The journey through higher education is a transformative experience because it equips students with knowledge, skills, and opportunities to pursue their dreams. In today’s dynamic and competitive job market, being academically proficient is no longer enough. Graduates must also possess the skills and attributes that make them career-ready. Here, we’ll explore the concept of career or workplace readiness, delve into its significance for higher education students, understand the importance of soft skills, and discuss the NACE (National Association of Colleges and Employers) career readiness competencies, highlighting five key competencies that can make all the difference in a graduate’s career.

What is career or workplace readiness?

Career readiness, also known as workplace readiness, refers to the preparedness of individuals to enter the workforce and thrive in their chosen careers. It encompasses a broad spectrum of skills, knowledge, and attributes that go beyond academic achievements and technical expertise such as emotional intelligence, cultural competence, financial literacy, and much more. Career readiness prepares students to tackle the challenges and complexities of the modern workplace, enabling them to adapt, excel, and contribute meaningfully to their chosen professions.

Why is career readiness important for higher education students?

Beyond the obvious benefit of making sure students are ready for the workforce, many reports, including one by Indeed, note that career readiness, when focused on at the college level, help students find a fulfilling career—which is the goal of most higher ed learners. Here are a few reasons career readiness is critical for higher ed students.

  • Enhanced employability: The primary goal of higher education is to equip students with the skills and knowledge needed for gainful employment. Career readiness ensures that graduates are well-prepared to secure meaningful jobs in their respective fields.
  • Economic advancement: Graduates who are career-ready tend to command higher salaries and experience faster career advancement. This not only benefits individuals but also contributes to the economic growth of the nation.
  • Meeting employer expectations: Employers seek candidates who not only possess technical competencies but also demonstrate strong soft skills and adaptability. Career-ready graduates are more likely to meet these expectations, making them attractive to potential employers.
  • Reducing skills gap: Career readiness helps bridge the gap between academia and the real world. Data from a PwC study indicates that by 2030, the talent shortage and skills gap in the U.S. alone is expected to hit a total loss of $8.5 trillion.1 Graduates who are prepared for the workforce can bridge the gap immediately, reducing the need for extensive training and onboarding.

How can professors help students become workplace ready?

In a survey conducted by Top Hat in 2022, 72 percent of students indicate that their instructors help them understand how what they are learning will support their career readiness after college.2 Professors play a pivotal role in preparing students for the workplace, and there are several actions they can take to enhance career readiness.

Firstly, professors can actively assist students in securing internships and co-op opportunities by offering guidance, sharing industry contacts, and providing information about available positions. Moreover, aligning coursework and assignments with real-world applications and challenges can help students bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Professors can foster a collaborative and team-oriented learning environment, as teamwork and communication are vital workplace skills. Encouraging students to engage in group projects that simulate workplace dynamics can further enhance their ability to work effectively in teams. Additionally, professors can offer career counseling, workshops on resume-building and interviewing skills, and provide insights into industry trends and expectations. By combining academic knowledge with practical experience and career-oriented support, professors can significantly contribute to students’ readiness for the professional world.

Top Hat’s Interactive eTexts can also promote career readiness competencies. The MBA Human Resources department at the University of Canada West (UCW) created three custom Top Hat textbooks, packed with real-world examples that could help students digest concepts faster. “Every chapter has cases from the Canadian context that students can relate to,” shares Nisa Chand, Assistant Professor in UCW’s MBA program. The level of detail found within all three Top Hat texts has an added benefit: students can now earn their Chartered Professionals in Human Resources (CPHR) accreditation during the program versus upon graduation. Allowing students to learn from relevant course materials hasn’t only helped with engagement, it’s enabled students to more effectively apply their learnings to the business world.

How do soft skills help with career readiness?

Soft skills, often referred to as interpersonal or non-technical skills, play a crucial role in career readiness. As reported by the Department of Labor, the three ‘Rs’ (reading, writing, and arithmetic) may be essential to your job, but soft skills could be just as, if not more, important to work readiness. These skills are not specific to any particular profession but are essential for success in any job. Some of the key soft skills that contribute to career readiness include:

  • Communication: Effective communication is essential in the workplace. Career-ready individuals can convey ideas clearly, listen actively, and collaborate effectively with colleagues and clients.
  • Critical thinking: The ability to analyze information, solve complex problems, and make informed decisions is invaluable. Critical thinking skills enable graduates to adapt to changing circumstances and find innovative solutions.
  • Leadership: Even if a graduate doesn’t start in a leadership role, leadership skills are vital for career advancement. These skills include the ability to inspire and motivate others, take initiative, and lead by example.
  • Adaptability: The modern job market is dynamic and ever-evolving. Being able to adapt to new technologies, roles, and industries is essential for career longevity.
  • Emotional intelligence: Understanding and managing one’s emotions, as well as empathizing with others, is critical for building positive working relationships and resolving conflicts.
  • Soft skills vs. technical skills

    Soft skills and technical skills represent distinct yet interconnected components of an individual’s skill set, and both play pivotal roles in career readiness within the context of higher education.

    Soft skills: Soft skills, also known as interpersonal or non-technical skills, encompass a broad range of qualities and behaviors that enable effective communication, collaboration, and adaptability in various settings. These skills are inherently transferable and can be applied across different professions and industries. 

    Examples of soft skills include communication, teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, emotional intelligence, leadership, and time management. In higher education, cultivating soft skills is essential as they empower students to navigate the complexities of academic and professional environments successfully. 

    Soft skills help learners engage in meaningful class discussions, collaborate effectively on group projects, and build relationships with professors and peers. Furthermore, these skills are vital for job interviews, networking, and career advancement, making them integral to career readiness in higher education.

    Jessica Roisen, Professor of Philosophy at St. Ambrose University, relies on her Top Hat Interactive eText to help hone career readiness competencies including soft skills. Roisen incorporates case studies that reflect our economic landscape today—presenting an engaging alternative to traditional problem solving. During classes, she asks students to read their assigned chapters and create slideshows of their takeaways in small groups. The process helps sharpen a number of soft skills, including leadership, teamwork and communication.

    Technical skills: In contrast, technical skills are specific competencies related to a particular field, discipline, or profession. These skills are typically acquired through formal education, training programs, or hands-on experience and are directly applicable to a specific job or industry. 

    Examples of technical skills range from programming languages and laboratory techniques to legal research and financial analysis. In higher education, technical skills are often the core focus of specialized programs and courses, equipping students with the expertise required for their chosen career paths. 

    These skills provide a foundation for students to excel in their fields of study and ultimately secure employment. However, it’s essential to recognize that even in higher education, technical skills are most effective when complemented by strong soft skills. Graduates who can communicate their technical knowledge, work collaboratively, and adapt to changing circumstances are better prepared for the ever-evolving job market.

    Career readiness in higher education: The integration of soft skills and technical skills is a cornerstone of career readiness in higher education. Institutions must not only impart technical expertise but also provide opportunities for students to develop and hone their soft skills. This can be achieved through interactive classroom environments, group projects, leadership opportunities, internships, and career development programs. 

    By fostering a holistic, twenty-first century skill set that combines technical proficiency with strong soft skills, higher education institutions prepare students not only for their first job but also for long-term career success. As graduates enter the workforce, they can draw upon their comprehensive skill set to communicate effectively, adapt to industry changes, collaborate in diverse teams, and demonstrate leadership qualities, all of which contribute to their readiness for a fulfilling and prosperous career.

    Ninety-three percent of students say the variety of assessment types in Top Hat helped them develop critical thinking skills—a core competency for any career today. See how to create assignments and exams in Top Hat that prepare students for the workplace.

    What are NACE career readiness competencies?

    The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has identified eight career readiness competencies that serve as a valuable framework for higher education institutions and students. These competencies provide a structured approach to developing the skills and attributes necessary for career success. Here are the eight NACE career readiness competencies.

    • Critical thinking / problem solving: Graduates can demonstrate the ability to think critically, analyze information, and solve complex problems.
    • Oral / written communication: Career-ready individuals are proficient in conveying ideas effectively through both written and oral communication.
    • Teamwork / collaboration: They can work effectively in diverse teams, demonstrating the ability to contribute to group dynamics and achieve common goals.
    • Digital technology: In today’s digital age, proficiency in using technology and adapting to new tools and platforms is essential.
    • Leadership: Career-ready graduates exhibit leadership qualities, whether in formal leadership roles or through influencing and motivating others.
    • Professionalism / work ethic: They maintain a strong work ethic, including demonstrating reliability, integrity, and a commitment to professional growth.
    • Career management: Graduates have the skills to navigate their career paths effectively, including setting goals, seeking opportunities, and adapting to changing career environments.
    • Global / intercultural fluency: In an increasingly globalized world, career-ready individuals can work effectively in diverse cultural contexts and demonstrate an understanding of global issues.

    A survey conducted by Job Outlook of 172 employers indicates that critical thinking, teamwork and professionalism are ranked among the most essential career readiness competencies. However, using a five-point scale, employers rate critical thinking 3.6, teamwork 3.83 and professionalism 3.4.3 These findings underscore the importance of honing career readiness competencies in the classroom environment.

    Top Hat’s interactive polls and quizzes make it easy to facilitate low-stakes assessments. Faculty can choose from 14 question types—including matching, word answer and click-on-target—which sharpens a number of career readiness competencies along the way. The dynamic format of Top Hat questions also helps students feel more confident in writing long-form responses or defending their opinion, which may be required of them in the workplace.

    Five career readiness competencies in focus

    While all eight NACE competencies are important, let’s delve deeper into five key competencies that can significantly impact a graduate’s career:

  • Critical thinking / problem solving: The ability to analyze information, think critically, and solve complex problems is invaluable. In the workplace, graduates often encounter situations that require creative problem-solving. Career-ready individuals can identify issues, gather relevant information, and generate effective solutions. This competency enables them to excel in their roles and contribute to their organizations’ success.
  • Oral / written communication: Effective communication is a cornerstone of success in any profession. Career-ready graduates can articulate their ideas clearly, whether in written reports, emails, or oral presentations. Strong communication skills not only enhance collaboration within teams but also help graduates build relationships with clients, customers, and colleagues. Top Hat’s Interactive eTexts empower all voices. For instance, Sergio Juárez, Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at Fresno State University, uses Top Hat’s Inclusive Public Speaking text that enables students to celebrate their unique communication style and language. “Students can now give a speech in the language they feel most comfortable in,” Juárez says.
  • Teamwork / collaboration: In today’s interconnected world, teamwork is essential. Career-ready individuals excel at working collaboratively with diverse groups of people. They understand the dynamics of teamwork, contribute their unique strengths, and support their colleagues in achieving common goals. This competency is particularly important as many projects and initiatives in the workplace are carried out by cross-functional teams.
  • Leadership: Leadership skills are valuable not only for those in formal leadership positions but also for anyone looking to advance in their career. Career-ready graduates exhibit leadership qualities such as taking initiative, motivating others, and leading by example. These skills enable them to stand out and take on leadership roles when opportunities arise.
  • Professionalism / work ethic: Maintaining professionalism and a strong work ethic is non-negotiable in the workplace. Career-ready individuals demonstrate reliability, integrity, and a commitment to high standards of performance. They are punctual, meet deadlines, and take responsibility for their work. Professionalism and a strong work ethic contribute to a positive workplace reputation and open doors to advancement.
  • It’s also important to note that workplace readiness and career readiness competencies don’t just form in the lecture hall. Students sharpen these invaluable skills when interacting with friends, completing extracurricular or athletic activities, and working part-time jobs. Combined, these experiences help shape students into well-rounded individuals who possess both the technical understanding and people skills required for success upon entering the workplace full-time. 

    Quiz: How much are you promoting career readiness in your course?


    In today’s fast-paced and competitive job market, career readiness is no longer a nice-to-have but a necessity for higher education students. Graduates who possess the right mix of technical expertise and soft skills are better equipped to secure meaningful employment, excel in their careers, and contribute positively to their organizations and society.

    By understanding the importance of career readiness and focusing on key competencies like critical thinking, communication, teamwork, leadership, and professionalism, higher education institutions can prepare their students for success in the real world. In doing so, they not only fulfill their educational mission but also empower graduates to navigate the path to a bright and prosperous future.


    1. Probst, L. & Scharff, C. (2019). The Lost Workforce: Upskilling for the Future. PwC.
    2. Lai Read, D. (2022). Top Hat Field Report: 2,798 Students on Assessments, Career-readiness, and Diversity and Inclusion in the Classroom. Top Hat.
    3. NACE Staff. (2019). The Four Career Competencies Employers Value Most. National Association of Colleges and Employers.