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Lessons Learned from Employers to Improve the Learn/Work Ecosystem Part 2: Skills-Based Hiring and Other Innovations

Collaborations with employers are crucial in shaping a learning ecosystem within higher education that effectively equips students with the skills and knowledge needed for a successful transition into the workforce.

The Learn & Work Ecosystem Library interviewed Denise Hartsoch and David Leaser on April 27, 2024, to explore key lessons learned from employers to improve the learn-and-work ecosystem. This two-part series features edited and abridged portions from the interview transcript. Part 2 shares several innovations from employers. Part 1 focused on lessons learned from employers’ use of a human capability framework for talent development.

Holly: We’re hearing about a range of innovations employers are engaged in—including promulgating a skills-based agenda, hiring for skills, and working with higher education institutions and others to develop Learning and Employment Records (LERs). But we also hear that employers are not jumping in quite so fast in these areas of innovation. What are you seeing in your work with employers? Where do we need more work?

Denise: Professional apprenticeships are an area we need to grow. Apprenticeship programs are a good fit for a lot of people who can't afford college or for whom the college environment isn't a good fit. As a country, we've neglected professional apprenticeships—though we’re trying to catch up, there's a lot of potential to expand—and not just to skilled trades and other alternative paths. For example, there are 500,000 cybersecurity job openings in the United States alone. Not having those filled is a problem, not just for the companies that have those openings, but for society, too; it's affecting national security. The fastest way to get people into those jobs is through a professional apprenticeship program.

As far as the “skills-first” initiatives, a lot of people are trying to figure out how to make this work. It's complicated, and we can't even figure out how to settle on the same terminology. Some approaches in this area are relying on AI. This is helpful in terms of being able to see things that you typically wouldn't see, but AI systems need good data. If you're using bad data to make inferences, that’s problematic. Why aren’t organizations implementing skills first? I think it comes down to fear. They don't know how to do it; they don't understand it. It's complicated, and it requires a shift in the organization that they maybe don't have a corporate sponsor to do it. They're afraid it's going to fail, they're afraid they're going to get sued.

Another issue is when the economy downturns and belts tighten in an organization. Almost always HR is the first unit to go. They start cutting staff, and that means you start to decentralize some of the functions that HR used to do. You may have pockets of people trying to do things, but you don't have a cohesive solution for the whole organization. I talked with a large company recently and they have 25 different frameworks just inside their company. How do you get your systems to work together if you have 25 different frameworks? To have a system that works, you need a cohesive language and cohesive systems that work together organization-wide. That propels an organization forward. Each person doing their own thing and doing it in a different way just creates chaos. Decentralization is great for certain things, but not for creating organization-wide change.

I think decreasing the size and function of HR and fear are the two of the biggest factors in skills-based hiring developments. If we can get over those hurdles, there's a lot of potential. And you need to have innovators in HR, not just paper pushers. When they are strategic, HR leaders will have a voice in the C-Suite.

Holly: I’ve always thought of employers as an important lever for change in the learn-and-work ecosystem. That's why I think we need to pay more attention to what employers are doing or thinking and bring that into our considerations more.

David: It's what this is all in service of, right? Who's the consumer of all this? It's employers. It’s ultimately about getting a job, keeping a job, and getting a better job.

Denise: But there's a disconnect between education and workforce. Workforce is saying: “The educators aren't producing what we need, and they're not producing it fast enough. A lot of skills are out of date by the time job candidates come to us. It takes four years to create candidates, and many of our work cycles change every three months.” So there's a lot of disconnect. We’re seeing some really innovative schools who are working with employers and creating employer consortiums and asking, “What is it that you need? How can we help you fill it? Can we start issuing credentials before a degree so that we can start filling things sooner? Because not every role needs a four-year degree, but we can help you with that too. Even though we're a university focused on four-year degrees, we can help you start filling the need because the need is so great.”

The nice thing about employer consortiums is that the schools are able to develop what the employers need. Now we can create a loop of conversation and communication to make sure we're producing what they need because the employers are the consumer of our “product.” So how do we do that? A lot of the innovative institutions tend to be community colleges who tend to have less red tape than a university. But there are many people trying to crack that nut of how to create a partnership with employers to make sure we're meeting their needs.

Matthew: When that question came up at the Colorado higher ed conference I recently attended, there was a panel of employers who said they work a lot with the career centers at colleges and universities to explain what kind of workforce they need colleges to be producing. But they felt that those workforce centers or career centers were often siloed off. They communicated with the employer world, but they didn't really then transmit that information to the rest of the college departments. They saw some sort of internal disconnect in the communication process between the faculty who are developing the degree programs and the career centers who actually know what employers are expecting.

Denise: It's a big issue. The career centers are underfunded, understaffed, and underutilized in schools. They should be the focus—because that is what higher ed is producing: People who need to go into the workforce. Why are they not paying attention to make sure people are employable and ready and in the right career? If you want people to stay in your community, you need to know what jobs are needed in the community. You need to help people prepare for those jobs and fill them so employers don't have to go outside the community to hire. But the college-based career centers typically are not set up to provide as much value as they could. That’s a shame because that should be where the focus ultimately is.

David: One of the last things I did at IBM before I moved to my role at the Digital Badge Academy was performing benchmarking to ask units within the company how they were doing in particular areas. At first they said, “We're doing fine, don’t bug us”—in part because there was no real objective way to qualify what they were doing. So we put together a benchmark with the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA), which works with companies like IBM, Cisco, Oracle, and Microsoft. They all work with TSIA and do benchmarks with them. We decided to create our own benchmark. We identified a number of different categories we needed to find out about, went to the various units and interviewed them or asked them to rate themselves. We gave them a scale of 1-5, and provided rubrics within the categories. For example, we asked: “How are you doing with your alignment?” They would rate factors such as “We’re able to launch these things and we're able to have it reviewed by the offering management team.” We asked: “What are you doing with your intellectual property? Are you storing it on a local hard drive, which is level 1, or are you sharing it with others, which is level 5?” The bottom line was we found a way to look at each one of these different groups and give them a score so they could see where they were on various factors.

And guess what happened? We took all these different groups and produced a summary. And on the quarterly reviews, people were asking: “What's my score? How do I improve my score?”

Now they know specifically what to focus on. We could show them, “You got a 44. You have a real problem with offering alignment, so let’s figure that out. What does “good” look like for offering alignment?” And we already had a rubric for what it looks like.

Holly: This is what we need to measure to know if the needle is moving around innovations in the learn-and-work ecosystem. For example, we have a pretty good idea that there are some 20 needed features to do incremental credentialing, but we don’t know if the needle is moving in those areas. We need a tool to help us measure—sort of the “Fitbit” for credentialing innovation, you might say. And we want to have examples of who is really making this work so others know it is possible.

Denise: This is needed; we need to distill information down to make it relatable and digestible. I think it's important to focus on what they're going to get out the change approaches instead of how to get there—because how to get there sounds complicated.

David: People want to know what's in it for them. It’s one of the first questions they ask. What employers are learning is very relevant for innovations in state policy, in higher education institutions, and other groups.

Holly: It’s interesting to see that you've already done that in an industry, and it seems so relevant to determining the extent of change in the broader learn-and-work ecosystem.

David: The thing is, it worked. Not only did it show people where they're at, but it surfaced the whole fear of missing out—the FOMO. When they saw the dashboard and they saw where they're at, it raised their fear of missing out on the charts. It goes right to what's in it for them. The fear of missing out or losing something is more important than the fear of gaining something. The research literature in the marketing field informs us that telling people they will lose something is a more effective motivator than telling them what they will gain. People don't like to lose.

Holly: We should think about that more in higher education. Maybe an institution doesn’t have to make changes right now, but if they don’t make changes longer term, they may lose out. Neighboring institutions are going to make changes, and they're not.

Denise: Yes, they may start seeing all the young people in their geolocation leaving because they can't get jobs in their area because the college is single-mindedly focused on degrees.

Matthew: That's a tech organization I'm a part of here in Colorado. It's focused on trying to prevent the brain drain to the metro area of Denver and bring some remote jobs and firms to open offices at these co-working spaces in the rural communities just to keep some of the talent from leaving. It's a real problem in smaller and rural communities; so many are leaving.

Holly: As we close this conversation, are there final insights we could learn from employer changes underway or on the drawing board?

David: The one I think about is the massive shift away from the idea of jobs or careers to jobs and tasks. I think Josh Bersin (see Josh Bersin Academy—focusing on professional development for HR professionals) describes it nicely. He says we’re moving from the idea of a career to a job to a task because things are changing so quickly. Deloitte just did a study that showed how many people are doing things in the company that are outside their actual job. Something like 71 percent of people are doing things not within their actual job. This change in how we’re viewing careers and preparing for them is going to be impacting us all in major ways.

Holly: Really interesting because we keep using the word “career”—as in preparing for lifelong education and career journeys. What will we say in the future? Preparing you for lifelong education and job tasks?

David: Career may not be a good word going forward. Now it's getting down to: “What’s the job to be done to move forward?”

Matthew: There's a lot more employee mobility now, too. The whole model of getting with a company and sticking it out till you get your 50-year retirement plan—people don't have company loyalty as employees. They chase the opportunities and take those skills with them.

Denise: In addition to the topics we’ve already talked about, we expect to see more attention to skills-based hiring. We are all going to be focusing more on skills. That’s a given. 

Holly: Thank you for such an interesting discussion. Instead of the metaphor “pushing the envelope” for change, maybe a newer metaphor should be “pushing the clouds.” Topics to understand better:

  • Using Human Capability Frameworks in developing and using assessment tools to expand talent pools.
  • The importance of personality attributes/assessments for company reorganization.
  • Greater need for apprenticeships in all job areas.
  • The use of skills clouds.
  • The importance of employer consortiums.
  • Raising the profile of campus-based career centers and improving their effectiveness.
  • Assessing progress through benchmarking by organizational units to inform professional development ( “Fitbit” testing for organizations and initiatives).
  • Transitioning from career, to job, to skills and tasks.