When Bentley senior Aaron Pinet walked in to a job interview at PricewaterhouseCoopers, the first question he got wasn’t about his grade point average or accounting courses. The conversation starter was his service-learning work: presenting policy-related research on energy literacy to congressmen on Capitol Hill, or developing a financial literacy curriculum for prospective college students.
“Any time I had an interview with Merrill Lynch, Liberty Mutual or PwC, most of the questions revolved around service-learning,” recalls the Corporate Finance and Accounting major. “It’s not only about the enriched academic experiences I gained through connecting service-related projects with classroom learning, but about the soft skills — effective speaking, facilitation techniques, writing skills, leading and motivating groups — that I gained.”
The scenario, says Bentley Service-Learning Center Director Jonathan White, is not uncommon.
“Employers expect that technical skills were taught during college, and if they aren’t fully up to par these can be taught on the job,” he notes. “However, employers report that they don’t have programs or the ability to teach new employees the civic skills, critical thinking skills, and leadership qualities that they want employees to have coming in.”
The need for people with leadership skills in civic engagement is becoming increasingly common. As more and more companies are recognizing the need to act responsibly, they are hiring people who could help move them in the right direction.
This kind of talent is so essential that 61 percent of corporate recruiters report that soft skills (such as civic) and hard skills (technical) are equally important for success in the workforce, as reported by a Bentley preparedness study.
The news is good for a generation of job seekers who are inclined to work toward a greater purpose — and who aren’t shy about holding potential employers accountable.
“The millennials we’re hiring measure and weigh — very heavily — the meaning behind their work, as opposed to the salary, schedule or benefits,” says John Jacobs, co-founder of Boston-based Life is good company.
Learning to Lead
An affinity for volunteering and community service will not necessarily give you what need, says White. Civic skills encompass a combination of social, citizenship and technical skills:
- Social: How do you interact with people, how do you understand and work with people from diverse populations? How do you broaden your understanding of the world?
- Citizenship: How can you become better consumers of news, following what’s going on in the world that affects you and addressing larger societal problems by voting and participating in various forms of public service and advocacy?
- Technical skills: How can you use your specialized skills to assist individuals in your community, support nonprofits and help community organizations reach their goals?
Enter service-learning, which starts with the goal of increasing a student’s academic and professional outcomes, always bearing in mind how the work will benefit the community. For Bentley students, it actually provides a much richer experience than volunteering because it’s connected to a course (and grade), it’s guided by faculty mentors, and it receives large-scale support, including trainings and oversight, from Bentley’s Service-Learning Center.
“One thing that makes Bentley so compelling for our community partners is that our students are bringing a specific set of skills from a business-based school,” White observes. “It’s incredible for us to be able to send our students out to help with accounting for a nonprofit, to teach a group of immigrant women how to start up a social enterprise, or to work with low-income populations to gain computer and business skills.”
Senior Marketing major Brian Shea built up strong credentials in leadership at the BSLC. As a project manager, he oversaw individual service programs, and as coordinator of student programs he managed 79 programs, 120 project managers and 45 community partner sites. But the benefits go well beyond.
“Service-learning has given me the opportunity to develop leadership and management skills in an environment that allows me to pursue my passions and ignite social change. Not many students have such a great opportunity, and employers always seem fascinated to hear about my experiences.”
A Commitment to Service
Many of the civic skills are connected to the basic moral lessons that we’ve been learning from early in life, and ones that need to be continually nurtured and socialized at the university level. And it’s clearly time for higher education to step it up. White calls for schools to integrate service-learning into the fiber of the campus, academically and socially, rather than tacking it on to the college experience as an afterthought.
“You can’t just ask students to go and help. To do this, there’s a very clear set of skills they need to learn. It’s the role of the university to help our students acquire the skills they will need to help in the best possible ways and to equip the next generation with the skills to create new visions for deeper community and a better world.”
Nearly 1,000 Bentley students do service-learning each semester. Embedded courses incorporate into the course curriculum a community-based project that advances learning objectives, addresses an identified community need and involves meaningful student interaction with the community partner. A fourth-credit option offers students the opportunity to earn an additional academic credit in conjunction with a three-credit course, and includes reflective pieces, pre-service training and meetings to contextualize what is learned in the community.
The best part, says Pinet, “is that we’re not working on these skills just in trainings or workshops; we’re working on them every day. It’s our job. Because we practice them so much, we’ve mastered abilities that really do give us the competitive edge over other students.”
Kristen Walsh is a freelance writer.