Connecting higher education to workplace readiness

Universities and employers can work together to determine, not just the competencies and soft skills necessary for student success beyond school, but how they will be assessed so those assessments have currency in the marketplace.
By: | October 30, 2019
Betty Vandenbosch is the chancellor of Purdue University Global.

Every day, we hear and read about people bemoaning the skills gap: too many jobs are going unfilled and too many people are not skilled enough to fill them. The facts are chilling:

  • Students are not finishing college in six years, there are 37 million people in this country who have some college credits but no degree.
  • Less than 35 percent of Americans hold a bachelor’s degree but more and more jobs require that designation.
  • A staggering 44 million people carry some type of student loan debt that collectively exceeds $1.5 trillion. (As of June 2018, Forbes reported that total US student debt was $1.52 trillion and that 44.2 million people owed debt.
  • The average student debt is $38,390. The median student debt is between $10,000 and $25,000, while 2% of borrowers owe $100,000 or more.)
  • A troubling 96 percent of chief academic officers at colleges and universities are confident that they prepare their students to be successful but it seems that employers don’t agree and they aren’t satisfied as 89 percent of them don’t think college grads are job-ready. And, perhaps the most concerning,
  • The absolute number of people enrolled in college has declined since 2010. In the spring of 2010, it was 19.6 million and in the spring of 2019, it’s 17.4.

Now more than ever, employers are looking for candidates who are job-ready and have years of in-field experience. At the same time, many employers are unable or unwilling to provide on-the-job-training. The millions of people with some college credit are not going back to school to upskill and fill those jobs. Many Americans are cobbling together low paying and part-time jobs to make ends meet.

What can higher education and employers do?

Working adults approach learning differently than traditional students who attend college directly from high school. They have years of work and life experience and other hard-earned knowledge. As adults, most have other people to take care of and they have an established network of family and friends. In short, they have lots on their minds. What they don’t have enough of is time or money. And, they often worry that they have lost the knack of going to school.

A typical student at an adult serving higher education institution is a 33-year-old single mother. Most adult students have at least three of the seven risk factors for failing to complete a degree: being older than typical college age, full-time work, attending school part-time, children, and raised by parents without a college degree. They make up part of that group of 40 million people who have some college experience but no degree.

If we want to solve the skills gap and at the same time benefit these people and their families, they need to finish their education. They also need jobs when they graduate. While there are lots of reasons why these students find themselves in their situations, that’s beside the point. People who don’t finish college contribute materially to the economic inequality we face in America today.

People who don’t finish college contribute materially to the economic inequality we face in America today.

Employers and educators must partner together to close the skills gap in the American workforce. How? We believe there are three critical factors: learning recognition, flexibility in pacing and job readiness.

  • Learning recognition: Adults need to finish their next credential as quickly as possible so they can earn while learning. They shouldn’t have to learn the same material twice, nor be penalized for stepping out of higher education. Instead, working adults should get credit for life experiences that are truly credit-worthy. For example, a military combat medic shouldn’t have to take a class on how to dress a wound if he wants to become a nurse. Universities that award credit for previous learning, do so for the most part, at the course level. You either know all the material or you don’t get credit for any of it. A bookkeeper, for example, might have the know-how to pass part of an introductory accounting course, but not all of it. She might know debits and credits but not Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. Universities could help by finding ways to give her credit for what she knows even if that knowledge doesn’t fit neatly into their predetermined buckets. Additionally, employers could assess and track the education they provide, making it much more likely that employees can obtain credit for it at a university.
  • Pacing: The pace at which adults can complete their education is widely variable among people and also over time for individual students. Yet, most universities offer courses in chunks that require a minimum of 15 hours of work per week. And, to obtain Federal Financial Aid requires at least a half-time load. Students would be much better off with time off work, perhaps as an apprentice, to study or a reduced and/or variable credit load to help juggle all of the demands put upon them.
    In addition to the obvious challenge of balancing funding with pacing, students have preferences that affect their chance of success because of personality and life circumstances.
  • Schedule preference: Some students like predictability and routine in a schedule; others want to modify their schedule to accommodate life changes as they occur. For example, they may want to spend less time on school in the summer when their children are home. Or they may need a week a month away from school when their work requires more attention, perhaps because regular reports are due.
  • Remediation: When students fail a course because they were compelled to drop it before completing a term, they should be able to earn credit for what they successfully completed and only retake the portion(s) left.
  • Learning preference: Some students want to put the instructor in the driver’s seat, while others want to drive themselves. Some students can go faster than the average and some need more time. Universities and employers can both work to accommodate these variable pacing needs.
  • Job readiness: Most universities are confident, and rightfully so, that graduates have the knowledge for which they have been given credit. The question is, “Do they have the competencies that employers are looking for?” It’s hard to find out. We regularly ask employers to evaluate our graduates, but the response rate is fairly low so we encourage greater participation and suggestions for making it better. With teamwork, we can optimize workplace readiness for our graduates.

For some employers, it might be better to know that a student has succeeded at a curriculum that is tailored specifically to the employer’s organization or that the employer was directly involved in creating. Universities could work to be ready to provide those opportunities and employers need to be willing to support the effort required to make that endeavor successful.

In addition, employers can provide clinical experiences and internships and participate in apprenticeship programs. And they can ensure that the training they offer is stackable to the credentials employees need.

Beyond job competencies, employers expect mastery of soft skills. Everyone wants employees who know how to work in a professional environment, show leadership, work well in teams, are comfortable in a diverse workforce, can communicate effectively and can think critically. Universities could teach these skills and assess students, not once, but many times over their tenure in school as these skills take time to master. In addition, the assessments must be trustworthy. Universities and employers could work together to arrive, not just at the competencies and soft skills that are necessary for success, but at how they will be assessed so those assessments have currency in the marketplace.


Read: 21 ideas for campus career center services and student career development


A university degree that has value in the workplace and subsequent licensure or credentialing is just the beginning of learning. Today, the work-related knowledge a college graduate acquires is expected to have a shelf life of fewer than five years. I certainly know that the Cobol skills I took with me to my first job haven’t been worth anything for a long, long time, but five years is pretty short. Universities and employers share the responsibility for ensuring that there is a way for employees to continue their education and get credit for it so they can stack all their learning to higher credentials as warranted. Let’s work together to get that job done.

Betty Vandenbosch is the chancellor of Purdue University Global.