’re learning alongside our students.”