Joseph Hrycak
By Joseph Hrycak on June 02, 2021

6 Questions on the Future of Learning in Universities with Professor Michael Nolan

University students are the future of our workforce. However, most students don’t get the chance to practice the key skills that are necessary for them to thrive in the workplace. At Ethical Angel, we’re on a mission to change that, and recently we spoke to Professor Michael Nolan, a senior lecturer at the University of Minnesota about how universities need to evolve to deliver these skills to maximise the employability of students.

In his work at the University of Minnesota, Professor Nolan guides students through international experiences, corporate innovation and executive leadership. ​​In addition to this, as an Entrepreneur in residence for Optum | UHG, he led teams to innovate new business models alongside founding and investing in several successful businesses himself.

Other work that Professor Nolan has been involved with includes being a Director at the Small Business Development Center at Minnesota State University, alongside serving on the boards of multiple non-profits, including Legal Corps, the United Way, the YMCA and the Salvation Army.

Read on to hear Professor Michael Nolan’s profound thoughts on the challenges that students face, alongside how experiential learning can play a part in being the solution.

What do you think the biggest challenges are for students leaving university at the moment?

So, it's being able to apply what they've learned to real-world situations. What I hear from the students' side of it is: I've spent $50,000 on my degree, I go out into the real world and it's just not applicable. They haven't taught me how to become a systems analyst. They haven't taught me how to become a project manager. What I hear from the business side is: we hired these students and then we have to spend six months training them ourselves... So, onboarding takes forever. There's this disconnection between what businesses need, and what universities are providing. I think some of it is perception, but like a friend of mine says: we don't have a perception problem, we have a reality problem. We need more real-life applicable, experiential learning so that the students come out with bullet point resume ready experiences to integrate into the workforce.

How does your university help students overcome these challenges?

Every student at Carlson School of Business, pre-COVID, needed international business experience. So, I led a group of 18 students down to Brazil for two weeks and we met with businesses and NGOs. The idea was to give them real-world experience, not a case study experience. The course that I'm teaching this semester is kind of the COVID version of that. We're trying to do it virtually by introducing them to companies, like yours, and then they're doing a consulting project for a firm that is looking to expand export and then they’re actually doing export strategies as a consulting project. That's resume work. Students can put it on their CV that they completed a project for a business,  nonprofit or NGO. So we're trying, but maybe during a student's college career, they might have one or two opportunities.

What's the biggest challenge in getting those opportunities for your students? 

Most universities see their number one job as research, overcoming that inertia to have these kinds of experiences added to the curriculums, as opposed to standard theoretical learning, takes a lot of work. Business moves at an incredible speed, compared to universities, where change moves at an almost glacier pace.

If I help a student go to work for one of the nonprofits here, I'm giving a valuable thing, but I'm not expanding the world's knowledge, it's not my primary job. There's a bit of a disconnect of the mission sometimes.

So coming on to the soft skill side of things, do you think students are often lacking in soft skills needed to be successful in business?

Different universities have different skill sets. My daughter graduated from a private university here and she could write, she has that writing skill and a presentation skill set. But, she probably lacks analytical skills, right? I think those different skill sets are a little bit ingrained in the ethos of the university, but you're always lacking something. My friend’s son dropped out of university and then went to one of these, tech boot camp schools. They taught him the exact technical skills he needed but he's lacking in a lot of those basic soft skills, such as how to present or even reply to an email.

What more do you think universities could do to help students develop these skills?

Many universities do, either reward or encourage volunteerism. However, it can often be a placeholder that students don’t take advantage of. The students that do volunteer really do wonderful work and go and do real things, and it looks good on their CV. If you go to work for one of these nonprofits, you have this opportunity to develop all these skill sets that you're not learning at uni, and you get a chance to learn things that you don't know. Having seen your company, I think the evidence shows us that third party validation of learning activity is the new currency. Companies, like yours, can give that social validation and universities can give their blessing that this ‘learning action’ occurred.

In terms of supporting students to develop these soft skills, do you think the way forward for universities is to work with companies like ours and offer students applied projects where they're able to work on their soft skills which will then lead to them getting an accreditation certificate at the end of it?

I think you're spot on. That’s at the heart of the need, we need validation to serve a lot of different stakeholders, whether that be to get a job or to have it count towards their degree. Whatever it is, students need to be able to show this extra development to stand out from the crowd. 98% of LinkedIn is showing companies what you’ve done and getting validation for it right? It's the culture now, so we need to have that validating entity.

Totally. We talk about it through 360 Feedback, it’s the way we close up all our projects, making sure that every stakeholder is adding value, allowing them to continue their development cycle and perpetually improve.

To find out more about Ethical Angel, visit our Student Employability & Job Readiness page, or alternatively, you can book a chat with our partnerships team.

Published by Joseph Hrycak June 2, 2021
Joseph Hrycak