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Embracing a Skills-Based Approach for the Future Workforce

Filling gaps in the workforce requires providing employees and learners with the skills they need, which means higher education must offer a variety of educational offerings that provide them.

More people are questioning the value of higher ed based on its return on investment (ROI). To better this ROI, higher ed must work closer with industry to ensure students gain employment once they graduate and have meaningful careers. In this interview, John Woods discusses the increasing importance of adapting to workforce needs, what exactly employers are looking for from their potential employees and the role higher ed plays in bridging the skills gap.

The EvoLLLution (Evo) How have you seen the workforce evolve in recent years, and how should higher education should be taking note?

John Woods (JW): Today, higher education is under greater scrutiny than ever before, and the value of a college degree is in flux. Over the past decade, the percentage of Americans who expressed significant confidence in higher education fell from 57% to 36%, according to Gallup. In tandem with these trends, the workforce is placing growing emphasis on skills over credentials. 

Just last month, the CEOs of two of America’s largest private-sector employers, Walmart and Home Depot, made a public call-to-action for employers to place value on skills above degrees and recognize that workers can develop skills in many different ways. The annual University of Phoenix Career Institute® Career Optimism Index® survey of American workers’ and employers’ outlooks on the state of careers underscores the growing popularity of this perspective. The study finds that 81% of U.S. employers say they care more about workers’ skills than where they went to school. 

In many ways, higher education institutions aren’t evolving fast enough to meet this current moment in the workplace. A skills-based approach to curricula is the way of the future to ensure students are set up for success in the talent marketplace. In addition to the skills they acquire in the classroom, students should be receiving hands-on guidance to understand how to accurately and effectively market the skills they are unlocking along their education journey, so they can jumpstart their desired career path as soon as possible. 

Evo: What are employers looking for when it comes to recent graduates/potential employees?

JW: Our Career Optimism Index research finds that, in the current economic environment, employers are seeking candidates who are not just suitable to fill limited open roles but a perfect match in terms of skill set. However, this has not been an easy ask for hiring managers. In the past year, employers have reported a lack of well-qualified talent as their top challenge to hiring, and half of employers (51%) report that, in the past year, it took one month or more to fill an empty position at their company. 

Interestingly, the index finds that the top skills employers view as the most important for working, in order of priority, are work ethic, teamwork, problem-solving/critical thinking, communication, time management and industry-specific technical skills. This is a valuable element for higher education leaders to consider as they determine degree and certification requirements that can best set students up for success in the labor market.

If employers are stressing soft skills above all else, how does that show up in classroom conversations and instruction? How are university career counselors helping students position these skill sets along with their technical know-how? And how can students tangibly showcase competency in these areas? A degree might be questioned because it’s not obvious it contains. While it used to be enough to show proof of a degree in business, for example, employers now lean toward wanting to know what actual skills have been learned, and they are not as willing to assume what a degree means.

At University of Phoenix, we have mapped skills into the curriculum of 100% of our associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs currently open for enrollment. We lean into skills assessments and badging that reflect both soft and hard skill sets to provide students and workers with a concrete means of sharing their expertise with potential and current employers. 

Evo: What are some challenges institutions face when trying to address the gaps between the workforce and higher education?

JW: Higher education institutions face several challenges in addressing the gaps between the workforce and academia. One of the top areas of focus here is balancing the traditional emphasis on students completing a four-year degree, with the growing need for workers to continuously evolve their skill sets to succeed in today’s rapidly evolving workplaces. In the past, a degree was often the most critical requirement to secure a position in a student’s field of choice, but job market demands have changed.

Given the pace of digital transformation over the past several years, it’s more critical than ever that workers constantly learn and acquire new skills to advance in their careers, beyond what they may have learned in college years or decades before. The Career Optimism Index finds that 74% of workers say they need to continue to learn new skills to stay ahead in their careers, which highlights the need for higher education to prepare students to be lifelong learners who can continually improve and expand their skill sets to remain competitive. The role of higher education institutions also needs to evolve. Moving forward, it will be important that they can serve as a resource for workers and employers beyond the typical undergraduate period. 

Evo: What are some best practices to overcome these obstacles, and what role does collaboration play?

JW: Establishing pathways for collaboration between business and higher education institutions is the best course of action, as we aim to evolve higher ed to better serve as a launching pad for talent development and advancement. The Career Optimism Index indicates formal learning as a key area of interest among workers and employers in advancing careers, although the exact right format for that endeavor is up for debate. 57% of college graduates say they would return to school for another degree and to learn the skills necessary to advance in their career, while 72% of employers believe workers would learn more relevant skills from a microcredential program than a traditional degree program. 

Both points of view are helpful feedback for those of us in higher education, as we look to close the gaps between sectors. It’s impactful to obtain regular insights on topics like learning formats and skills gaps to understand how to best design offerings that effectively drive career advancement in a way that aligns with industry needs today and in the future. It is also important that we meet learners and workers where they are in the ways that they learn best and feel most fulfilled. Establishing relationships with industry experts and employers and having an open dialogue around these topics has been a best practice for effectively guiding our team to develop academic and employer offerings that prepare students and workers at partner organizations for professional success. 

Evo: What trends do you expect to see when it comes to higher education and collaboration with employers to create a talent pipeline that meets workforce needs?

JW: In the coming years, I anticipate we’ll see the relationship between higher education institutions and employers only grow closer. Skepticism among Americans regarding the value of traditional degrees and the growing support among employers to prioritize what workers know, rather than where they learned that knowledge, is a direct challenge to our current system. Higher ed won’t be able to survive long term in its current form, necessitating collaboration with businesses to create ongoing value for prospective students. 

To that effect, and in the spirit of furthering a skills-driven, lifelong learning workplace culture, we may see universities increasingly develop more badging, certificates and microcredential programs being developed in partnership with specific employers. While it has long been an aim for universities to be a bridge between students and employers for internships, apprenticeships and job opportunities, I also hope to see the depth and breadth of those connections and the availability of such experiences grow for students throughout their educational journey as a result of increased collaboration between sectors. 

Overall, I expect higher education programs to become more dynamic, responsive and skills-oriented in nature, as university and business leaders align to ensure the talent pipeline is fortified to fulfill the workforce’s ever-evolving needs. In turn, I hope we see graduates have greater job prospects, employees be happier at their place of work and businesses progress toward stronger outcomes—in addition to an evolved higher education landscape that provides increased value to its stakeholder ecosystem.