Upskilling Students for the Future Workplace

A group of students sitting around a table on their laptops, chatting and laughing
Student Success

Article Summary

  • Many Gen Z students feel as though their education is not worth the cost because it does not adequately prepare them for their careers.|To bridge this gap, instructors can work to better connect their course materials with real-world applications.|Students may need upskilling on social media strategy, instruction on job application material and guidance on applying to jobs in a second language.
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Paul Coats is a course supervisor and core lecturer in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at Indiana University


For years, students have cited employment as their primary reason for attending higher education institutions. Their reasons vary from landing a good-paying job, to expanding their employment opportunities, to learning key skills necessary for their future job – from social media literacy to a global mindset.

However, there has been a marked increase recently in the number of students who believe that the value of their education is not worth the cost. We as educators have an important role to play to bridge this disconnect as students pursue their future careers.

To do this, we must clearly articulate how the material we cover in our classes fits within the work world. We must also adapt our course designs to develop the skills students will need for the workplace. By applying a work-related lens to their studies, we can increase students’ motivation and desire to complete their education, and ultimately help them succeed in an ever-changing workplace.

Gen Z Students: Who Are They and What Do They Value?

Before considering the skills our students might need to be competitive in the future job market, we must first understand what motivates them and what skills they can already bring to the table.

Many of today’s students belong to Generation Z, born between approximately 1996 and 2012. There are a few important characteristics that distinguish them from prior generations:


They’re “Digital Natives”

Gen Z is the first generation to be truly raised in a digital world where information is at their fingertips and nearly everything can be accomplished online. College applications, capstone courses, job applications and full-time employment are just a click away. They have also experienced the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and live in a world where their online presence can be more important than face-to-face interactions.

They’re Realistic and Financially Aware

Financial pragmatism was already a driving factor in Gen Z’s decision-making due to their adolescence during the Great Recession. However, the pandemic and its disruption of the local, national and world economies has acutely sharpened their awareness of financial constraints and personal responsibility. This also makes them shrewd consumers who are highly conscious of where and how they spend their money, with a keen sense of cost-to-value ratios and of the power of their wallet to drive change.

They’re Globally Minded

Gen Z students have a strong desire to make a difference in the world. This drives them to understand how they, and in turn, anything they devote their time to, fits within a global context.

They’re Independent

More than any other generation before them, our Gen Z students are entrepreneurial and self-determined. Many would prefer to start their own businesses than depend on a corporation or be subject to others’ decisions.

Note that this list is a limited set of generalizations and must not be used as the sole guide for adapting your course. Rather, instructors should also begin each term by surveying their students to learn their unique reasons for taking the course. Additionally, they should also request students’ information, such as background in the discipline, major, general interests and ideal future career. Otherwise, without some knowledge of our students’ personal strengths and goals, any changes in our courses may be ineffective.

Understanding what drives our students will help us adapt our courses to be more meaningful and provide better preparation for a future workforce driven by advances in technology and upskilling.

Skills to Improve Upon: Social Media Literacy

Our students bring a variety of experiences and skills from their upbringings to our classrooms. But this does not mean that these skills are always functional in the work world, or that their experiences are easily translatable.

There is a stereotype that all Gen Z students are tech-savvy and know more than their elders, but this is simply not true. Our students might be more comfortable than previous generations with taking notes, attending class and doing group work online. But they may struggle with what we might consider simple tasks, such as accessing and responding to emails — a must in nearly any modern work context. So, we must be careful not to make assumptions about our students’ abilities. Rather, we should pinpoint their strengths and weaknesses to prepare them for the job market by building on what they already know.

Social media literacy, for example, is becoming an increasingly sought-after skill in nearly all organizations. Our students are already often well-versed in this arena, but only as it pertains to their generation. This means that, although they may not need training from the ground up, they do need guidance and practice on how to utilize these platforms in a more formal environment for a wider, more diverse audience and age range.

For example, they may be whizzes on Snapchat or TikTok , yet have no knowledge of how to promote a business on Twitter or create a professional YouTube video. Additionally, they may not be familiar with LinkedIn at all, and might not even have a Facebook account. Across these platforms are also the overarching issues of tone and presentation. Students must learn how to present themselves or represent their institution depending on the context, what language style to use or even whether emojis or GIFs are acceptable.

Teaching Social Media Skills for Globally Minded Students

At this point, you might ask, “How can I teach them how to use social media?” As previously discussed, students will likely know more than their instructor when it comes to more recent platforms and media formats. So, these do not need to be the focus of targeted instruction.

However, as job candidates’ online presence has grown in importance, it may be useful to add a module to your course related to general decorum. Simply put, how to clean up or hide one’s social presence online to avoid, say, prospective employers viewing embarrassing photos.

Likewise, you could easily add skill-building modules by having students create or update LinkedIn profiles to include pertinent accomplishments from your class. You can also have them create a business page on Facebook, or hold a class discussion on Twitter.

Keep in mind that teaching social media skills should target student needs within the context of your discipline while leaving space for flexibility and creativity as it pertains to students’ future goals.

Importance of Second Languages on Social Media and Beyond

To further enhance their online presence, students can also create additional versions of their profiles on various platforms in different languages. Demand for candidates who are bilingual in English and another language has increased dramatically over the past decade, with an added spike of over 30% since 2020. This trend is likely to continue with an increase in foreign-owned entities in the United States, amplified global competition and a growing multilingual population.

Most college students are already required to have some foreign language training. As the workplace grows more multilingual every year, instructors must prepare our students to job hunt in this global workplace. Demonstrating this through social media leverages platforms students are familiar with to help them develop both their foreign language and professional social media skills.

Overall, we’re seeing many changes occur in both the labor market and in the younger generation. To succeed in the future workplace, students need direction on how to hone their skills and stay connected with their future employment goals.

Skills Acquisition: Job Application Materials

College students often need first-time introduction to traditional job application materials, including cover letters, resumés and letters of recommendation. These materials are far from obsolete and, being easily accessible online, will most likely be necessary for years to come. So, it is important that our students learn and practice the skills involved in writing and requesting application materials.

Instructors can add modules to a course that require students to create or enhance their resumé for employment in a specific field, attaching it to their online portfolios or professional social media accounts. Likewise, instructors can present scenarios where students must properly request a letter of recommendation from a professor or employer.

In a world language classroom, this might involve developing language-specific versions of job application materials. Students can also conduct a mock international job search and create application materials in their target language.

Again, there are many activities to help teach about job application materials. But the best ones are those that complement and integrate with the course content and have far-reaching results.

Skills Acquisition: Connecting with the World

One of the most important ways to prepare students for the workforce: providing a real-world context and purpose for your course material.

Course content is all-to-often viewed by both students and their instructors as an end in itself, rather than as a means to develop key skills for life and work. However, many of our students, without knowing the full purpose of the material, may see their efforts as meaningless and quickly drop the course. They have neither time nor interest in pursuing something they deem futile.

Starting from the very beginning of the course, instructors must show how the skills or material they teach can apply in a real-world context. This may require some creativity on the part of the course designer to think outside the box when planning activities. But the results make the extra time spent worth it.

Some disciplines lend themselves to real-world applications with ease, such as business, social sciences and the arts. In such contexts, real-world applications are often integral to the learning process and the curriculum may only need small activity additions in order to connect the content with making tangible change in the real world. Examples of this might include incorporating hands-on or community-based projects rather than theoretical situations.

For other fields, such as those in STEM, this might be more challenging. However, by thinking outside the box, STEM instructors can include exciting activities that connect students with their global community. Activities might include researching and applying for jobs at NGOs, and volunteering as a Science or Math tutor for younger students. The key, again, is knowing what your students’ interests are upfront to better connect their course material with something they find purposeful.

Wrapping Up

I hope this article presented you with some solid jumping off points to help your students bridge the gap between the classroom and their future workplace. Though connecting your course materials to the real world may not always be simple, it is always worthwhile for your career-minded students.

To learn more about getting students career-ready, watch our Empowered Educator webinar on “Strengthening Skills for Career-Ready Students.”