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  • #NACE2021: Trends and Predictions

    August 01, 2016 | By Mimi Collins

    Trends & Predictions
    Spreadsheets of data lay on a desk.

    TAGS: first destination, trends and predictions, student attitudes, generations, journal

    Five trends to watch in 2021

    In fall 2015 through spring 2016, NACE polled members about megatrends affecting the field.1 The conversation continued at the NACE 2016 Conference & Expo (NACE16), with Millennial guru Lindsey Pollak leading a discussion on those trends, and how they may play out by 2021.

    1. Data rule.

    No surprise: The use of data, and the focus on Big Data in particular, is important in 2016, but will be even more so in 2021.

    Expect data to drive just about everything you do and how you do it: All the signs indicate that the desire for data—to have quantifiables that can measure success and inform strategy and decision making—is only growing.

    The need and desire to share data, with the goal to provide transparency, has its roots in the rise of the Internet, said Pollak during the NACE16 closing session discussion. Especially among the younger generations, “I see an inherent trust of data,” she noted. “We trust the reviews of total strangers on Amazon and Yelp, we trust that the number of likes or followers that somebody has on social media is a meaningful metric.”

    In many ways, said Pollak, Millennials and their successors, Generation Z, “trust the data almost more than they might trust an expert who has 20 or 30 years of experience...We often trust data more than we trust ourselves.”

    For institutions of higher learning, the focus on data means that colleges and universities could be required to report outcomes for new college graduates by 2021. In fact, approximately 90 percent of members taking part in NACE’s trends poll expect this to be the case.

    Currently, a number of schools are already required by state law to do so; many others report outcomes to get ahead of the curve and provide that data to their campus stakeholders. On a national level, nearly 300 institutions collected and reported data on the Class of 2015 through NACE’s First-Destination Survey initiative, up from approximately 200 schools that did so for the Class of 2014.

    But that focus on data raises other concerns, including, as one member noted, the possibility that “we will be driven by numbers, not by the quality of service we offer.”

    Further, while NACE’s First-Destination Survey initiative enables colleges to use the same standards and protocols to collect, analyze, and report initial outcomes, what comes after that? And, what about careers that aren’t linear, that are more a series of “gigs” than the traditional employment model? How do we provide meaningful data for outcomes that are nontraditional? What about nontraditional students who are transitioning to new careers? How do we capture and honor their outcomes?

    At its core, said Pollak, the issue is not whether to collect and report data, but rather what data should be collected and reported. “Are we asking the right questions?” she asked. “What are the proper metrics to measure?”

    With a new generation moving into college and the work force, “the change-over is an opportunity to put everything on the table,” she said, especially as there is a focus on the word “why” among Millennials and Generation Z.

    “For my generation, going to college is what we were going to do. We didn’t question why. Now we are seeing questioning among Millennials and certainly among Generation Z, who see the rising cost of education and who came of age after the Great Recession,” Pollak said.

    Considering “why” is driving change as long-held beliefs and practices are examined and rethought. For example, Pollak noted that some organizations are questioning the annual performance review. Given the technology now available and generational preferences, IBM and others are forgoing the annual performance review in favor of app-based systems that allow for more frequent feedback and goal shifting.2

    The point, said Pollak, is to grasp the opportunity to question the status quo. For first-destination outcomes data, that may mean rethinking what constitutes a positive outcome as employment, careers, and the world of work transform.

    “What metrics really make a difference with that struggling student?” queried Pollak, noting that there is a danger in relying solely on quantitative data and forgoing the qualitative aspects. “Are [students] finding careers that are meaningful?”

    Pollak believes students themselves need to be engaged in defining what success looks like to them.

    “Data collection and reporting are powerful,” she noted, but “asking the right questions is important.”

    2. Skill development rules, too.

    Again, there is no surprise: Ongoing skill development—already a significant factor in career success—will loom even larger among the 2021 work force, where “gig”-based employment will be, if not common, certainly not unusual.

    Preparation for the career—be it gig-based or traditional—includes career readiness, identified as seven competencies that broadly prepare college graduates for a successful transition into the workplace.3 According to nearly 80 percent of members taking part in NACE’s poll, career readiness will be integrated into college curriculum by 2021, rather than being provided on an ad-hoc basis.

    At the nexus of college and workplace, there is much discussion around the role of the institution versus the role of the employer, but beyond that point, the discussion around responsibility for skill development becomes—employer or employee?

    “Are employers responsible for ongoing development of their new hires to help them move forward in their careers?,” asked Pollak.

    Ultimately, the shift in career patterns places more emphasis on the employee gaining the skills he or she needs to evolve a successful career; at the same time, however, it means students will scrutinize employers as potential providers of those skills: If there is no expectation of a long-term employment relationship, what will the employment opportunity provide beyond a paycheck? Will it help position him or her to compete in the gig economy by providing new or enhancing existing prized skills?

    Providing skills training “goes a long way with young people,” said Pollak.

    But which skills? Employers and students can’t seem to agree. In a study Pollak did with The Hartford, 60 percent of students said they wanted training in leadership skills. Just 28 percent cited a need for help with written and oral communications, which employers say they are most lacking.4

    3. Entrepreneurship is a greater focus for students.

    Entrepreneurship goes hand-in-hand with an increase in gig-based careers, so the 2021 student will be more focused in this direction than has been the case in earlier groups.

    In fact, according to Pollak, whereas Millennials tend to be risk averse, that’s not the case with Generation Z, 61 percent of whom expressed a preference for being entrepreneurs over employees when they exit college.5

    This puts more pressure on ongoing skill development, but also raises the issue of resilience, or as some refer to it, “grit.” Millennials, according to Pollak, want feedback, but not negative feedback. Will Generation Z have the resilience it takes to be entrepreneurs? Can students be taught to be resilient—to accept criticism, overcome obstacles, and move forward—as entrepreneurs must do?

    4. Recruiting technology matches consumer technology.

    By 2021, employers will source more than half of their new hires virtually, according to nearly 70 percent of members taking part in the NACE poll. At the same time, virtual recruiting will look different.

    “I wonder how many of us have really gone through the full, end-to-end experience of using many of the tools that applicants will use,” Pollak said.

    To that end, it would behoove us as we create virtual recruiting tools, apps, and processes to incorporate lessons learned on the consumer side, said Pollak. “Young people’s expectations for these [virtual recruiting] apps and user experiences will likely come from their experience with popular consumer apps like Facebook, Instagram, Tinder, Amazon, and more,” she said.

    Moreover, on the consumer side, that means mobile—not desktop or laptop.

    But staying on top of the consumer side and the user experience is a challenge, given the rapidity with which technology changes.

    Pollak recommended downloading some of the most popular apps to stay current. “Just play around with them, experiment, experience them,” she said.

    5. Choice rules.

    While virtual recruiting will continue to grow and improve, it will not replace personal interaction. Rather than settling for just one way to receive services, get information, or interview for a job, tomorrow’s students will expect options.

    Citing data from NACE’s 2015 Student Survey, Pollak noted that student usage of employer websites increased over time but so too did attendance at in-person career fairs, and that social media in the job search grew, but so too did use of print brochures.

    “What do we make of this?,” she asked. Her answer: Students want choice.

    “This reminds me of the advice young professionals ask me to give to Gen Xers and Baby Boomers—‘Please do not assume that we only want to text and stare at screens.’ All human beings want some in-person engagement,” she added.


    In commemorating its 60th anniversary, NACE, rather than simply looking back, opted to look ahead. This forward-facing focus was the basis for a number of activities and events, including the trends polls and closing session at NACE16.

    While futurists once peered into the future that was out there by 10 or 20 years or more, rapid changes in nearly every facet of life suggest that just a five-year leap forward can mean a vastly different world.

    As Pollak put it at NACE16: “Will we see more change in the next five years than we’ve seen in the past 60?”

    Stay tuned.


    1 NACE Poll: Mega-Trends Affecting the Field. October – November 2015.

    2 “IBM Is Blowing Up Its Annual Performance Review,” Fortune, February 1, 2016.

    3 Career readiness competencies are defined as critical thinking/problem solving, oral/written communications, teamwork, information technology application, leadership, professionalism/work ethic, and career management. See

    4 A Generation of Leaders: The Hartford’s 2015 Millennial Leadership Survey. Retrieved July 2016.

    5 “Why 'Gen Z' May Be More Entrepreneurial Than 'Gen Y'.” Entrepreneur, February 3, 2014.

    Mimi CollinsMimi Collins is the director of content strategy at NACE. She can be reached at
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