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Fixing the Disconnect Between Education and the Workforce

It’s easy for education and experience to become muddled between both students and employers. Institutions have a responsibility in clarifying students’ value to help fill the disconnect between higher ed and the workforce. 

There has been a longstanding challenge in creating a seamless connection between higher ed and the workforce. With unemployment rates at a high right now, it’s critical to smooth this connection and get people back into the workforce—even if they haven’t achieved a full degree yet. There are plenty of skills that students have that will get their foot in the door, and institutions need to help them communicate these skills to potential employers. In this interview, Paul Czarapata and Kris Williams discuss the obstacles between higher ed and the workforce, how middle skills can help fill this gap, and the role institutions can play. 

Paul and Kris will be presenting this topic at the IMS Global Consortium’s Digital Credentials Summit held March 1-4th 2021. To register for the summit, click here.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What would you consider to be some of the most significant obstacles in the way of a clean connection between higher education and the workforce?

Paul Czarapata (PC): So some major technology companies have come to us and said, “Listen, you’ve got to be teaching Amazon Web Services. You’ve got to be teaching Microsoft Azure. You’ve got to be teaching Google Cloud.” But then when you look at the actual job demand in Kentucky, it’s not necessarily always there. And so we’re trying to connect these dots between things like that, and also in my experience, there’s sometimes been disconnects between what a CEO or president will tell us and what their HR department is actually looking for when they search for these candidates. 

Kris Williams (KW): Another disconnect is our students don’t always know the value of what they’ve learned and can’t always explain it to the person that they interview with. You’re in this class because, when you go out and get a job, your employer’s going to want you to be able to do this, to work in a team, to write a coherent white paper, to craft a strong email message, whatever that is. And so I don’t think we always help the student understand the value of the higher education they’re receiving and are then able to interpret that value to the ultimate employer.

Evo: Is that an obstacle that arises in program design, in credential design, or in simply how we communicate with students about the value of a post-secondary education?

KW: Can I be flippant and say yes? I mean, it’s all three. I think that’s why you see the national focus on how we do credential skills, experiences, education in a way makes sense to all parties. How do we help develop our faculty to think outside the classroom? We have many excellent faculty who do that, but not all faculty help the student interpret the classroom to the world outside. And I am not sure that the converse is true either. We don’t always have good conversations with business and industry that say, “Our student is going to come to you with this, but they may use a different vocabulary, but it doesn’t mean that they don’t have the skill.” 

PC: When you look at something like the comprehensive learner record, that IMS has been heavily involved with, the real difficulty is in coming up with some sort of standard set of competencies that everyone will agree upon. And you can imagine that getting business, industry, administration and faculty to all agree on what those competencies are is a challenge. There have to be linkages built between talent management systems, higher education and industry that all kind of speak the same language, so that it’s more of an automated process to connect students with industry.

KW: I don’t know that we’ll ever come to one set of competencies or lexicon or vocabulary, but it also worries me that we may have multiple electronic records that don’t interconnect. If a student gets stuck because a university or a state, chose this one service, and it doesn’t somehow import into another service that they are required to use somewhere else, that puts a big burden on success.

Evo: Could you briefly define what middle skills are and why community colleges are so well-positioned to help students gain them?

KW: To me, middle skills are the foundational skills upon which an employee can build, the skills that allow them to perform at a technician level. There are levels below a nurse–a nurse aide or a licensed practical nurse–but there are many levels above the registered nurse as well. That might be the nurse practitioner, the nurse with a bachelor’s degree who becomes a head charge nurse. There’s just a bunch of different specialties as you move up. So, to me, middle skills are a strong foundation of skills which allow an individual to accomplish quite a bit, but also grow further on the path available to them. 

PC: Admittedly, some of those middle skills are going to be the targets of automation, and we’re going to have to really focus on skating towards the puck instead of standing still and waiting for it to come to us. Kentucky is a really big logistics hub. You’ve got UPS in Louisville. Amazon has a huge distribution center up in northern Kentucky. The multi-million square foot warehouses they’re building aren’t creating  many new jobs because they have robots doing them. And now they’re starting to automate some of the lower-level skills, like loading and unloading, distribution in the warehouse, and depending on how far they get with it, self-driving trucks.

That’s just one industry. If you look at some of the research into radiology right now, and the success rate of artificial intelligence to predict cancers, I mean, it’s up towards 98% and so what’s that going to do to radiologists? There is that place in between high school and a four year degree where there are very good jobs. It’s just you’ve got to pick the right programs and put people in place for success.

Evo: Why is there more of a disconnect for people to recognize the demand for middle skill work and the opportunity that exists for them there?

PC: Part of it’s an image problem. Many think some of these middle skills are dark and dirty places. Even when I was coming out of high school, community college was always seen as the last resort. If you couldn’t get into the university, you go there. Or if you’re in high school or going to the technical centers, they’d always say, “Oh, well, he’s just going to have a name on a shirt the rest of his life.” 

There was some research that came out recently that community college students see the value in their education. I don’t remember the exact percentages, but it was a pretty good clip, better than what university students did. We’ve always been less expensive, but I think there is a stigma there, that maybe we’re not really college.

KW: If you look at media, at the TV shows or movies that portray community colleges, they’re usually more satirical or the college is dumbed down in some way. But I also see the positive influence of media. For example, when CSI came on, all of a sudden everybody wanted to be this kind of forensic scientist. 

But students don’t always know what it takes to get there. And some of that is because so many of our students are first time college students. They don’t necessarily have someone in their home who has had that experience, who can be that role model for them in some way. 

So we need to do a better job of really speaking to the value of community college. And that all college helps a person gain in their profession, earn more money across their lifetime, whether they want to be a phlebotomist or a welder or a journalist or a nurse. They can start at a college and we’ll take them wherever they are and help them move forward. And that’s very personal to people.

PC: Our student profile’s just so different than the universities in particular with first time college and whether or not they’ve got family members that are either supporting them or kind of asking them why they want to do it, and the pandemic has exacerbated all of this because the people that are most affected are typically our students. They’re working, they’ve got children, they can’t find daycare or their children’s schools are virtual now. Plus, they have housing and food needs. And so when you look at Maslow’s hierarchy, if I’m hungry and I don’t have a place to live, I probably don’t care about school, going to class. Well, we’re going to get out of the pandemic, but it’s going to take some time. And it’s very important to realize the types of students that we’re dealing with and how we’re trying to help.

Evo: What are some of the barriers that stand in the way of creating the kind of alignment that’ll close the middle skill skills gap?

KW: Every class has student learning outcomes. That’s the same as a competency or a skill really, depending on how you titrate the word out. But it’s taking those skills and giving them different importance perhaps, and assessing them a different way, maybe giving credit for prior learning. And we always strive very hard to have all of our program skills, learning skills, student outcomes, described by the business and industry where that student will go, whether it’s a transfer partner for general education, or it is a company for whom we’re training technicians. And every technical program has a program advisory committee made up of local and regional businesses.

Our curriculum is shared statewide, so every college with the program uses the same curriculum, but it can still be modified to meet local and regional need. So, that means that every college in a program has one of these industry specific groups talking with those faculty members about their curriculum. And then as faculty members bring all that information together at the system level, we make sure that we are meeting those specific skills and changing our curriculum as the skills change. I don’t know that it’s a barrier but a blessing to be able to bring everybody together, but it’s also sometimes frustrating when business and industry don’t necessarily see that this kind of development and response is going on. And then that we are trying to take those skills and make them pertinent to the learner in as flexible a way as possible.

Evo: What’s the one driving factor that you hope anyone who attends your conference session learns?

PC: Well, I have two. One is to promote KCTCS, and what we’re doing in Kentucky. And two, is to drive interest in IMS membership because I’m one of the board members.

KW: We have a [competency-based education] project that’s only halfway underway, but we are attempting to scale to our 16 colleges, the opportunity to do what many individual colleges have done, and other systems are working on. Our hypothesis was, can we take every course we offer and put it into a competency-based education outcome. The answer is going to probably be no, it’s not appropriate for every single course or every single program of study to do that. But you have to start with that big, bold goal, and we’ve done that. And we appreciate that we have an external funder and that they have seen this as a model essentially, for the discussion. 

PC: It’s really a textbook case of change management and getting everyone aware of the need to change and then giving them the skills to do so. So, it’s a monumental task when you talk about 16 colleges across the entire state, but I think it’s going to be well worth it, if we put it together right.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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