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Workforce Readiness

5 Ways to Marry Higher Ed to Work

As colleges reinvent themselves for post-pandemic learning, they need to collaborate more closely with industry. That's the bottom line from a new report issued by Presidents Forum, a national nonprofit network made up of leaders from 17 institutions of higher education.

"Transforming Together: Aligning Higher Education with the Changing World of Work" highlighted five recommendations that colleges and universities should undertake to support an economic recovery that's "more inclusive and equitable":

Treat employers as customers.This will require more than "just soliciting advice and feedback through advisory councils and one-off meetings," the report noted. The relationships with employers need to be deeper, more supportive and "reciprocal rather than transactional." Some of the better examples of these relationships are those managed through intermediaries, such as nonprofits. For instance, Howard University is one of many institutions to engage with in developing an open source computer science education curriculum that meshes with the needs of tech giants such as Uber and Facebook, thereby helping CS students land jobs with prestigious employers.

Move beyond the idea of the bachelor degree as the end-all.That includes supporting the use of upskilling programs, one-off online courses and certificate programs. As the report explained, "Institutions must focus on pathways that offer on- and off-ramps, allowing learners to earn short-term credentials that lead to workforce outcomes." One example offered was the "certificate first" program that has helped to boost student retention at BYU-Pathway Worldwide by 20 percent.

Link coursework with competences.Institutions will need to combine a "focus on preparing students with employability skills that will resonate throughout their careers as well as creating short-term credentials that focus on in-demand skills." This goes two ways, the report observed. Wake Technical Community College has redesigned its math pathways to help students understand how the mastery of specific math concepts will be used in their current and future jobs.

Develop a "shared vocabulary of skills" that can be used by employers and peer institutions. That's a job that's being undertaken at the Open Skills Network, a new initiative to build an open common language around employer-validated skills, co-founded by Western Governors University.

Design for equity and inclusion.This recommendation is intended to narrow the skills gaps that disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color. Among the important ingredients are schedules and support services that meet the needs of those learners as well as mentoring and career coaching.

"To make good on higher education's promise of social and economic mobility, colleges must find new ways to match the demands of an increasingly complex economy and labor market," said Kate Smith, president of Rio Salado College and a member of the network, in a statement. "As the jobs we do and the way that we do them change faster than ever, collaboration with employers requires a new level of creativity, entrepreneurship, and agility from institutions, if they are to equip students with in-demand skills that are tightly linked to the needs of the broader economy."

"During this chapter of enormous economic uncertainty for colleges, students and the country, a focus on workforce relevance is paramount for institutions of higher education," added Jim Manning, executive director of the Presidents Forum. "This report offers vivid and powerful examples of how leading-edge institutions are developing stronger and more explicit connections among academic experiences and credentials and economic opportunity."

The report is openly available on the Presidents Forum website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.

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