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4 Ways to Prepare for a Career While You're in College

Alexandra Levit

In a research study this year, IBM set out to uncover what's wrong with higher education. In collaboration with the Economist Intelligence Unit, the IBM Institute for Business Value surveyed more than 900 academic industry leaders from private and public colleges and universities, vocational programs, community colleges, education service providers and corporations throughout the world.

The survey revealed concerns regarding the higher education system's abilities to address consumer requirements. Less than half of respondents believe the system meets the needs of students (49 percent), industry (41 percent) and society (47 percent).

Why? As job preparedness studies indicate, the very skills needed for workforce success are the same skills exiting students often lack, including analysis and problem-solving; collaboration and team work; business-context communication; and flexibility, agility and adaptability. IBM reported that 70 percent of corporate recruiters experience challenges finding college-aged applicants with sufficient practical experience.

In terms of economic value, only 51 percent of industry and academic leaders believe higher education is providing value for money, and just 49 percent view it as contributing to economic growth and competitiveness.

Nevertheless, the institution of higher education isn't going away, and it is unlikely to be significantly reformed any time soon. For this reason, it's up to students to determine how to best use educational resources so they are fully prepared for the work world upon graduation.

Take advantage of experience-based learning. Put away your textbooks and look for real-world learning experiences like internships and apprenticeships that will allow you to practice the skills you've heard about in the classroom. Select professors and courses that practice "flip" teaching, where students learn basic content outside class and do homework and problem-solve in class. Work with mentors to establish metrics that objectively evaluate the impact of these programs on your skill acquisition.

Partner with potential employers. Develop relationships with corporate recruiters early in your university tenure. Inquire about on-site shadowing and job opportunities and get their input on the course work and concentrations that will be most helpful in securing and thriving in an entry-level role in their organizations. Understand their needs and acquire the right combination of skills to properly address those needs. Study their businesses and note how, where and why they're successful and unsuccessful.

Develop your business acumen. The business world is becoming more fluid, and increasingly, everyone must understand all aspects of how a company runs. For example, Pete Joodi, distinguished engineer at IBM and member of DeVry University's Career Advisory Board, prefers computer science grads come to the table with more than straight technology expertise. "Technology is now just one element of delivering a service, so new grads need to have a broader service orientation. I also like to see IT exposure beyond a single program or platform -- for instance in commerce, security, integration, standardization and analytics."

Be one with the world. Most industries are being transformed by globalization, and even if you plan to work for a U.S.-based company, global competence (or the ability to understand how business is done in other countries and cultures) will likely come into play early in your career. According to Joodi, this is especially true in the IT field: "Global knowledge is more important than ever because of security issues. New IT professionals should update themselves constantly on what's happening around the world and new ways in which companies might be vulnerable." Improve your global competence by talking to fellow students, professors and academic mentors who have experience working in other nations, reading foreign newspapers and selecting course work with a global spin.

Alexandra Levit is a business and workplace author, speaker and consultant who advises Fortune 500 organizations and the Obama administration on how best to recruit and retain top talent, and how to effectively develop and engage 21st century leaders. She is a formerly nationally syndicated columnist for the Wall Street Journal and is frequently featured as a human capital expert in sources such as the New York Times, NPR, Forbes, Fortune and Time.

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