Finding Purposeful Work: Can Higher Ed Help?


How can college graduates find work that not only pays but also gives them a sense of purpose? (Hint: a four-year degree isn’t the only answer.)

That’s the topic of a new report by Bates College and Gallup, released in early April. “Forging Pathways to Purposeful Work: The Role of Higher Education,” is targeted at colleges and universities so they can use the information to “enhance the undergraduate student experience and increase graduates’ likelihood of finding both meaning and success in their work.”

The report explains:

Fully 80% of college graduates surveyed said that it is very important or extremely important to derive a sense of purpose from their work, yet less than half have succeeded in finding it. This “purpose gap” is a glaring problem for the younger workforce, as millennials place a higher priority on purpose in their lives than previous generations, and they look to work more than other sources to find it. The purpose gap is also a challenge for employers because of a strong correlation between employees’ purpose and engagement and an organization’s bottom line.

Gallup polled more than 2,000 graduates, 600 hiring managers, and 1,000 parents to discover how college graduates find purpose in their work.

The results are unsurprising. There are four undergraduate experiences that lead to students finding purpose in their work after graduation to quote the report:

  • Having an applied internship or job
  • Having someone who encourages students’ goals and dreams
  • Being given realistic expectations for post-graduation employment prospects
  • Participating in a class/program that helps students think about pursuing meaning in work

Despite these easy steps to finding meaningful work, less than half of college graduates report that their jobs give them a sense of purpose. That might be because many students attend college despite being unprepared for or disinterested in the kind of work for which a college education can prepare them. Gallup’s poll found that graduates who “align their work with their interests, values, and strengths are roughly three times more likely to experience high purpose in work.”

Students who find sitting at a desk or doing written work uninspiring might have a better chance at finding purpose in a trade or work that requires skilled labor. Some of the jobs that reportedly make people most happy don’t require a four-year degree. They include construction manager, ultrasound technician, aircraft mechanic, plumber, heavy equipment operator, and carpenter.

Universities can do their part by giving students better guidance in finding careers to suit their interests. But the first step starts with students themselves. They must choose the education option that will lead them to the kind of career that is the right fit.

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