Sparger & Jarrat: Colleges and Employers Are Not Communicating About the Skills Students Have — or Need. How They Can Bridge This Gap

Smithsonian Management Support Assistant Emir Ali works with Mionna Smith, an intern who was recently hired by the Smithsonian. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

As concerns about the cost and value of college hit a fever pitch, students are more conscious than ever about the up-front value and relevance of their investment in higher education.

This growing focus is increasingly leading them to evaluate whether a degree will convey knowledge, skills and experiences that employers now consider relevant.

A survey from the Association of American Colleges & Universities found that while about 60 percent of recent college graduates believe they are ready to enter the workforce, less than a quarter of employers would agree. As it turns out, this disconnect may be less about cracks in the education-to-employment pipeline and more about a language barrier.

Institutions, employers and students lack a common vocabulary to convey which skills are in demand and which ones students already possess or should develop. In a 2014 Gallup poll, just 10 percent of business leaders said they “strongly agree” that undergraduates leave college with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace.

Students share similar concerns. A survey conducted by Strada Education Network and Gallup found that just over a quarter of working Americans with college experience said they strongly believe their education was relevant to their work and daily life. A Bloomberg article on the recent Federal Reserve Board study of household economics points to buyer’s remorse among some college graduates. Institutions are caught in the middle, facing concerned “customers” on both sides.

The way out is for colleges and employers to explore practical ways to broker improved alignment and communication with one another. Colleges must find ways to better signal that students have developed the competencies a tightening labor market demands. They must support students in developing skills that effectively communicate their capabilities and value to employers. And they must support employers in unlocking more value through better-informed, and more open-minded, hiring and screening.

While technical skills like coding, data science and software engineering are in high demand, so are uniquely human skills like communication, creative thinking and problem-solving. A recent analysis of more than 100 million job postings, résumés and social profiles found that employees possessing both critical technical and soft skills are the most in demand. Institutions must encourage employers to better articulate just what technical and human skills they desire.

Companies must learn to look beyond their traditional understanding of which majors and institutions create the best candidates. They need to communicate their requirements with more nuance and be willing to invest in training that enhances a promising hire’s technical and human skill sets. Institutions, in turn, must communicate — and teach students to communicate — what human skills students have developed, as well as the importance of those skills in an increasingly automated world of work. This is especially important for liberal arts programs, which have the potential to serve as primary talent pipelines for employers in need of these increasingly important skills.

Institutions and employers can bridge the gap by working together to create relevant experiential learning opportunities for students. At Purdue University, the career center has partnered with Parker Dewey to offer micro-internships at a variety of companies that can help students find more real-world work experience while still on campus.

These typically short-term, remote work experiences are a low-risk commitment for both students and employers and can encourage more companies to look beyond hiring practices that exclude students who don’t study the right major, complete the right internship or have the right personal connections. And it allows employers to articulate to institutions just what skills they are looking for from graduates.

Institutions and employers can also work together to connect employees to ongoing educational opportunities. Increasingly, employers are becoming active participants in supporting employee learning through continuing education and tuition benefit programs. Five years after Starbucks launched its College Achievement Plan with Arizona State University’s online program, tuition as an employee benefit has gone mainstream. Corporate America is taking matters into its own hands by reinvesting in employee education.

Papa John’s, for example, is using a platform called Engagedly to provide tuition benefits to employees through a partnership with Purdue University Global. Meanwhile, labor groups, like SEIU’s UHW Education Fund, are working to address the same challenge by helping employees identify opportunities to upskill through continuing education.

Such efforts are vital to building bridges between higher education and employers. An inability to open and widen these kinds of lines of communication comes at great cost to colleges and businesses, as well as their students and employees. If students, institutions and employers all hope to thrive in today’s rapidly evolving world of work, they must learn to speak the same language.

Lori Sparger is chief operating officer and chief innovation officer at Purdue University College of Liberal Arts. Dave Jarrat is senior vice president of strategic engagement and growth at InsideTrack.

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