Why we need more T-shaped graduates

Opinion: Young workers who combine knowledge with an ability to collaborate across different disciplines are in high demand

Illustration: Bryan M Mathers

Illustration: Bryan M Mathers

 

The gap between the skills students learn and the skills employers need is becoming a serious issue worldwide, according to a recent World Economic Forum report.

Concerns are growing that education systems are failing to equip students with the knowledge and attributes they need to flourish in the workplace.

These concerns were very much to the fore last week in Washington DC, where I spoke at the T-Summit. This is an annual conference that focuses on the concept of “T-shaped graduates”. So what does this concept mean? And why did the event attract nearly 300 US and international leaders from business, academia and the public sector?

Over the past decade, high-profile employers across the world have emphasised the need for today’s young professionals to possess not just deep disciplinary knowledge but a keen ability to operate effectively across disciplinary, social and cultural boundaries.

These so-called “T-shaped professionals” are in high demand for their ability to solve problems, lead teams, innovate, build relationships and strengthen their organisations.

In this context, the vertical stroke of the T represents the disciplinary specialisation and the deep understanding of one or more specific areas. The defining characteristic, however, is the horizontal bar, which represents broader generic attributes and the ability to collaborate across a variety of different disciplines.

The key skills

The critical skills most frequently identified by employers as important are in the areas of communications, teamwork ability, critical thinking, leadership, empathy, cultural awareness, creativity and innovation.

For example, in the Future of Jobs report released by the Word Economic Forum in 2016, a survey of major employers regarding the employee skills they expected to be of most importance in 2020, placed the following in the top six: complex problem-solving; critical thinking; creativity; people management; teamwork; and emotional intelligence.

Tim Brown, chief executive of the world-leading design firm IDEO, is a strong believer in the importance of hiring and fostering T-shaped graduates.

“T-shaped people have a disposition for collaboration across disciplines. T-shaped people have both depth and breadth in their skills,” he says.

Central to Ireland’s ability to attract foreign direct investment and to develop our indigenous economy are the availability of appropriate talent and a strong capacity for innovation.

To ensure Ireland remains competitive and continues to advance in both spheres, it is imperative that our education system reacts to the clearly articulated concerns of employers and that we focus on developing creative and adaptable graduates.

There is a clear need to pursue educational approaches that foster and develop T-shaped characteristics that are in high demand today and in the future workforce.

The best way of developing desirable attributes in students is to integrate them into the curriculum from the earliest stages.

That’s why the plans of the NCCA, as articulated in its document Key Skills of Junior Cycle, are to be lauded. They include skills such as being creative, working with others and managing information.

The overlap with the skills of T-shaped individuals listed earlier is evident. At DCU, we have been developing T-shaped graduates for a number of years (although the language to describe what we do has only become prevalent recently).

In 2011, as part of a new approach to underpin our commitment to excellence in education, we introduced our graduate attributes initiative.

Following extensive consultation with employers nationally and internationally, we identified six key attributes (including communications, leadership, problem-solving, innovative mindsets, global awareness), underpinned by specific proficiencies (such as digital literacy), that are fostered in all our students.

These are reinforced by internships, international education and innovation opportunities such as Hackathons and our student start-up accelerator, UStart.

From this year, all incoming students will be provided with an e-portfolio that will act as a digital archive of personal development and will be framed around the headings of the six generic attributes.

Career enhancement

Postgraduate students will be offered similar career-enhancement opportunities under our new Enrich programme. All of these initiatives have contributed to the consistently high employability scores for our graduates.

In a rapidly changing and challenging world, Ireland needs graduates that are innovative, collaborative and adaptable. Our education system needs to demonstrate, and be allowed demonstrate, the same adaptability that is expected of our graduates.

Some may argue that such approaches are overly utilitarian. I believe we have a responsibility to our students and society to develop graduates who can find fulfilment in employment and contribute significantly to that society.

  • Prof Brian MacCraith is president of Dublin City University