Students urged to use empathy in their future workplace

All three speakers at the opening plenary for the 35th annual symposium, “Making a living, Making a Life,” emphasized the importance of interpersonal relationships for work. Fully embracing the cliche that the people you meet make it worth it, speakers Kweilin Ellingrud, Brandon Busteed and John Mahn tell students the key to future success is relationships. 

“Culture, too often, thinks of success as the success of individuals,” said Jason Mahn, professor at Augustana University, director of the Presidential Center for Faith and Learning and speaker for the opening plenary session. 

The world is rapidly changing after social inequities erupted during the pandemic, fostered automation growth and escalated climate change. A job revolution will be sparked out of this adversity, inspiring the theme of this year and Concordia’s discussion about empathy in the workplace.

In light of societal challenges, Concordia sought to redefine work and to help students “cultivate a life worth living through making a difference to the needs of the world,” according to the Concordia website. 

The first speaker of the night, Kweilin Ellingrud, is a senior partner for McKinsey & Company, the most prestigious consulting firm in the world, according to The Vault. Ellingrud works with companies to improve innovation and efficiency all across the globe.

“Occupations and skills are both shifting significantly,” said Ellingrud. Jobs are now focusing more on individuals’ technological, social and emotional skills, for instance, interpersonal skills.

Brandon Busteed, chief partnership officer and global head of Learn-Work Innovation, serves colleges and universities to help students gain work-readiness. Similar to the previous speakers, Busteed said work success is more probable with a “relationship-rich” learning environment.

Busteed identified six ingredients students need to get during their higher education. Of all six, half of them focused on cultivating interpersonal skills by finding mentors, connecting with professors, and having meaningful engagement with others in extra curricular activities. 

Despite his recommendation to participate in extracurriculars, Busteed said it is best not to cultivate a specific hobby, such as a music instrument, but instead practice and hone practical skills for the workplace. 

First-year student Elizabeth Coffin said, “Being a music major, that was deterring and sad. I thought that it was interesting how these people are giving a lecture on how to make it in the career world, but are saying you need to pursue something bigger than yourself.”

In addition to seeking something bigger, several of the speakers advised finding a mentor who can assess a student’s skills and help develop them for real-world applictication.

Ellingrud also recognized this advice and encouraged students to “proactively seek sponsors.” 

This advice is particularly important for women of color in the workforce, Ellingrud said. Black women especially are over-mentored but under-sponsored. 

The effects are seen in the talent pipeline of the workforce. Ellingrud showed that with each promotion to a higher title, less women are represented, and even lesser women of color. Only 3% of jobs in the C-suite are held by women of color. 

“As an Asian American woman, that is shocking to me,” said Ellingrud . 

“Justice,” Ellingrud urges, “cannot stop at empathy,” because it must evolve into real-world application through internships and community engagement.  

Busteed said work-related experiences, especially internships, are crucial to developing empathy and work-readiness. 

Internships should be seen as an opportunity to “create experiences where we can immerse ourselves in understanding otherness,” said Busteed. 

Mahn emphasized “learning across lines of difference” as well, but specifically through contributive justice.

Contributive justice means that workers honor the work of others and value the work of “whole people;” the body and mind must both be used to truly “make a life,” according to Mahn. 

Sophomore Marlie Johnston said her biggest takeaway was that work includes more than just a physical presence but also that of the mind.

“It takes your mind and body and your dedication to be involved and fully committed to what your vocation is. It’s more than just you physically but also emotionally and mentallly,” said Johnston.  

Automation is closely related to this idea. The development of automation will end exploitative work of the body and may offer more jobs that work both the mind and body.

A major fear of automation is that it will take away jobs from humans. Ellingrid acknowledged this fear and said that this is not automation’s purpose. There are tasks that cannot be done by machines, such as empathy and interpersonal communication. 

“Automation is not a competition” for working people, Busteed said. 

First-year student Kiley Snobeck had never realized the potential of automation. 

“It was very interesting because it was virtual and different. Automation can definitely be helpful in the workforce, especially on nights like tonight when zoom acted as our provider of ceremonies,” Snobeck said. 

Although it was her very first symposium, Snobeck said she feels “more informed; perhaps not more prepared, but informed.”

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