Cultural Capital at Work: How Cognitive and Non-Cognitive Skills Are Taught, Trained and Rewarded in a Chinese Technical College

WCER Working Paper No. 2017-02

Matthew T. Hora and Chelsea A. Blackburn Cohen

July 2017, 37 pp.

ABSTRACT: The employability of college students is one of postsecondary education’s most pressing concerns in the United States and China, especially when it comes to the possible over-production of bachelor’s trained students and “skills gaps” where jobs go unfilled due to inadequately prepared graduates. In response, policymakers are focusing on developing students’ human capital, in the form of credentials and cognitive skills acquired in technical colleges, so that higher education becomes more aligned with workforce needs. However, the focus on completion and pathways overlooks the role that non-cognitive skills and contextual factors may play in student employability. In this exploratory study we use a cultural capital framework to examine how a group of technical college educators and employers in a large eastern Chinese city conceptualize skills, cultivate them via teaching and training, and utilize them when making hiring decisions. Inductive thematic analyses of interviews, classroom observation, and notes from factory tours with eight educators and two employers revealed the importance of a cultural perspective. Findings include a shared view that both cognitive and non-cognitive skills are essential, a cultural predisposition to lecturing but also a growing use of active learning techniques, and the importance of “cultural fit” during the hiring process. The data are used to advance a new cultural framework for conceptualizing college student employability, which indicates that improving students’ prospects in the labor market requires integrating non-cognitive skills development in technical college classrooms, and advising students about the cultural underpinnings of the job search process. Finally, implications of different approaches to correcting “skills gaps” in China and the United States, particularly the varying emphases on structural and/or pedagogical reform strategies evident in each country, are considered in light of the need for all students to acquire both cognitive and non-cognitive skills for long-term success.

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keywords: Higher education, student employability, China, skills gap, cultural capital