Franklin & Marshall College Franklin & Marshall College

The Articulation Problem

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By Christian S. Hartranft '12, Post-Graduate Fellow

In a recent presentation to Franklin & Marshall students, faculty, and professional staff, Phil Gardner, Ph.D., director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, showed the audience a hierarchy of the experiences that employers value and want young job applicants to have:

  • Phil Gardner employers what counts slide
  • Image courtesy of Phil Gardner, Michigan State University

To those of us in higher education (and the liberal arts in particular) who de-emphasize pre-professionalism while stressing the importance of academic accomplishment, research with faculty, exposure to foreign cultures, and work in the community, this list is somewhat disconcerting. Can it really be true that if students merely have an internship or two, they will be just as likely to secure a job after graduation as if they managed a complex project with a faculty member, were leaders in their student organizations, worked on complex social issues through civic outreach, and/or studied abroad?

The answer, of course, is more complicated than that. As Dr. Gardner emphasized in his presentation, employers look for skills and competencies in addition to specific experiences on an applicant’s resume. These abilities (like effective communication, time management, and critical thinking) are the foundation of a liberal arts education, developed and cultivated through internships and other workplace experiences, of course, but also (and often more so) through the seven other items on the list above. Why, then, do employers place more value on the single experience of an internship?

The issue is one of articulation. Internships are often self-explanatory to an employer who knows what an applicant did as a part of that experience and can deduce the skills and competencies he or she developed as a result. Students are also often able to effectively explain how an internship experience directly relates to their ability to succeed in the position they are applying for. Study abroad and research with faculty, on the other hand, are a little more nuanced and unfamiliar to potential employers. Dr. Gardner indicated that students are often unable to explain in an interview or cover letter how those experiences make them a qualified applicant, and employers are then left to wonder about their importance if not ignore them completely.

But these experiences are what contribute to a student’s holistic development, aiding in their acquisition of the key skills and competencies employers say they are looking for. Study abroad increases cultural understanding; research forces students to manage projects independently; civic engagement creates opportunities to develop creative solutions to real world problems; and campus leadership develops management and team-building abilities that lend themselves tremendously to any future job or position within an organization. There is tremendous value in these experiences; students just need to be able to effectively articulate that value through their written and oral presentations to employers. Internships are not objectively more important, they are simply perceived as such due to an articulation gap.

All of this is not to say that internships lack value. Internships are incredibly important, helping students to more fully understand how organizations function and giving them the opportunity to learn specific workplace skills. In fact, internships are probably more important than ever, taking the place, according to Dr. Gardner, of what we used to consider entry-level positions (introductory jobs now require higher skill sets that employers expect applicants to possess  from their prior experiences). The value in such an undertaking is just more obvious, artificially inflating its importance to those who are really seeking the most qualified applicants in terms of skills and competencies, not specific experiences.

There is incredible value in a liberal arts education. If students are able to articulate that value, they will be better situated to compete for the opportunities that they seek and employers will be better situated to hire the best applicants for their positions. It is the responsibility of higher education professionals – faculty and staff alike – to help students understand how their experiences in and out of the classroom are aiding in their holistic development. Colleges, students, and employers will be infinitely better off for it.

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