Published on 2013/10/07

Bridging the Gap between Academies and Employers

AUDIO | Bridging the Gap between Academies and Employers
By creating better links between higher education institutions and employers, leaders on both sides can better understand the priorities of their counterparts and work together to create a more cohesive system of ongoing learning.

The following interview is with Max Blouw, president of Wilfrid Laurier University. Blouw recently wrote an editorial in the Globe and Mail discussing the role of higher education institutions when it comes to workforce development, and shedding light on the specific priorities of postsecondary institutions compared to those of employers when it comes to priorities in undergraduate education. In this interview, Blouw expands on those ideas and shares his thoughts on the ideal relationship between colleges and universities and employers.

1. You mentioned in your column that universities should not be “in the business of producing ‘plug and play’ graduates” tailored for the workforce, but point out employers typically call for universities to produce ‘work ready’ graduates. What is at the root of this seemingly fundamental misunderstanding of the priorities of universities and employers?

I’m not sure I can be entirely definitive; it’s a matter of opinion. But I think a few factors are at play.

First, the economy: it’s tightening and, of course, resources are scarce. So, cost controls within the business community are increasingly important and with a view to lowering expenditures, I suspect some employers are asking themselves the question, “Can we get very specifically-skilled workers from the university sector, rather than generically-educated people?” So, I suspect that’s one side of it.

A second factor that may be at play is the downside of the cost of educating or training a worker and then having those trained employees move on. And I suspect some employers are asking themselves, “With all that investment that I make in that employee, wouldn’t it be better if the universities were doing it rather than me if workers do move on?”

And, on the flip side of that, I think the universities see their mission as an educational mission and not a job training mission. Now, that’s not a black-and-white situation; I think virtually every university would articulate and recognize that part of the role of education is to help people to be more work ready than they were before they joined the university. But the education is really more generic, and the specific skills for the job, I think, universities see as being the employer’s responsibility.

2. How is the support of graduates’ broad intellectual and personal development — the role you feel universities should be playing — valuable to employers and the workforce?

Well, I believe most employers are very interested in the mid-range, long-range success of their organizations which require really creative, questioning and engaged employees who bring innovation at capacity to think about the business or the activities of the employer differently, to bring analysis, to bring questioning — all of those generic skills are part of the university education.

Those are the same attributes that help employees to be, I believe, greater contributors to the long-term success of their employers. There are many immediate job-ready skills that employers, I think, would like to see so that they don’t have to invest in it. But if those investments are made at the expense of the generic, much deeper, I think, value of having creative questioning [and] imaginative, analytical employees, I think there’s a saw-off there and I encourage employers to think about the medium-term, the long-term, as opposed to the short-term, immediate training and costs that they might have.

3. Increasing numbers of higher education institutions are seeing a great deal of potential in the corporate training marketplace. How might increased participation in this market change employer perceptions of undergraduate certifications?

I believe increasing awareness and communication between universities and employers will undoubtedly heighten the understanding of how each sees the role and the constraints of the other.

Corporate training, I believe, is an excellent way to reach beyond the traditional roles of the university and the employer to set up clear expectations and mutually-defined outcomes so both the employer and the university understand: what’s required, who’s going to pay, what are the learning outcomes that are desired, how does the learning relate to the objectives of the employer and how does the learning add to the value of the employee to the employer?

It’s a great way, I believe, to enhance, as I said earlier, general communication, establish clear expectations and to move forward in the mutual understanding of the relationship that is really productive of the employers and universities.

4. What are some other strategies higher education leaders could pursue to ensure employers fully understand the role of higher education institutions when it comes to workforce development?

I think of my own situation and I believe it’s very important that university leaders — university personnel in general — communicate as much as possible, not only with the employer community but more widely.

The way I do that, particularly with respect to employers, is to take many opportunities to, for example, speak to the chamber of commerce in the community in which way universities are situated to be part of economic development strategies, where clearly universities have huge roles in economic development and community building and the competitiveness of their regions. A lot of employers and university leaders get together in those contexts and really talk about their relative roles. I have people from the employer community on my advisory groups.

There any many, many opportunities for consultation, for strategic discussion between employers and universities and, I think, if university leaders and university personnel participate and are open to hearing the needs of employers to think creatively about, “How do we not depart too far from our educational mission but remain very responsive within that mission to the needs of employers?”, I think, we’ll go a long way to serving the needs of our broader society.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the ideal relationship between universities and employers, and how both parties can come together to make sure their expectations are better understood?

Well, I think at the root of it is what I’ve just talked about, which is really open, clear communication engagement between employer, communities and university community, and having universities understand the needs of employers and the very clear cost pressures they’re under. And, at the same time, having employers understand the deep value, the long-term value, of having highly creative, questioning, engaged employees — the kind of qualities the university education provides.

I really do think the key is communication, engagement, mutual understanding, defining clear expectations and ensuring that it’s not a black-and-white world where universities are doing one thing and one thing only — being unresponsive — and employers becoming agitated about that. I believe there’s a wonderful synergy that can develop there.

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Readers Comments

John G. Karmen 2013/10/07 at 6:41 am

Despite “collaboration” being thrown around as a buzzword, it sounds like universities and employers are still better at talking at, rather than talking to, each other. They should be able to identify common objectives and come to a consensus on what their various roles are in regards to educating and training students.

Ian Richardson 2013/10/07 at 9:18 am

I think this is where the government — as the primary funder of higher education, in many cases — could play a role in getting all of the partners at the table to develop a blueprint for moving forward.

These conversations that result in the division of labour need to happen to ensure each stakeholder is responsible for the function it’s best at; for universities, that might mean focusing on delivering broad-based curricula instead of job training.

Francis Beyer 2013/10/07 at 12:34 pm

I agree with Blouw that universities’ primary responsibility shouldn’t be workforce development. Previously, pursuing postsecondary education meant exclusively a liberal arts education — and this is still true, to some extent, at the most elite schools — because universities were expected to teach broad skills such as critical thinking, analysis and communication.

Now, institutions are being asked to prepare students for specific jobs. The danger is that students are now receiving a narrow education that may serve them well in the short term, but will lead to learning gaps in the long term. If students aren’t receiving broad-based education during their undergraduate years, it’s unlikely there will be another time in their lives when they’re exposed to this style of teaching and learning. I fear we are headed toward that scenario.

Madison Riley 2013/10/08 at 8:55 am

Blouw’s opinions skew to the middle class and those who can afford education for the sake of it.

The reality is we’re in a climate of precarious work, underemployment of skilled immigrants and severe youth unemployment. With this in mind, it’s unrealistic to expect employers to take the lead in training employees when the latter experience such high turnovers. I’m not saying this is right, because I think employers should invest in employees, but this is the reality in which we’re operating.

If universities aren’t willing to perform both the broad-based education and job training functions, there’s nobody to pick up the mantle. It is certainly worth discussing if this is the route we wish to go down but, for the time being, universities should take on the responsibility of workforce development, and they should do so with some urgency, for the sake of the poor, the young, the newcomers — the most vulnerable in society.

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