How are you contributing to the awareness gap?

Emma Runzer-Boucher

Lucie, a 4th year student in social science, sees the world through a linear lens. She wants to know: “What can I do with my degree?” Unfortunately, this question is leading her nowhere fast, and she is starting to get frustrated. 


Recently, she learned about a position she is interested in: marketing coordinator. “How exciting!” she thought at first. But unfortunately, since they aren’t asking for social science graduates, she decided not to apply. Even though she has many skills that would help in the position, she hasn’t made those connections. She thinks she has a skills gap: I don’t have the skills required for this job. 


This article will argue that she doesn’t necessarily have a skills gap but an “awareness gap”. The awareness gap is the inability of students to recognize and make employers aware of the skills they actually have.  


It turns out, focusing on the skills gap instead of the awareness gap is a problem for students, schools and employers. Thankfully, some powerful educators are addressing the awareness gap head-on. 


Addressing the Awareness Gap


Jennifer Browne, Director of Student Life at Memorial University of Newfoundland & Labrador is bringing awareness to this issue by highlighting the transferable skills students gain through their experiences both inside and outside the classroom. “Higher education needs to do a better job at helping students connect the dots,” she shared when I interviewed her. “We need to help students see how experiences they’re having, from on campus employment to leadership opportunities in clubs and societies or classroom education, are all developing skills they need to be successful. These skills are transferable to many other opportunities.” 


By engaging in moments of reflection, students can move beyond using a linear approach and widen the scope of opportunities available. This benefits students like Lucie by increasing skills awareness and allowing them to consider broader possibilities of how they can contribute. 


Jennifer is not alone in her approach, as other career services leaders are doubling-down on the value of reflection. “Reflection is a career superpower and, when it comes to skills, flexing this muscle gives individuals the ability to identify and share their strengths.” said Carli Fink, career services practitioner at Queen’s University in an article published in CERIC


Given these benefits, it’s imperative that we create more moments of meaningful reflection to help prepare students for their careers. Unfortunately, for many students, the opportunity to reflect is missing, thereby restricting the focus to job titles. 


Contributing to the Problem


When we prepare students for their career by asking them what they want to be when they grow up, they hear: what job title do you want to have for the rest of your life? Although this isn’t the intention, students feel pressured into a mould, at a stage where we should broaden their horizons and prepare them for change. 


Focusing on job titles reinforces the awareness gap. We are forcing upon students linear thinking and favouring conformity instead of encouraging students to speak about their experiences, skills gained, values and interests and how it intersects. 


Instead of focusing on job titles, we should encourage students to discuss what problems they want to solve and why. This shift would encourage reflection and deepen their awareness of the value of their skills. 


Changing the Narrative 

When we shift the conversation to “what problem do you want to solve and why?”, we give students the opportunity to reflect on the following questions:

-What challenges are important to me? 

-How do I want to contribute?

-What skills do I currently have that can help?

-What can I learn (skills, experiences and knowledge) that could help me contribute more?


Using challenges instead of job titles helps students take the first step in seeing their skills as transferable. For instance, Lucie, a 4th year student in social science interested in a marketing position, can see that her assignment last semester entailed communicating ideas and emotions, which is a similar challenge that a marketing coordinator faces. She is starting to see the connection between problems and challenges she has worked on and how they can serve her in future positions. 


More importantly, students are better set up to be contributing members of society and knowing that the world needs them.



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How are you helping your students learn to speak about their skills and interests? To love to hear from you. For any feedback, please email emma@mysparkpath.com 

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