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Tackling the Skills Gap Through Peer Learning

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Do you believe the skills gap exists or continues to grow? If so, you aren’t alone. According to a 2018 Skills Gap Report, over 85% of those surveyed believed there is a skills gap in the U.S., compared to 60% in 2014.

The skills gap is defined as the “gap between the actual knowledge, skills, and abilities of candidates or employees, and the knowledge, skills, and abilities that employers want or need their employees to have.” In fact, 81% of employers said prospective employees lack critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills and 75% think graduates lack adequate innovation and diversity skills. The skills gap is also illustrated by the discrepancy in the level of career-readiness perceived by college graduates and employers: while 87% of college grads believe they are ready for the workforce, only 50% of hiring managers agree.

In addition, despite the concern about student persistence and job placement rates, only 36% of full-time students enrolled at four-year research universities graduate on time and nearly 44% of college graduates ages 22 to 27 are underemployed.

What can be done? In addition to strengthening curriculum-based learning, colleges and universities must focus on soft skills development in and out of the classroom. This is especially true since employers view the bachelor’s degree as a “proxy for soft skills.” An ever-improving mechanism to bridge this skills gap is peer learning.

Peer Learning Programs (PLPs)

David Boud broadly defines Peer Learning Programs (PLPs)  as “students learning from and with each other in both formal and informal ways,” noting it involves both the emotional support learners give each other as well as the learning tasks at hand. This speaks to the hard and soft skill development possible in PLPs.

Although Boud says “peer learning is not a single practice,” there are some PLPs that are familiar and becoming a best practice, such as peer mentoring, peer advisors, and peer tutoring. This is illustrated by University of New England, which provides PLPs in science and arts, business and law, and multidisciplinary studies with such success that they are “now an expectation of students and staff as a mainstream learning activity.”

Many PLPs have a heavy academic focus but include a holistic approach with personal support and a spotlight on campus resources. These programs also create flexible and fulfilling on-campus employment opportunities for students. Let’s check out the ways PLPs motivate target skills development, empower student success, and develop career-ready candidates.

Motivate Target Skills Development

Peer helpers in PLPs benefit from the way these programs motivate the development of skills desired by employers. For example, this study found the following to be the top five soft skills listed in job ads: customer service, communication, written communication, problem-solving, and organizational skills. Student leaders in PLPs hone these exact skills by serving as a resource to others. Peer tutors, for example, learn how to support multiple learning styles, which can become a great foundation for developing training programs or serving as a supervisor.

Empower Student Success

Whether a PLP is a peer teaching or reciprocal peer learning program, the benefit of involvement is not one-sided. Students who utilize PLP resources have access to the supplemental help they need to succeed, not only academically but in their overall adjustment to college life. Peer tutoring, for example, is proven to improve student learning outcomes and increase retention due to the peer discourse, individualized learning, and direct interaction that takes place.

Students who serve in helper roles in PLPs are also empowered for student success. Not only do they develop confidence and mastery in a subject matter, but they practice soft skills in a setting that values training for student staff. For example, PLPs may have counseling center or health promotion staff provide training on good listening skills or identifying and referring a distressed student. Exposure and experience in these areas exemplifies the soft skills employers seek.

Develop Career-Ready Candidates

Peer helpers in PLPs develop hard and soft skills employers are looking for in entry level hires. While internships might focus on the practical and hard skills of an industry, PLPs provide the depth and breadth in soft skill development needed for career success. Indeed, serving in a student helper role strengthens intrapersonal and interpersonal skills, which can help make a good impression on employers who say 40% of new hires don’t have soft skills.

PLPs can help student helpers demonstrate that they are career-ready candidates. A recent graduate who can provide examples of when they exercised critical thinking/problem solving, attention to detail, communication, leadership, or teamwork will stand out in the crowd, especially since these are the top five soft skills most recent grads lack, according to PayScale. We know that PLPs hone these skills as well, exemplified by this study that cites teamwork and leadership skills developed in their med school.

PLPs are also mindful of ensuring their peer helpers are career-ready. SUNY New Paltz created learning outcomes for both their tutors and tutees. With accessible educational and employment opportunities, PLPs are linked to the changing demands of the job market.