Higher education leaders have begun recognizing the communication gap between the academic bubble and industry. What does business-oriented America expect in terms of the quality of employee they believe they’re getting from new graduates versus what they’re looking for? And once students throw those mortarboards in the air, can they hit the ground running with the types of skills and competencies required to be productive and efficient?
Dr. Nicole Smith, Research Professor and Chief Economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, joined the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss how higher ed can help better bridge the gap between academia and industry.
What Industry Wants from Academia
“Employers are never going to be 100% satisfied,” Nicole said. “If you can get more for less, why not? That’s your objective. It’s profit maximizing objective of firms.”
That’s historical wisdom, anyway, but today, employer satisfaction is more important than in the past. At this point in history, we are faced with the lowest unemployment rates in more than 50 years, so we are working with a tight labor market. That means employers are having a much more difficult time finding workers.
“We also have the intensification and entrenchment of technology needs in what most people are calling the fourth technologic revolution,” Nicole said, “where firms and business and production processes are marrying not only our understanding of technology and technological processes to create goods and services, but we’re also connecting that to biology.”
The evidence shows how much the job market is changing and its new emphasis lies on skills, not degrees. When you look at online job applications, for example, you find that greater percentages of job ads say employers are looking for industry-based or test-based credentials that must be re-upped after a particular period of time, not degrees.
“Community colleges have done very well over the years,” Nicole explained, “because community colleges have really led from the front when it comes to understanding that many of the skills that we learn in school would go towards us getting a job. One of the things that community colleges have done really, really well is to make sure that by the time you graduate, you have those credentials of value.”
Many community colleges have found ways of partnering with industry to make sure students have access to internships and externships. These students can often work on the machine, program, or software that they will definitely be working on by the time they graduate.
“That is something that many of our not-for-profit or flagship schools need to look into as well,” Nicole said.
How Higher Ed Can Adjust to Focus on Skills Demand
Ask most higher ed leaders what the purpose of education is, and they’ll tell you noble and glorious things about preparing workers for lives of good citizenship. But higher ed has taken a long time to understand that employability is also one of its goals.
“With that in mind then, we have all the tools available to us to have a better understanding of the ‘economic value’ of (these academic) credentials,” Nicole said. “What higher ed needs to do is to do a better job of counseling our students on what the particular and potential career pathways are once they pursue a degree or they pursue some sort of credential.”
They need to know the ladders and lattices you can take, and the stackable certificates or credentials that you need in order to achieve a particular goal. Students really need better information on the pathways available to them and where they can potentially end up.
“Another thing that higher ed needs to do is to recognize the role of transparency in the values of majors,” Nicole said. “When I say transparency, I mean … exactly how much this major pays on average. If someone has a degree that looks just like you in terms of credential, for this particular geographic location, how much can you expect to earn? What’s the mean? What’s the range of your potential salary?”
This is really a difficult conversation for higher ed to have because many leaders view that as saying that some degrees have value and others don’t. But students deserve the right to know which degrees pay well, which don’t, and what they need to do if they still have their heart set on pursuing that major.
“They deserve that transparency and that information,” Nicole said, “particularly when student loans are now at $1.4 trillion.”
How Students and Universities Can Partner With Employers
Once they accepted that employability was a mandate, community colleges made employability and employability outcomes as one of the indicators they would use to try to attract new students. They would say, for example, “If you join this program, you have an ‘x’ percent graduation rate. You have an ‘x’ percent employability; ‘x’ percent of people are employed this many days after graduation.”
Traditionally, these types of schools have created opportunities for students to intern while enrolled. Consequently, the colleges have entered into articulation agreements under which students can get credit for working on programs and projects directly related to their curriculum development.
“We have to make sure that credentials of value, particularly for your local labor market are recognized,” Nicole said. ” If there’s a demand for licensed plumbers or licensed
technicians or Microsoft certified systems engineer, MCSE credentials, then we make sure that once you graduate with your degree in computer science, that in addition you also have that MCSE credential, which can also get you, not only a foot in the door, but probably a boost to your initial salary.”
Next-Steps for Other Institutions Looking to Bridge the Gap Between Higher Ed and the Workforce
“One of the first things that universities and the university presidents should be doing is to try to partner with their chambers of commerce,” Nicole said.
Certain subdivisions of disciplines have taken the lead on this. As an example, many STEM organizations approach colleges and universities to try to figure out how they can create a pipeline of graduates from their institutions directly into the job market.
Higher ed leaders should also know that President Trump recently signed an executive order that ought to connect individual programs in higher ed to the wage-record data.
“What that means,” Nicole told us, “is that colleges now, or colleges of the future will likely be held to a higher standard. Not only a completion standard, but also a standard of trying to figure out what percentage of their graduates are able to find jobs that pay…a living wage.
Potentially, this could mean that the programs themselves will take precedence for prospective students over a university’s flagship name.
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