Spotlight for Career Services Professionals
When Tim Harding introduced the “Spartan Ready” career readiness program to the University of Tampa’s president four years ago, the goal was to become more focused on and deliberate about developing the high-demand competencies that are relevant to succeed in the work force.
“[The development of the Spartan Ready program] came from the recognition that, while we knew intuitively that what happened in the curriculum and co-curriculum at the university was helping to develop these skills in students, there was never any intentionality about development and measurement of those competencies, nor were we trying to identify what they are,” explains Harding, the university’s associate dean of career development and engagement.
Harding and his team conducted research on competencies and what employers are seeking. They worked with the university’s employer advisory board to validate those that were critical to student success, and, from this collaboration, developed a list of competencies for the school.
The Spartan Ready program is based on seven competencies—which act as the program’s pillars—and two foundational, underlying attributes. Harding stresses the importance of infusing these competencies and attributes into both the curriculum and co-curriculum.
The program’s seven competencies are:
- Communication—The ability to effectively and efficiently convey and receive information, both formally and informally, using verbal, non-verbal, and writing skills amongst various stakeholders.
- Interpersonal Abilities—The ability to develop personal insight in order to engage with others and create meaningful relationships, which will lead to effective collaboration.
- Critical Thinking—The ability to envision and employ analysis, interpretation, and reason using information and data through cognitive processes.
- Organization—The ability to effectively and efficiently manage and/or systematize resources, time, and individuals to accomplish goals and tasks.
- Global Engagement—The ability to understand, appreciate, respect, and learn from the complex social, economic, cultural, and political nature of diverse peoples and their societies, and build meaningful connections and interrelationships.
- Teamwork—The ability to successfully build, lead, manage, motivate, and work with others.
- Self-Awareness—The ability to demonstrate an understanding of how inherent and/or developed personality traits and characteristics contribute to personal and professional success.
Meanwhile, its two foundational attributes are:
- Professionalism—The ability to articulate oneself as a polished professional while utilizing appropriate acumen for a career environment.
- Life Skills—The ability to effectively meet the challenges and expectations of leading a fulfilling life.
“We feel like life skills and professionalism transcend everything,” Harding says. “Our definition is more broad than just student success in the workplace. It’s about life success and being involved in the community.”
One of the most important results of the implementation of this program, Harding says, is that the University of Tampa now has a common language spoken across campus when addressing Spartan readiness.
“We don’t necessarily talk about the word ‘competencies’ with people; we’re talking about ‘Spartan readiness’ now,” Harding says. “That makes a difference. It’s a branding that our students, in particular, can identify with a little bit more than if we were talking about having competencies, which sounds pretty lofty.”
Harding was surprised by how students took to and took ownership of the program. Early conversations with students centered on the activities they’re taking part in, the skills they’re developing, and the desire to find out how they are developing these skills.
“When we began to talk to students about the fact that they can dissect what they’re doing, think about how they’re doing it, and look at the skills they’re using, it was as if a lightbulb went on,” Harding recalls.
It resonated with students so strongly that a group initiated a mapping session for student leaders during which they brought in a speaker to talk about millennials in the workplace and what to expect. They also worked with career development staff to create a mapping exercise, which was a reflective experience with a workbook they created that helped them think about what they do in their individual leadership roles that is mapped back to the competencies.
“They did that on their own,” Harding says. “That’s how much it resonated with the students. Our alternative break students also generated their own reflective exercise that they do any time they go on alternative breaks. They might talk about the social issue they’re looking at, but, beyond that, they’re also considering the skills they’re using that are mapped back to the competencies. I’ve been really impressed with our students and that’s what validates our efforts more than anything.”
Harding has noticed acceptance of the program from other groups as well, most notably faculty and employers. He admits to making presuppositions about the faculty reaction to the Spartan Ready program that have proven to be inaccurate.
“I felt that faculty are not going to embrace this because it’s too akin to vocational training,” Harding says. “What I found is that faculty are saying that they’re already teaching these competencies in the classroom and the program has resonated with them.”
One of the factors that has resulted in acceptance from this group is that Harding kept faculty involved in defining the competencies, and he developed the definition of “Spartan Ready” with the associate provost among others. In addition, the university has created a Spartan Ready steering committee that Harding is co-chairing with a faculty member. The committee composition is both faculty and co-curricular staff who will be looking at curricular infusion.
The faculty also seem to be embracing the program because, as Harding notes, “these are liberal arts competencies.”
Furthermore, Harding has witnessed an awareness of Spartan readiness by a number of employers that regularly recruit at the University of Tampa.
“Their recruiters will initiate interviews, ask questions, and start conversations around our Spartan Ready competencies, and use the program’s language conversationally, which is great,” he reports.
The next step is for employers to write job descriptions that incorporate the language of the Spartan Ready program.
“Some employers started to do it a little bit, but it’s a little more challenging with some of the higher corporate organizations because their job descriptions are so standardized,” Harding says.
While developing and implementing the Spartan Ready program was challenging, finding a way to measure the program’s effectiveness has proven to be elusive at this stage.
“That remains the big challenge,” Harding says. “On an individual, programmatic basis, we do assessment projects. Let’s say our leadership area is doing a program, they will write student-learning outcomes that are associated with that program and map them to the competencies. They will do some type of assessment using rubrics, observation, and reflection, and then write up reports based on that.”
He says that assessment associated with the program is occurring broadly throughout campus. For example, the Spartan Ready competencies are now the learning domains for the entire division of student affairs so every program the division offers is mapped to the competencies and is assessed.
“What we’re looking for—and what we’re lacking at this point—is how do we take all of this assessment that’s going on and aggregate it in such a way that we can see a student’s progress in developing the competency,” Harding says. “I’m doing a lot of reviews of software products to see if something exists.”
He offers several tips for other colleges and universities considering developing their own competencies and career readiness program:
- Find program champions—Find ambassadors on campus who are outside of career services and who would join you in moving the initiative forward. For example, Harding said that enlisting the help of faculty can move the program along much quicker than career services can alone.
- Quantify the program’s impact—While it can be challenging, make assessment, data collection, and reporting an essential aspect of your program. Doing so can keep those who are already involved engaged in the program and attract new participants.
- Use the “four pillars” as a starting point—In May, Clemson University and the University of Tampa co-hosted a symposium to discuss strategic campus-wide approaches to competency development. Prior to the symposium, Harding and Kristin Walker, associate director of analytics and initiatives in Clemson’s Center for Career and Professional Development, identified the aspects of their individual efforts that were similar and could be recognized as foundational, and they based the symposium’s programming on these “Four Pillars of Competency Development.” (Other resources available from the symposium include the “Competency Relationship Continuum” and the “Strategies for Institution-Wide Competency Development,” which are available on NACE’s Career Readiness Resources: Sample Materials page.)
“In terms of your program’s development beyond that, it’s important to understand that our way is not the only way or the best way for other schools,” Harding points out. “While schools can to look to each other to get ideas and advice, there is no single method of doing this because our schools are all so different.”