During the past decade, the public has grown increasingly skeptical of the value of a post-secondary degree.

Rising tuition costs and job opportunities in the labor market have only exacerbated enrollment and financial challenges for higher education. In many US cities, wages for new hires have gone up across the board with an average eight percent increase, a record high. Moreover, a growing number of companies no longer require a bachelor’s degree, favoring skills-based hiring to widen the talent pool.

How can universities better position themselves to respond to an increasingly skeptical public more effectively about the value of a university degree? One key may lie in how academia and industry can better collaborate to ensure early-career talent has the necessary skills to succeed.   

Recent research from Gallup indicates that 83 percent of former students are far more likely to believe education was worth the cost when their institution did an excellent job providing meaningful support for career readiness. Conversely, only 17 percent thought education was worth the cost when college did a poor job of providing significant support.

So, how does industry best provide meaningful guidance to support careers?

By adopting a handful of best practices – including agreement about what career readiness entails, using labor market data, increasing academic and industry collaboration and refocusing their recruitment efforts – employers can effectively partner with educators to fill the talent pipeline and better support students' career goals.

Align on common skills to fill gaps

One reason for today’s skills gaps is that universities and employers tend to assess students’ career readiness differently.

According to data collected by Gallup, 95% of chief academic officers said their institutions are very or somewhat effective in preparing their graduates for the workforce. Meanwhile, only 11% of business leaders strongly agreed that recent graduates are equipped with the skills needed for their business.

Why the disconnect? One primary reason is that career readiness touches on several factors, from the broader competencies needed to succeed in the workplace to the narrower skills outlined in job descriptions.

And while those core competencies – such as communication, teamwork, professionalism and critical thinking – are indispensable, employers also place a high value on the technical skills needed to perform particular job functions.

The skills gap ultimately boils down to the difficulty of keeping pace with today’s rapidly evolving marketplace. Looking at the top quartile of jobs, 76% of the top 20 requested skills have changed since 2016. And one in five IT jobs didn’t exist five years ago.

Another reason is that employers and universities are out of sync with each other. In other words, they do not speak the same language regarding the necessary skills early career learners should have upon entering the labor market. 

So, what can be done to end the disconnect?

Use labor market data to make strategic decisions

Keeping tabs on up-to-date labor market data is an integral step. Perhaps nowhere is the skills gap more apparent than in the analytics field. Recent labor market data from Lightcast shows that in an average month, there is approximately one hire for every two unique job postings for marketing specialists and market research analysts.

We don’t need labor market data to convince us that demand is outpacing supply in the workforce – but the more detailed we are with our analysis of the market and individual industries, the more prepared we are to respond effectively.

By zeroing in on data for specific industries, employers can compare their job postings to the talent pool and postings from other employers. Then, as needed, they can adjust job titles and requirements to better align with the overall market. 

Labor market data can also help educators and career services staff pinpoint the most in-demand skills in fields corresponding to their academic departments and majors. This data allows for more robust career guidance, targeting top industry partners and developing relevant programming and curriculum.

Strengthen partnerships with colleges and universities

Employers interested in developing in-demand skills can become involved with local colleges and universities. The opportunities are endless and many are easy to achieve. Some ideas include communicating regularly and directly with faculty to share job postings and the most in-demand skills, offering data and questions for course projects to provide real-world applications, hiring interns and connecting with student professional societies on campus.

And for already-involved employers wanting to level up their engagement, they might consider providing guest lectures, participating on advisory boards, conducting collaborative research with faculty, supporting capstone projects, hosting business case competitions and planning events on campus.

For example, Vijayan Sugumaran, chair of the Department of Decision and Information Sciences at Oakland University (MI), partners with major employers in the automotive industry, such as Fiat and Chrysler, to help ensure that in-demand analytics skills are taught. By building connections with industry partners and learning what employers value, Oakland University is better able to meet the needs of the business community and provide a competitive advantage to its students.

To reap the most benefits, employers can prioritize industry advisory board engagement. Not only will employers increase opportunities to shape the curriculum around their hiring needs, but they can network with other companies to gain better insight into trending regional and national workforce needs to build stronger connections.

These partnerships can help colleges and universities develop valuable opportunities for students, enhance professional development and stay abreast of the latest industry trends – which benefits employers in the long run.

Accessing and developing top talent

Additionally, employers can support career readiness by participating in professional development events for students and actively integrating skills development into new-hire training. By fortifying recruitment efforts, companies can promote themselves to top talent while simultaneously developing the skills most needed.

Developing early identification programs – such as fully-paid formal internships, intense interview preparation, boot camps, externships and pre-employment programs – is another useful strategy.

“Eight in 10 students express at least some interest in such programs and interest is particularly strong among students from underrepresented backgrounds. It’s a great recruitment strategy and it allows companies to give back to their communities and bolster their diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts, too.
- Kayla Woitkowski, Director, SAS Early Career Talent Acquisition

On the institutional side, educators and career services professionals can develop talent and support career readiness by bringing employers to the classroom. By scheduling guest lectures in discipline-specific classes, universities can help students develop in-demand skills and make real-world connections between classrooms and the workplace.

The more employers engage in career-readiness efforts, the more everybody wins.

Questions about this article can be directed to Liz Moran.

This article was co-written by SAS' Liz Moran and Lynn Letukas.


About Author

Liz Moran

Senior Manager of Academic Innovation and Strategy

Liz Moran is Senior Manager of Academic Innovation and Strategy at SAS. She develops strategic plans for building academic-industry collaborations and leads a team of higher education professionals in advancing analytics education and building college-career pathways to improve student success. Liz earned both her undergraduate and master’s degrees from East Carolina University and is a certified Project Management Professional.

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