How Education Can Better Prepare Students for the Workplace
The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has left 14 million Americans without jobs. And yet, amid such unprecedented levels of unemployment, there are still 5.9 million unfilled jobs. This fact speaks to the ways many of our education and training programs have failed to keep up with the skills today’s employers demand.
This challenge existed long before the pandemic. In recent years, record full employment created a tight labor market where nearly 3 in 4 employers said they had a hard time finding graduates with the right kinds of soft skills. Jobs were aplenty, but recent graduates still continued to struggle to find meaningful employment. In February 2020, just a month before the pandemic lockdown began, the underemployment rate for recent college graduates was 41.2 percent.
Employers, institutions, training providers, and students are beginning to realize that the only constant in today’s workplace is change itself. Employers are seeking agile talent that can learn faster than technology evolves. Training providers are trying to align academic programs with new workplace requirements. Students are struggling to decipher which credentials will prepare them to adapt to ever-evolving work demands. While a proliferation of alternate credentials and micro-certificates are beginning to address these questions, there are still major challenges ahead.
The turmoil caused by COVID-19 has created a new sense of urgency around finally solving these problems. The challenge is that the skills needed to succeed are often a moving target. The pandemic has not only led to record unemployment but a shift in the priorities and expectations of employers. Getting everyone back to work will require redesigning the system in three key ways.
Build partnerships to identify needed skills
This is a key first step. For too long, institutions have struggled to adapt to the demands of a changing workforce. That is largely due to a lack of alignment between institutions and employers. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that just one-quarter of working Americans with college experience say they strongly believe that the education they received is relevant to their work and daily life.
Training providers – whether they are higher education institutions, micro-credential providers, or apprenticeship programs – must build rich, ongoing partnerships with the employer community to ensure that their credentials reflect the academic, technical, and soft skills that are required for success in tomorrow’s workplace. While employers often hire on degrees or technical credentials, for instance, they also report that employee success depends more and more on soft skills. It’s up to institutions to work side-by-side with employers to determine what combination of skills and competencies students need most.
They won’t have to do it alone, however. A number of organizations have begun analyzing market data to determine what skills are in high demand. For example, the QA Commons has already identified 8 Essential Employability Qualifications (EEQs). The organization has also partnered with employers and educators to define and test the specific skills, curricula, and assessment techniques that reflect these EEQs.
Clearly communicate with educators
A growing awareness of the skills employers are looking for is of little use if faculty are not part of the conversation. When graduates fail to land a job, many are quick to blame their former professors. But it’s unfair to fault faculty too much when institutions and employers often fail to signal to them what’s happening in the workplace.
Educators at all levels struggle to keep up with the workforce’s rapid pace of change. They might know student success requires a mix of academic, technical, and soft skill competencies, but they have little insight into what that combination should look like or how their work in the classroom should translate into career outcomes.
Faculty must be brought into this discussion and made key collaborators in developing a curriculum that reflects today’s world of work. Communication, on the whole, must improve, with educators and students gaining a deeper shared understanding of what should be taught and how those lessons can connect to students’ lives after graduation.
Allow for accountability – and failure
Among the Essential Employability Qualifications identified by QA Commons, perhaps the most important in today’s volatile environment is adaptability. That particular skill is hard to come by in higher education. After all, adaptability requires trying new things and allowing for failure, and our cautious and slow-moving education system simply does not leave room for this kind of necessary experimentation.
As the number of credentials and their providers continue to grow, we must not be afraid to hold them accountable based on the quality of their programs and outcomes. But we must also build into this system of accountability the space to innovate. We must provide educators with the space to learn, adapt, and – yes – fail. This requires greater data transparency, providing institutions with better insights into what works while providing students and employers with a greater understanding of what programs are successful in bridging the education-work divide.
As the country looks toward recovering from the pandemic’s economic downturn, higher education and other learning programs will play a crucial role. Crafting a recovery that not only gets employees back to work but on track toward meaningful and rewarding careers is a goal within our reach. But first, we must help prepare learners for what the new age of work will look like.
Roberts Jones formally served as the President and CEO of the National Alliance of Business and as the Assistant Secretary of Labor under President Reagan and again under President Bush.