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Workforce Readiness

How WGU Is Filling the Skills Gap

Western Governors University is known for innovation in pursuit of student success. Its latest initiative takes that out of school and deep into the hiring process.

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Western Governors University has always — from its very beginning — followed its own beat. Students are primarily made up of working professionals. They take competency-based courses online. The school follows a "disaggregated faculty model," in which design faculty develop the courses and assessments, instructional faculty do the teaching and assessment faculty evaluate student submissions for evidence of mastery. Students are paired up at the beginning of their college careers with a mentor (a fourth flavor of faculty) whose job it is to check in via weekly phone calls and help them get over obstacles to success (including at times facilitating breaks from classes to focus on other aspects of their lives).

Tuition is set in six-month increments at rates that look far cheaper than what's charged by other bachelor- and master-granting institutions. And students may accelerate through as many courses as they can handle during that period. As an example, the WGU master of science in information technology is $3,540 per term for tuition, including all the course materials. Almost nine in 10 graduates in the MS IT program finish within 24 months — four terms — of their start date, putting the total cost including fees at around $15,000; that's $20,000 lower than a comparable degree from Arizona State's online program, and it could be less if the student set a faster pace.

Yes, there are downsides to the model. The private, nonprofit school only offers degrees in four high-demand segments: business, health, IT and education. Also, like other institutions of its ilk, the mode of learning — online — doesn't work for everybody. Some students prefer to sit physically in a classroom, being part of a cohort that moves lock-step through a degree program. And in spite of the university's cheery you-can-do-it attitude, some people find it just plain hard to work a job, fulfill family obligations and make time for homework.

But given such limitations, the university could still be counted as a success. Current enrollment stands at about 121,000 students following 60 different degree pathways. Of those who come out the other end holding a new degree — a total of 170,865 by the end of January 2020 — 87 percent are employed in their fields, and 97 percent of employers that work with WGU grads have reported that they were prepared for their jobs. That's a far cry from a much-quoted stat in a 2014 Gallup-Lumina poll where only 34 percent of employers agreed with the statement, "Higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competencies that my business needs."

And if its latest investment pays off, WGU will persist in tracking far above the norm. About a year ago, the university introduced a new (not-so-secret) weapon intended to tighten up its efforts in filling the skills gap. It consists of two components: a tightly structured process for skills mapping (connecting course competencies directly to workforce needs) and a group of dedicated "skills architects" (those doing the mapping).

The Payoff for Skills Mapping

The idea came from WGU Provost and Chief Academic Officer Marni Baker Stein, according to Kacey Thorne, director of the team. "The goal really was to ensure that we had programs that were relevant to students in meeting those needs they have in the workforce," she said, and especially to enable those students to talk about their competencies in a way "that employers understand," even before they've earned their degrees.

For example, when somebody finishes a learning theories course in an education program, that doesn't really tell much to an employer. But the skills mapping behind the scenes enables that student to say, "I took learning theories, and now I can make instructional decisions and select the appropriate instructional strategies for a given audience." Those are the kinds of details that could show up on a job listing. As Skills Architect Samantha Coen suggested, skills "are that currency between higher ed and the workforce. It's not the knowledge; it's what students can do."

Skills mapping also helps the individual colleges create assessments that accurately gauge mastery of a given skill. In turn, students can build their transcripts around skills instead of course names and legitimately use the right keywords on their résumés and cover letters that'll help them get through automated HR screeners.

More broadly, the skills mapping will also pay off by helping the university create what it calls "workforce-relevant products" based on the career intelligence its skills architects gather. As new roles emerge in the areas where WGU delivers education, it can be on the forefront of building new degree programs that fit market needs.

The Basics of a Skills Map

What's a skills map? Thorne described it as a "large database of skills that are aligned to occupations and industry-specific job roles." On the surface, some skills fit into every type of program delivered by WGU. Take the concept of "good communication," the enduring skill every employer wants its new hires to possess. What that looks like varies in the context of different jobs — a nurse versus a software engineer versus an air traffic controller. Good communication, as Thorne pointed out, is "very different when applied in context and [based on] whom they're communicating with, the modes of communication that they are using, the things that they're communicating about."

The challenge, added Skills Architect Racheal Killian, is calibrating the skill appropriately, not being too broad ("communicates with others using best practices") and not being too specific ("communicates technical information to novice audiences without losing meaning"). The skills map work is attempting to find the "sweet spot" for a given skill in a given role and identifying the "proper language for describing that."

That's where industry experts come in. Each of the colleges within WGU has its own advisory board populated with "heavy-hitting professionals in the field," as Coen put it. Skills architects can turn to those individuals and ask them to explain what they mean by "good communication" in their own settings. They also turn to the advisers to understand how critical various skills are, their frequency on the job and level of difficulty, and how they might map back to specific certifications or microcredentials that are important in the given business arena.

Sources of Skills

Besides employer insights, the team also turns to other sources to feed the maw of the skills map. That includes education and academic standards and education certifications and licenses for the various occupations represented in WGU programs.

Then there are job profiles and data. For this the skills architects turn to multiple sources:

Indeed and Burning Glass are both job posting sites that also sell research about what employers are looking for, the skills keywords used in job listings, company and city demand and related data.

The BLS maintains public statistics on every occupation, organized by major groups and fields. It also uses a unique code for every occupation that comes in handy when working with the other sources. For instance, jobs can be searched on O*NET (which is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor) by using BLS occupation codes.

O*NET is a free source for career exploration and job analysis. Its pages include rundowns on the specifics of tasks, skills, knowledge, abilities, work activities and degrees and other credentials typically required for different jobs. It also provides information about the types of interests, work styles and "work values" people in the field frequently possess. As Coen noted, O*NET is a source "we like to look to for writing those discrete skill statements that help inform our outcomes."

Emsi generates real-time labor market analytics. This is where WGU gets a strong sense of the big industries in a given region, what occupations are most in demand and what local employers are specifically stating in their job postings. The site's tools also help the skills architects get more and more specific with skills. They can type in a word, "cybersecurity," and get a list of all the related keywords that show up for that kind of occupation. (Eventually, WGU expects to be able to use the location-specific data to personalize the student learning experience for job skills based on regional needs.)

The key point, said Coen, is to keep the skills map outward-facing and "focused on industry."

"This is a good checkpoint to make sure that we're using the actual language that employers are using and having students be able to communicate what skills they have with their future or current employers," she said. It also ties in nicely with those HR systems that companies use to "sift" through résumés, looking for specific industry language, she added. "If we can get students to use the right keywords, they're that much closer to getting their foot in the door for an interview."

The Job of the Skills Architect

Just like the skills map is more than a one-dimensional list of competencies, the skills architect is more than an instructional designer. Coen said in her role as skills architect she spends more time "reading and speaking with industry experts" than she does working with subject-matter experts in higher education, as she did when employed as an instructional designer first at Saint Leo University and then at WGU.

Unlike the typical academic SME, those industry experts who work with WGU tend to be hiring managers at major organizations who "have the degrees and credentials and knowledge and skills and abilities," but they also possess "that different view of what it's like in the workplace outside of the school environment."

A big part of the skills architect's job is to take what he or she has culled about high-demand skills from industry data and industry experts to the curriculum design team and then "translate what industry is looking for into our educational programs."

Killian emphasized that the skills architects don't develop the curriculum or even steer it. "We're not choosing what the experience looks like. We're saying, 'This is what the industry is telling us,' so [members of the design team] can fine-tune what they're doing to make sure it has the greatest impact."

How Skills Mapping is Done

The skills architecture group is part of a centralized program development organization that intersects with a whole bunch of other units, including career services and the university registrar. The disaggregated faculty model "makes it a little bit easier for us to centralize how we go about skills mapping with a central design team that is working on building that curriculum," noted Thorne. In other words, the entire university works off of a single skills map — which is tricky.

Right now, a lot of the work is done manually. Just as there are multiple layers to every skill being tracked — industry, job role, occupation, region — there's also the problem of keeping the language to describe those elements consistent across the entire database. A two-dimensional approach can't keep up.

As a result, this new unit is struggling on two fronts, said Thorne: The first is keeping the skills map updated and doing it "as dynamically as possible." The second is making sure the alignment work follows the same "cadence" as the program review cycles. "And that just depends on how frequently different programs need to go into that review." As she explained, some content areas are "a bit more stable" than others — accounting, say, compared to cybersecurity, where the job is "literally changing by the minute."

The group is working to build a product that can house all of the data the skills represent, including tagging for quick identification when revisions need to be made. "The tools to manage this sort of thing are emergent," acknowledged Thorne.

Until then, WGU's investment in process and people will continue moving along, crossing the skills gap at a pace that leaves other institutions behind. "Our curriculum already has the foundation rooted in workforce need and industry relevance," said Thorne. "The skills architecture is just allowing for us to translate all of that into the language of skills so that we can help students market themselves better to employers and understand the skills that underlie that relevant curriculum they're engaging in already."

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