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3 ways college students are developing new skills while working remotely

This is the second summer many students are working and interning remotely. Here’s how they’ve continued building their skill sets.

3 ways college students are developing new skills while working remotely
[Photo: SolStock/Getty Images]
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Young adults are entering a workforce where skill gaps are present and widening. As a result, young adults must be self-motivated and committed to lifelong learning. Arguably, working is the best way for young adults to acquire new skills, but it’s not the only one. Young adults have unique preferences for how they want to learn.

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Recently, 45 young adults enrolled at Rutgers University—where I am an assistant professor—participated in an online discussion about the approaches they’re using this summer to build transferable skills.  The conversation began by asking them to identify the skills they need to be successful in their careers.

Overwhelmingly, 80% of the participants identified communication as the top skill they need in the workplace. The other frequently mentioned skills included time management, multi-tasking, technical acumen, and collaborating with others. According to research by NACE, several skills identified by young adults are aligned with the soft skills most desired by employers.

The most intriguing part of the discussion was when young adults explained how they learn career-related skills. Notably, their interest in personal development became salient during the pandemic—when many were without jobs this time last summer. Therefore, while some have landed summer internships and part-time jobs, they walk a fine line. They do not want to rely on building skills exclusively through their jobs (or college courses). Instead, they’ve identified at least three other ways to learn:

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  • Learning from others
  • Video content
  • Volunteering (to a slightly lesser extent)

Learning from others

Overwhelming, young adults identified learning from others as the best way to build skills. Almost half of the discussion group participants gave examples of how learning from others helped them build communication, decision-making, and time management skills.  Examples of specific techniques young adults use to learn from others included:

  • Attending (virtual) networking events
  • Conducting informational interviews
  • Participating in formal mentorship programs
  • Participating in virtual workshops (i.e., LinkedIn tailors advertisements to them)

Video content

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While young adults prefer to learn from others during in-person or virtual interactions, they are also avid viewers of online content. Previous articles have been written about the meaningfulness of video content for young adults, even describing it as a “de-stressing mechanism.”

While online video content is ubiquitous, young adults have figured out how to navigate popular tools such as YouTube, TedTalks, LinkedIn Learning, edX, and Coursera. Further, while most young adults have a preferred way of learning, almost all of them use a versatile approach to skill development. As an example, one young adult describes her approach to learning Excel: “One of the skillsets that I have actively been working to improve upon is Excel. The first thing that I did was ask a friend who is extremely proficient (in Excel) to show me a few main pointers.  Next, I watched many hours of videos on YouTube on excel and found that to be very helpful.  I have also attended multiple online excel workshops. ”

Volunteering

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Although fewer young adults identified volunteering as a pathway for learning new skills, for those that do participate, it’s a formidable experience. Volunteering was associated with improving their ability to exercise influence, solve problems, and empathize with others. Also, volunteering has a positive effect on people’s mental health. Further, those young adults that volunteer often develop several skills simultaneously.

Here’s how one young adult described his experience with volunteering: “I used to volunteer at the hospital’s information desk, which gave me the knowledge of how to navigate a hospital database system. Also, it was a social benefit in a way because people needed to be directed to the areas of the hospital they needed to go to, which required me to be clear and direct.”

How managers can respond

Today’s managers are faced with a difficult job. According to research, more than 64% of executives believe their organizations have skill gaps.  As a result, managers will be held accountable for upskilling their employees—including young adults transitioning into the workplace. There are at least three ways that managers can support the skill development of young adults:

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  • Facilitate relationships and internal conversations. Young adults learn best through interactions with others. Many of the participants discussed the value of receiving ongoing feedback (both at work and outside of work). One approach I used as an early career employee was developing a learning list. Within the list, I captured questions about the organization and current projects. I also identified people I wanted to meet. During my first six months on the job, I took my list to my weekly 1:1 meetings with my manager. Those conversations helped me learn the business.  Most importantly, my manager introduced me to other people based on my interests.
  • Share learning materials. A 2019 study conducted by “The Manifest” found 89% of Gen Zers use YouTube.  Therefore, managers should identify video content to share with young adult employees. My recommendation is to identify 1 or 2 video sources (e.g., LinkedIn Learning, HS Talks, YouTube’s “Learning” category). Next, make suggestions about relevant content young adult employees should view. Finally, managers should help young adults figure out how much time they should spend viewing content – on a monthly basis.
  • Encourage giving back. Organizations offer various benefits to retain their employees—including some who give employees VTO (Volunteer Time Off). For example, NextPR, Northwestern Mutual, and Salesforce are among a growing list of companies that give employees paid VTO days.  And depending on the nature of the volunteer activity, it might fall under civic engagement. Peloton employees can receive paid Civic Time Off (CTO) to volunteer and campaign for a candidate or participate in peaceful demonstrations. Overall, if your employee is passionate about a cause—encourage them to pursue it. In return, those young adults that volunteer have an opportunity to develop transferable skills (i.e., building relationships, problem-solving, leadership) that can benefit employers.

The current workplace skill gap may not be top of mind for college students and graduates—but they are on an undeniable quest to develop new skills. If managers partner with young adults and help them understand the skills they can develop, this will be a key step to addressing the growing skills gap.


Kyra Leigh Sutton, PhD, is a faculty member at Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Her research interests include the development and retention of early-career employees.