Universities can do more to strengthen the “Last Mile” connection with employers…

by Rick Rattray

We’ve been hearing murmurings for years; employers increasingly view the bachelor’s degree as an imperfect “signal” of graduate career potential, and as a result, are exploring other alternative ways of assessing new hire potential before they hire.  What seems to be different more recently is the variety and popularity of alternatives popping up.  These alternatives threaten to write universities into a “bit part” in the education-to-career continuum.

How’d we get here?

Universities have long been the leading arbiter of what constitutes learning and knowledge attainment, but what actually happens inside a degree program can be opaque to outsiders, with trends like grade inflation making things worse. Further, educator responsibility for their students has historically ended at graduation.  This has created a gap for employers that want more insights into what they’re really getting.  While students may be well-prepared for employment, their credentials often don’t help employers to distinguish potential high performers from potential poor performers in the hiring process.

It has been said that higher education prepares you for your “fifth job;”
Gainful Employment being what it is, what can Universities do to help with the first four jobs, as well?

This question is being grappled with by educators at universities across the country.  But systemic challenges may be preventing many schools from truly transforming their approach institution-wide to address both the realities and the corporate (and student) perceptions of this growing gap.  And thanks to over $6B in investments in global EdTech companies in 2015 alone, new competitors are coming up with all sorts of alternatives that can box universities out of the equation in important ways.  For universities, the problem is reaching a tipping point.

Assessing Students for the “Last Mile”

Strengthening employer ties across the university is one way to mitigate this trend.  

Universities are extremely adept at assessment, and yet they’re not always “in sync” with the employers that are hiring their graduates.  Students aren’t hired, but not always because the students actually lack the needed skills, but sometimes because the assessments don’t provide transparent proof of competency to the employers seeking to identify these necessary skills.  When this happens, employers pass on the fresh college grad and move on to someone with prior experience and a “track record.”

At three different companies I led where we hired many recent college graduates, we instituted candidate screening processes for, among other things, critical thinking skills.  Critical reasoning is one of the great intended outcomes of a liberal western education; all of our candidates had 4-year degrees, but our experiences told us that their degrees were no guarantee that they could help us “think” in the face of uncertainty, innovate, develop new tools/products, etc.  We wanted to know how our new potential hires would perform on-the-job, but we didn’t trust the measures they’d been held to previously.   Could they approach a problem logically to reason through it and at least isolate what needed attention?  Could they communicate concisely?  

My companies were hardly unique in wanting to know these things and not trusting the possession of a degree alone as a clear indicator of attainment: pre-hire assessments of all stripes are common and are seen by employers increasingly as clearer “signals” of employee capabilities than a 4-year degree.  The use of assessments in corporate America has grown tremendously:

A 2014 report by business intelligence firm Aberdeen Group showed nearly 60 percent of employers use a formal hiring assessment. Moreover, research and advisory firm Bersin by Deloitte estimates that the assessment industry has grown 30 to 40 percent in the past five years. Some estimate its revenue nearly $800 million.

If universities are to remain relevant amongst growing competition from LinkedIn, Coursera, Udacity, General Assemb.ly, HireArt, and many other players seeking to solve competency development and assessment issues, they have to embrace and bridge this “last mile” between education and hiring.  Fortunately, they are well-placed to serve the needs of student and employer, and they have already been doing it at some level.  

In fact, a recent WSJ article highlighted work by schools like Macomb Community College, which is building closer connections with employers of just this sort.  Macomb takes the time to analyze job requirements at their closest corporate connections.  They then connect learning outcomes/desired competencies with job requirements and work hard to ensure students match those needs.   

Some schools are getting creative at addressing BOTH “first job” and “fifth job” competencies by:

  1. Identifying skills important to hiring companies through closer working relationships
  2. Reviewing required job skills in job postings
  3. Training and assessing their students on these skills to ensure proficiency 
  4. Making those assessments rigorous and transparent to build trust in the quality and nature of the assessments among hiring companies.

Conditions which have made Higher Education the arbiter of advanced learning for centuries are changing.  Signs of this include: Gainful Employment (the DoE holding universities accountable to placement rates of graduates); growing complaints of the value of higher education and the ROI; the emergence of coding and other “bootcamps;” corporate concerns about underprepared college graduates in their workforce; and firms like Ernst & Young which no longer require college education of their new hires.   All these points to increased competition for universities.  

My own firm works with universities and education providers to strengthen their corporate ties in these and other ways, and its clear to us that universities are still positioned to develop “fifth job” capability AND “first job” skill attainment for students.  But universities have to take ownership of the post-graduation stages of the process – including rigorous assessment of critical job competencies – to ensure better student and employer hiring outcomes.   And there’s no time to lose…