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17th Mar 2014

Is employer engagement in education the next source of competitive advantage?

We have seen a number of reports recently on the significant skills gaps in labour markets around the world, and on correspondingly high levels of youth unemployment. ICEF Monitor’s recent coverage of market trends in France and India are only two notable examples of these important trends. Many countries look to their education systems - or to education opportunities abroad - to help close these skills gaps and boost employment rates. This has in turn opened the door to new thinking and new developments with respect to linkages between employers and education institutions. Such linkages, whether in the form of apprenticeships, internships, mentoring programmes, or otherwise, are increasingly seen as important steps in boosting the employability of graduates and closing persistent skills gaps in the labour market. A recent item in The Telegraph highlights a growing body of research as to the importance of school-employer engagement but notes:

“Increasingly young people are being left to their own devices to find work experience placements – in part to give a more realistic experience of job hunting, but also because of cuts to funding, brokerage and expert support to schools for work experience and careers activities.”

The article, written by the Anne Thompson of the UK’s CfBT Education Trust, goes on to point out that, “Schools need to do more to prepare students broadly for work including assisting with finding ‘stretching’ work experience opportunities…[R]esearch demonstrates that the more employer engagement activities young people are exposed to, the better, in terms of enhancing the school-to-work transition.” CfBT Education Trust has itself released a research report on the issue of employer engagement. The report is based on an extensive literature review, several hundred interviews with teaching staff, and a series of focus groups with educators and students. The CfBT report makes a compelling case for the need for schools and institutions to connect with employers and to offer a broader range of employer engagement supports to students:

“As survey data clearly shows, approaches which combine careers exploration, hands-on learning experiences and first-hand experience of working environments are likely to optimise outcomes.”

Another recent survey, this time from Bentley University in the US, echoes many of the points from the CfBT study in exploring the extent to which graduates are prepared for work. As the following slide deck illustrates, the Bentley study explores workplace preparedness from a variety of points of view, including employers, educators, students, and parents. It finds that 94% of survey respondents agree that “college learning must incorporate and blend together academics and hands-on learning.”

PreparedU Project: Millennials in the Workplace Infographic Storybook from Bentley University.

Competency-based learning

As Inside Higher Ed reports

, Bentley’s research in the field is part of a broader package of employer engagement and workplace preparedness issues at the university. And there is a strong business case for these expanded services, as the same Inside Higher Ed report points out:

“While three-quarters of college students ‘are confident’ that simply having a degree is a sign of preparedness to enter the workforce, only 62% of business decision-makers agree. And almost two-thirds of business leaders said recent grads harm their day-to-day productivity because their new hires are not well-prepared.”

Universities and colleges have long offered co-op programmes or other work experience or industry placements as part of their programmes. The point that comes through in some of the recent research we’ve surveyed here is that more needs to be done. More to the point, and as has also been amply demonstrated in recent reports regarding employability of graduates and major labour market skills gaps, there is a growing case to be made for increased employer engagement as a source of competitive advantage for schools and institutions. At the same time, there are many examples as well of institutions that are expanding their efforts to respond to issues around employability and employer engagement. University World News reported recently on the potential of competency-based degrees - that is, programmes where students earn their degrees through the “demonstration of skills and knowledge in a required subject area through a series of carefully designed assessments… Students take tests, write papers and complete assignments. But rather than focus on seat time or credit hours, degrees are awarded through tangible evidence of learning. Outcomes and assessments are the bookends of competency-based learning.” Institutions offering competency-based programmes, such as the Western Governors University in the US, anticipate that students will pursue multiple paths to degree completion, including online and blended learning, and many observers agree that technology is a major factor in the increasing interest in competency-based approaches. From University World News: “Technology is rendering the traditional semester obsolete, the Khan Academy is preparing a new generation of digital learners and even though the jury is still out on MOOCs, many faculties would agree that MOOCs will play some role in how courses are delivered and how students learn in the future… These educational delivery mechanisms can supplement, not replace, classroom instruction. Competency-based learning has the potential to rethink higher education in terms of efficiency, effectiveness and fairness. This is what the public, legislators and employers are demanding... Students from around the world, and from emerging economies, especially African students, are more likely to embrace alternative educational delivery methods. Competency-based learning has the potential to increase, not shrink, enrolment in the future.” In a more explicit move to integrate the worlds of work and learning, Universities Australia announced last month a new agreement with business groups for a package of initiatives designed to improve the employability of graduates. The agreement will see expanded efforts to provide academic credit for work placements, mentoring and shadowing programmes, and internships. The Australian agreement points to the potential for peak academic and business bodies to collaborate in this area, but also to some of the practical issues in implementing expanded employer engagement programmes. The Conversation recently interviewed Dr Gavin Moodie, a leading education policy expert in the country, who said of the Universities Australia agreement: “Australian universities have long incorporated work experience in some of their programmes, such as medicine, law, and nursing. Over the past decade, they have sought to offer Work Integrated Learning in more programmes to all students who wish to participate. Universities are expanding Work Integrated Learning because they believe it enriches students' learning, it makes graduates more employable, and it responds to employers' wishes. One of the challenges, he said, is finding enough work experience opportunities for students. "This is particularly ironic in view of employers increasingly seeking graduates who are work ready,” he commented. CfBT’s Anne Thompson picked up on this challenge in her article for The Telegraph, noting that some work experience opportunities are a product of social networks and personal connections, and therefore difficult to expand through increased services within schools and institutions. “Law is a good case in point. A significant percentage of Russell Group universities want applicants to have had work experience in a legal setting and yet a third of legal firms surveyed only offer work experience through informal contacts and only 10% ran formal, open competition for placements.” Another issue that rides along with any discussion of graduate employability is the value of the university degree itself. A recent article in The Globe & Mail gives additional weight to the need to add workplace experiences to academic study. “Christine McWebb, director of academic programmes at the University of Waterloo’s Stratford, Ontario campus, said she wouldn’t go so far as to call the degree ‘doomed.’ However, the current separation of disciplines, which she calls a leftover from the Industrial Age, leads to ‘knowledge silos’ and this lack of intersection does ‘an excellent job of preparing students for the 20th century.’

‘A university graduate’s degree only tells part of the story,’ Ms McWebb said, adding that a graduate in one subject may well have taken courses in other fields and participated in other opportunities, such as co-ops, study-abroad programmes and internships."

The same Globe & Mail item points to some of the new requirements or recognition systems that institutions are introducing to enable graduates to accumulate other signs of skills and competencies beyond their university degrees. “Some post-secondary institutions are evolving to capture these additional skill sets, said Ms McWebb, pointing to the University of California, Davis, which developed a digital ‘badge system’ for its interdisciplinary programme in sustainable agriculture. The students earn digital badges or icons, representing their experience and areas of expertise, which they can use on their social media accounts and portfolios. [Meanwhile], the global business and digital arts programme at the University of Waterloo Stratford campus makes maintaining an e-portfolio mandatory for students in the second year and beyond. This online tool allows students to share their projects and assignments with prospective employers.” As these examples illustrate, there is an expanding range of options available to educators in meeting the challenge of greater employer engagement and improved employability for graduates. It seems increasingly clear that the institutions that take up that challenge most substantially and successfully will earn themselves a powerful new advantage in student recruiting as well.

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