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A wide range of employers have complained for years that higher education is failing to adequately prepare students to join the work force. However, a growing number of businesses are owning some of the blame for the disconnect between college and jobs.

Employers too often send the wrong signals about the skills their workers need, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Center for Education and the Workforce. That lack of clarity causes problems for job seekers as well as employers and postsecondary education providers.

“Everybody writes job listings in their own language,” said Kemi Jona, associate dean for undergraduate programs at the Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. The result, he said, is a “big mess that nobody can understand.”

To help create a more coherent jobs marketplace, the center brought together a group of more than 150 colleges, foundations, HR groups, associations, technical standards organizations and major employers, including Salesforce, Google, IBM, LinkedIn and the U.S. Navy.

Walmart and the Lumina Foundation are helping to fund the group, which is dubbed the T3 Innovation Network. Created last year, the network’s goal is to use standardization about needed job skills, or competencies, and open data systems to “better align student, work-force and credentialing data with the needs of the economy.”

It’s an ambitious effort, and a complex one involving the use of emerging technology like AI and the semantic web, which, loosely defined, is an extension of the internet in which data is structured in ways that allow it to be accessed and read directly by computers.

“The goal of the greater network is to reach a point where we empower the American worker/learner by linking up the transcript of education they’ve received with the systems out there that employers are using to recruit talent,” Abby Hills, a spokeswoman for the center, said in a written statement. “Then, once on board, that same technology infrastructure can be leveraged to help employers promote that talent up through the ranks, creating a real career pathway.”

The Jobs Data Exchange is an early part of the work.

That project, beginning in six states and Washington, D.C., features employers in health care, energy and the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management. Participants are working to use open data resources to more clearly define competency and credential requirements for jobs.

Hills said the longer-term goal, once the exchange is up and running, is to create a jobs marketplace that speaks the same language, like a currency exchange, for more seamless career pathways.

Employers will be able to use the exchange to organize their hiring requirements and to share in-demand skills and credentials with preferred college and work-force partners, the center said. And, ideally, job seekers could better share their work history, competencies and credentials with employers, which could use blockchain and other tools from the T3 network to instantly verify that information.

Credential Engine is a recently begun effort that covers similar territory, and one that shares the daunting level of complexity and scale. The nonprofit group is seeking to create an open database of information on credentials in the U.S. -- meaning all of them. A study the group commissioned last year counted at least 334,114 credentials, including degree, certificate, high school diploma, boot camp and online microcredential programs. And that’s just the start.

Scott Cheney, Credential Engine’s executive director, said the T3 project is playing an important role by seeking to connect emerging data about competencies and credentials.

“T3 is the vision that all data are able to walk freely across the web so people use it,” he said.

The broad range of participants is an encouraging sign, said Cheney.

“The chamber is simply the convening body,” he said. “The collective will is there.”

A growing number of employers, colleges and other postsecondary education providers are feeling urgency about using technology to harmonize data standards, competencies and job seekers’ credentials, said Matthew Gee, a senior researcher at the University of Chicago and CEO of BrightHive, a technology company focused on work-force data.

“We know now, with clarity, what it is we need to do,” he said, adding that the T3 participants “want to be in the room where it happens.”

Gee said the project’s goals are achievable, due in part to the participation of employers. Yet the conversation is in its early stages.

“The work is just getting started,” said Gee.

Northeastern is monitoring the project and its progress, Jona said. One reason is the increasing pace of change in many jobs, he said, noting that IT job requirements tend to shift every 18 months. And colleges need better signals from employers to avoid producing graduates who are out of sync with the job market.

Solving the signaling and communications gap is badly needed, he said. “Having shared language about competencies will be critical.”

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