SKILLS21: Transferrable skills with real-world applications

Teaching and Learning Services, in conjunction with various McGill units, has launched SKILLS21, a new skills development program for McGill undergraduate students. SKILLS21 offers workshops in five streams designed to facilitate transferable skills development and is just one way McGill is enhancing the undergraduate experience.

By Neale McDevitt

Traditionally, universities are institutions that disseminate knowledge, very specific knowledge learned primarily in classrooms, labs, and libraries. Some critics say that there is a gap between academics and experiential knowledge, that a university graduate, as accomplished as they may be, may have difficulty transferring their academics into ‘real-world’ applications.

With this in mind, Teaching and Learning Services (TLS), along with a host of McGill partners, launched SKILLSETS in 2009. A suite of professional development workshops designed to complement the academic experience of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, the program arms participants with a wide range of practical skills.

Earlier this month, in response to the demands of students and employers, the University launched a similar program for undergraduate students.

SKILLS21 provides students with some 40 skills development workshops, in five streams, offered by many partnering units at the University.

“The SKILLSETS program [for graduate students] has enjoyed great success. But it was important that undergraduates also had the chance to develop skills that will complement their academics,” says David Syncox, Skills Development Manager, Teaching and Learning Services. “The origin of the SKILLS21 project is found in the Principal’s Priorities, specifically the McGill Commitment, which emphasizes a commitment to experiential learning. How do we help students acquire skills, have experiential learning opportunities, and get the jobs they want?”

The SKILLS21 program features five streams – Citizenship, Collaboration, Discovery, Leadership, and Wellbeing. To complete a stream, participants must finish five related workshops. As they work through a stream, participants will acquire specific skills related to that area.

“For example, the Citizenship stream will focus on topics like community contributions, information literacy, and sustainability,” says Syncox. “By the time a student is finished, they will have a sense of what it is to be a citizen, both globally and locally.”

With more than 1,000 workshops offered to undergraduates across McGill by student associations, Faculty departments and various service units, the choice can be somewhat bewildering. SKILLS21 has distilled that huge pool down to 40 interrelated workshops that build upon each other.

That daunting distillation task went to the SKILLS21 Program Development Committee. “The Committee was comprised of student, staff, and faculty representatives,” says Falisha Karpati, Project Administrator (SKILLS21). “They collaboratively chose the workshops and the streams. The workshops themselves were chosen if they provided learning outcomes that matched those of a particular stream and the goals of the program.”

Though not the first university to offer a skills development program to undergraduate students, McGill is one of the vanguards. “We looked at some 35 benchmarked institutions and while the University of Pittsburgh was the leader by far, there are very few other universities in North America that offer this,” says Syncox.

Not even a month after its launch, SKILLS21 is already proving popular. “As of last week, we had over 300 registered participants, and registration is open until Sept. 30,” says Karpati. “We don’t turn anyone away. You just have to fill out a short form online and you are in.”

“One of the things that appealed to me about this program was that all of the services and workshops are streamlined – you find them in one place,” says Corrina Vali, a senior in Economics and Political Science. “I like the structure of the program because when you pick a stream you get a cohesive skill set in that particular discipline or that particular area.”

Vali says another appealing aspect of SKILLS21 is that each completed workshop is recorded on their Co-Curricular Record (CCR), a document that recognizes a student’s involvement in learning opportunities outside the classroom.

“Having this appear on my CCR really appeals to me because when you engage in activities with student clubs, a lot of them go unrecorded or unvalued in terms of your contributions and the time you put in,” she says. “But these workshops will go straight to the McGill CCR which I can then show prospective graduate schools or future employers.”

“This concern about life-after-school is increasing among undergraduate students,” says Martine Gauthier, Executive Director, Services for Students. “One of the trends we are seeing in post-secondary education is that students have become, and are increasingly becoming, very career-minded. They come into a university and have a precise destination in mind. And what they want is something that will help them be more marketable once they get their degree,” she says.

“SKILLS21 is a very purposeful way – and I think the word purposeful is the right word for this – of connecting the skills that they learn in class with skills that are needed in the job market.”

But not everything offered by SKILLS21 is directly related to work. In the Wellbeing stream, for example, participants will be able to explore everything from establishing a healthy lifestyle and implementing strategies to build and maintain self-esteem, to setting short- and long-term personal goals, and distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy relationships.

“For students, universities are no longer viewed as just being content experts,” says Gauthier. “This university experience is also about self-actualization. We’re providing opportunities for our students to self-actualize.”

“This will definitely enhance my university experience,” says Vali. “I know I want to go to grad school but I want to experience working first. And a lot of graduate schools are now asking for that experience, so I want to be as prepared as possible. Even if the skills I learn just help me become more equipped for life after school – in terms of financial literacy, for example – that would be really helpful. So it’s not just for employers, it’s also for the student getting ready to step out of school and into the world.”

SKILLS21 is open to all McGill undergraduate students. Registration ends on Sept. 30. Get more information about the program and register online.