How to address the skills gap between higher ed and employers

Intensified by the pandemic and economic downturn, the higher ed and skills gap debate is missing critical technology-driven insights and cross-departmental collaboration discussion to begin to solve the issues confronting institutions.
By: | December 17, 2020
Getty Images, Thomas BarwickGetty Images, Thomas Barwick

Reviewing any higher education publication today, it is hard not to recognize and empathize with those working at colleges and universities, given all that is on institutional plates. Colleges continue to develop students holistically, while also preparing students for the needs of today’s employers and ever-changing economy amid an ongoing pandemic and declining enrollment.

However, for several years, the ongoing debate between higher ed institutions and employers within the marketplace has centered around the gap in skills and preparation of students entering the workforce. While one could argue that students entering pre-professional programs for medicine, law, nursing and engineering have long had significant conversations about the necessary and required skills for entering those fields, why have we not enacted this same level of scrutiny for any potential occupation and a program’s ability to provide the necessary skills desired by employers?

This debate only intensifies today as a result of the pandemic, the economic downturn and questions about the value of a college degree. While several potential causes contributing to this gap have been identified in conversations within higher education, two essential pieces are currently missing.

When attempting to resolve the debate on this topic, increased collaboration between the academic and student services side of advising must take place along with providing the ability for colleges and universities to identify the specific skills gap between what employers are looking for and what is being provided at institutions within their programs.

There are many tools that can and have been assisting with the overall career planning process from many years. However, a way to unify career exploration and skills identification has been missing from the conversation and is vital for communication and collaboration between the academic and services side of institutions. This missing piece also offers a way to clearly and easily identify the skills that are lacking as students enter the workforce from a given program.

Collaboration is key

If one were to examine a handful of institutions, the advising model is bound to look drastically different among them. One might have professional advising or faculty advising with career services involved with only certain tasks or stages in the overall career exploration and decision process. Students may go to a specific individual or office for advising and to another individual or office for help with deciding on an occupation. With so much riding on the success of each individual student, it is imperative that the two sides of this conversation have a common tool and language to investigate, provide evidence and guide the student toward an appropriate decision.

While there are downfalls too numerous to count with the pandemic, one positive outcome could be the awareness of the need for advising, faculty and career services to collaborate on the success of each student. Prior to the pandemic, schedules were hectic, and to go from one space to another on campus took too much time. However, the pandemic has afforded us the ability to get multiple persons in the room, albeit usually virtually.

This collaboration opportunity between staff, faculty and with the student not only allows everyone involved to have the much-needed conversation about career exploration, but also to guide with a common tool and language to assure that the student and the program fully understand the necessary details of an intended career, the skills required and confirm that they are being addressed within the curriculum.

'While there are downfalls too numerous to count with the pandemic, one positive outcome could be the awareness of the need for advising, faculty & career services to collaborate on the success of each student.'—Op-ed by @AnthologyInc executiveClick To Tweet

Skills and gap analysis

The actual exercise of choosing which skills are developed in a program is an essential key in determining the gap between what is needed by employers versus what is currently being offered. Once the skills have been determined, they can then be compared to market demands. Not only will this identification be fruitful in identifying the gap, but also in aiding institutions with curriculum development and refinement.

The previously stated skills identification exercise does not solely benefit institutional curriculum review and development processes. It is imperative for students and their families, when investigating potential schools for enrollment, to have this important conversation. Determining the strength of an institution’s academic program cannot be limited to whether the institution checks some of the standard checkboxes in the student’s area of interest. The conversation must go deeper to explore whether the institution is meeting the actual skills needs of employers. Of course, a college that is completing this work and having the conversation with prospective students and their families now has a competitive advantage during the recruitment process.

The skills identification and gap analysis will also dramatically benefit current students. Students will have the ability, in consult with their collaborative faculty and staff influencers, to determine whether the institution will meet all the identified skills for a given occupation. If not, some type of supplemental course work either at or outside of the institution can be identified. The true payoff will be when each student can successfully acknowledge and articulate the skills that have been developed as a part of their educational experience when discussing their credentials with a prospective employer.

Technology and data

The final question to answer as a part of this conversation is how can the skills that are desired by employers be identified? Labor market and job posting data contains a good amount of metadata and information that can be utilized to determine what employers are seeking. Compare this information against the skills identified when reviewing programs and courses at the institution and the result is the desired gap analysis. At this point, campus officials and their students would be able to clearly identify what is currently being obtained and can be checked off the list as achieved and then also show missing skills from the program, course or student as it relates to desired skills by employers.

To date, much of the solution development around career exploration and readiness has centered at the beginning of the process through assessments and at the end of the process through portfolio development, resume building, job search and application. However, the new emphasis or addition should now center around the middle portion of this process—focusing on the analysis, achievement and articulation of these valuable skills when participating in conversations and interviews with employers.

In order for institutions to address the need for increased collaboration, skills analysis, identifying the skills gap, reviewing and updating curriculum and enabling students, moving the needle towards truly solving this issue will depend on higher education’s and every institutions’ willingness to address these missing pieces.

Adam Hopkins is a strategic consultant at Anthology.