The world of secure work is changing, and the gig economy is growing. According to a recent report from the Freelancers Union and Upwork, 35 percent of workers in the United States in 2016 were freelancers, and that number is expected to grow. The solution, even for those who boast strong GPAs, is for students and colleges to work on relationship, communication and self-directed leadership skills.

A panel session at this month’s SXSWEdu, titled College and Career Readiness: A Whole New World, tackled this issue. One of the speakers, Marla White, is the finance and operations ACCESS program manager at Texas Instruments in Dallas, Texas. She is responsible for recruiting, retaining and developing college graduates in her company’s finance and operations rotational and co-op programs.

White noted that while students may be academically strong, many of them lack the social and soft skills that are so important to success in business because students don’t always develop them in the classroom. She said they should get involved in extracurricular activities or work to put themselves through school, even if it means sacrificing a perfect 4.0 GPA. “In my opinion, I think that says a lot about the student. It builds character, it builds work ethic, it goes beyond just the day-to-day classroom learning.”

Another member of the panel, Jason Faulk, Dean of Admissions at Longwood University in Farmville, VA, brought up the subject of writing skills, which he said many students lack. “I think regardless of where you go and what you do, the ability to read and write is really important,” he said. “And what we’re seeing on the college side is that students need more and more help in understanding what a formal sentence is or how to write an email.” White added she also saw that same skills gap in many of the college graduates she works with.

Leadership and growth in the gig economy

At another SXSWEdu session, Preparing Students for the Gig Economy, speaker Sarah Hinawi explained how students need to be “self-led.” For her, this means potent visioning, bold action, authentic storytelling, purposeful communing and perpetual growth.

Hinawi sees two challenges for students entering the workforce right now. Firstly, independent work doesn’t offer a clear-cut career path. Secondly, graduates often feel they need to have an impact right away and be involved in decisions—but much of the time, that’s unrealistic for an entry-level position.

One way to become self-led, says Hinawi, is by practicing what she calls self-reflection, in which students can find their own path and bring a sense of purpose to whatever task is in front of them. “This ability to reflect and feel connected to the tasks that they’re working on and find their own purpose and meaning in those tasks is really critical to being able to function in that environment,” Hinawi said in a phone interview.

College instructors could, for instance, incorporate reflective practice into the classroom and help students build the muscle of tying this personal learning to a practical outcome.

Another way to help students become more self-directed is to take home classroom time at the beginning of each semester to talk with students about where they would like to be, and what they hope to have learned, after their final lecture. This way, says Hinawi, students aren’t just following the professor’s vision of what the course should be but each student is being invited to imagine their own outcome from the start.

According to Hinawi, “one of the chief things that can happen in a college environment is more encouragement of exploration versus setting a deliberate path.” By becoming self-directed, while also improving their soft skills, students may be better prepared to succeed in the new world of the gig economy.

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