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Addressing the mismatch between colleges and the job market (essay)

Work Ready or Not

April 4, 2014

Recently, the McKinsey Center for Government released the second in its “Education to Employment” series of the reports. The first, “Education to Employment: Designing a System that Works,” released in December 2012, looked at global youth unemployment challenges and the roles of higher education institutions and employers in helping students to make the transition from one domain to the other more successfully. The second report, “Education to Employment: Getting Europe’s Youth into Work,” released in January of this year, takes a geographically more narrow look at the same issues, and makes some practical recommendations for addressing the so-called skills gap currently vexing many European nations.

The report is timely, and relevant not only to all who are concerned about the prospect of a “lost generation” of European youth but also to those of us concerned with the college-to-work transition here in the U.S., and the potential long-term effects of underemployment and unemployment.

I was reminded of this very recently while conducting a brief survey of employers myself. In one question, the survey presented the respondents with a list of more than a dozen institutional characteristics and asked how important each of those characteristics is to their selection of preferred providers for recruiting full-time hires. Included in the list of characteristics were things like geographic location, diversity of the student body, institutional rankings, selectivity, and so forth.

The number one issue wasn’t any of those, however. Far and away, the most important characteristic, survey respondents indicated, is the work readiness of graduates, with 91 percent of respondents calling this important or very important.

By contrast, only 44 percent of respondents called institutional rankings important or very important. In the current economy, employers may be more inclined to measure colleges and universities by the results they produce rather than by their reputations.

As usual, Shakespeare may have put it best when he said, “the readiness is all.”

One of the problems with fostering work readiness, of course, as the McKinsey report points out, is the difficulty of getting diverse constituencies to agree on what readiness looks like. The results of McKinsey’s European survey are telling: “74 percent of education providers were confident that their graduates were prepared for work, yet only 38 percent of youth and 35 percent of employers agreed.”

In response to this misalignment, the McKinsey report offers some sensible advice: “To improve student prospects, education providers could work more closely with employers to make sure that they are offering courses that really help young people prepare for the workplace.” While the youth employment situation here in the U.S. is nowhere near as desperate as in many parts of Europe, the advice nevertheless has relevance here at home, too.

Of course, it’s equally true that employers need to work more closely with education providers in order to achieve the best results. McKinsey’s 2012 report makes the need for this kind of two-way dialogue explicit, arguing that a genuine solution to the skills gap requires a form of collaboration where education providers and employers “actively step into one another’s worlds,” so that the “education-to-employment journey is treated as a continuum.”

There may be some within the higher education community who feel corporations are not doing enough, and I have heard people argue that employers are spending less on training than in the past, and trying to force colleges and universities to pick up the tab. The data, however, suggest otherwise. According to Bersin by Deloitte, a firm that tracks corporate training expenditures, domestic investments in training have grown from a recent low of approximately $47 billion in 2009 to $70 billion in 2013 – with double-digit growth over each of the last three years. That’s not to say that corporations shouldn’t be doing more to collaborate with higher education providers, of course – they should, particularly if we hope to arrive at a better matching of recent graduates to jobs is the desired outcome.

Certainly the work of producing a match between a recent graduate and a job opening is no easy matter. For some already in the workforce, it may well have been that innate passions and native talents aligned serendipitously with the workforce needs of industry. But for many others, careers may have been more likely to resemble careens along a complicated and cobbled path of discovery, with seemingly unpredictable outcomes.

In a world of perfect information, matchmaking would be easy. Students would have ready access to market data on jobs and salaries, and the task of connecting particular degree programs to those jobs would be straightforward. These students would make wise choices about what to study, put in strong academic performances, obtain credible real-world experience through internships, service learning opportunities, or co-ops, and, aided by focused career services offices, they would transition seamlessly to in-demand professions upon graduation.

Alas, at times it seems that un-readiness is all. Despite the efforts of a few information sources (the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Burning Glass, and EMSI come to mind), market data may too rarely find their way into the hands of students and their families. Colleges and universities may still offer degree programs with uncertain linkages to job opportunities (and I’m not taking potshots at the liberal arts here, as there are many professional programs that are poorly aligned with regional job prospects). Students may make poor choices and perform poorly in their chosen fields of study. They may graduate with little in the way of practical, hands-on work experience and, after a brief faculty critique of the resume, end up fending for themselves in the vastness of online jobs boards.

How can we redress this kind of mismatching?

Sadly, for some higher education institutions, the response is occasionally exactly what you’d expect – more school! So they entice students back to the bachelor’s completion program to complement the associate degree, or to the graduate certificate program or master’s degree. Sometimes this works. Having gone through the school of hard knocks, students now make wiser choices. But in some instances, more of the same merely exacerbates the original problem.

Given the priority that employers assign to work readiness, and the observable mismatches between students capabilities and the skills many employers seek, it isn’t surprising to see a growing number of commercial ventures attempting to fill the breach with a wide variety of services – training programs, coding academies, networking websites, and experiential learning opportunities. Just scan the education press for names like Dream Careers, Envoys, Fullbridge, Koru, Hack Reactor, Coursolve, Intern Sushi, Collegefeed, Rad Matter, and many, many more.

McKinsey’s suggestion that education providers work more closely with employers is sound advice. At the moment, a burgeoning group of commercial education providers seem to be taking this advice to heart, and traditional colleges may have something to learn from them – particularly at a moment when it makes all the difference whether their graduates are work-ready or not.

Bio

Peter Stokes is executive director of postsecondary innovation in the College of Professional Studies at Northeastern University.

 

 

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