Visit Modern Campus

Supporting Companies and Colleges As They Reskill the Workforce of the Future

There’s a great need for a seamless connection between higher ed and employers to be able to fill the talent pipeline to fill the skills gap. 

Meet Jane. She is a talent development professional at Local Corporation, a mid-size manufacturing company in a rural area. At Local Corporation, Jane is responsible for conducting training needs assessments and providing training solutions to a workforce of 300 employees. Recently, she discovered that her project managers are lacking key leadership skills, including those related to motivating a diverse team, creating long-term strategies and influencing others.

Meet Stan. He is the director of industry partnerships in the Continuing Education department at Nextdoor Community College (NCC). NCC is located 30 miles from Local Corporation and offers professional development opportunities in leadership and project management (among many other subject areas). Local Corporation and NCC have worked together in the past to provide upskilling and reskilling opportunities to Local Corporation employees.

Jane calls Stan to discuss her training needs. They talk at a high level about topic areas (not skills or competencies), discuss some of NCC’s training opportunities, and agree to continue the conversation via email. Jane follows that initial call with an email, and they spend the next three weeks discussing and revising NCC’s courses until they arrive at a solution that appears to address Local Corporation’s needs. However, Jane ultimately finds that the NCC training solution focused too heavily on leadership skills for executives, as opposed to skills for practitioners.

This is a fictional scenario, but it is rooted in common practices described by stakeholders in a series of interviews and focus groups conducted over the past year. Although going back and forth via email or phone calls works, it can be slow and often leads to less-than-optimal results. In this day and age, there should be a suite of tools that enable company talent directors and Continuing Education administrators to:

  1. Identify the skills needed by Jane’s workers
  2. Document those skills and send them to Stan at NCC
  3. Help NCC respond with a proposal for training that imparts those skills
  4. Facilitate communication between Local Corporation and NCC during and after this process

A group of partners including Eduworks, Georgia Tech, the University System of Georgia and Credential Engine received National Science Foundation funding to build this app called SkillSync. The team is researching, developing and piloting an AI-enabled application that helps people like Jane and Stan quickly and effectively upskill and reskill workforces. This effort is part of the NSF’s Convergence Accelerator program.

The Importance of Company-College Partnerships

By 2022, an estimated 75 million jobs may be displaced, and 133 million new ones created by digital transformation of multiple industries. Given the high cost of turnover, reskilling current employees is a cost-effective strategy, with many benefits. Increasingly, companies are looking to their local colleges, not just for recent graduates to enter the workforce but to also meet their immediate reskilling needs

However, when businesses turn to their local colleges for reskilling programs, they feel out of sync. Our research revealed significant communication issues arise when companies seek to describe their training needs to colleges. Colleges tend to think in terms of courses and degrees while employers think in terms of skills. Meanwhile workers, who often have family obligations and are pressed for time, seek “a highly personalized learning experience that serves up the right learning at the right time, without having to dig for it.”

This results in misunderstandings and lengthy course and program revisions, often with the consequence that the training provided by colleges does not cover all the skills employees need.

Starting with Skills

So, how could our SkillSync project improve the partnership between Jane and Stan? For the sake of simplicity, SkillSync (and this article) uses the term “skills” in place of similar terms such as competencies or KSAs (i.e., knowledge, skills, and abilities). Skills are at the core of effective college-company partnerships. The SkillSync app describes jobs and training in terms of skills organized into skills frameworks. These frameworks come from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Department of Labor, industry associations, company job descriptions, and job postings provided by the National Labor Exchange (another one of our partners).

When Jane wishes to obtain training, she creates a training request that describes her skills needs. She might use skills from several of the sources listed above to create a custom profile that describes her employees’ current skills and the desired skills she wants them to obtain. If Jane can do this easily and efficiently, it will better facilitate the potential partnership.

Stan at NCC receives Jane’s training request through the app. Because the training request is defined at the skill level, Stan is able to quickly search his catalog for training opportunities that match Jane’s request (more on that below) and send Jane an initial proposal. In addition to speeding the process of creating and responding to training requests, we believe that defining training opportunities at the skill-level will result in more effective design and implementation of instruction at NCC.

AI Services

Several artificial intelligence (AI) services serve as the foundation for SkillSync. These include:

  • KSA Extraction: When Jane uploads Local Corporation’s “Project Manager” job description to SkillSync, this service extracts KSAs from the unstructured text within the description. This service is also used to extract KSAs from a national database of job postings, which will help Jane identify skills trends.
  • Alignment Score: When Stan evaluates how well his training proposal meets Jane’s needs, he looks at the SkillSync alignment score. This score measures the fit between the skills requested by Jane to those that can be obtained from a set of training opportunities.
  • AskJill Virtual Coach: Throughout the process, Jane and Stan are able to ask questions to a virtual coach named Jill (based on Georgia Tech’s Jill Watson project). As a result, SkillSync’s vocabulary, functions and processing become more transparent (and trustworthy) to its users.

Although these AI services are being designed and developed for use in SkillSync, they will be made available to the broader ecosystem that includes multiple national efforts to address America’s talent pipeline. Initially, the team is planning to provide these services to other projects within our NSF Convergence Accelerator track.

Human-Centered Design

Throughout this process, we have followed a human-centered design methodology. We conducted dozens of interviews with corporate talent development officers, professional and Continuing Education leaders at colleges, state-level Workforce Development officers, college and company engagement officers, chambers of commerce, recruiters, job-seekers and relevant technology vendors. It is through this process that we identified our target problem and focused on finding a solution that would enable colleges to develop and deliver training to companies quickly and efficiently.

Once we began working on early prototypes of SkillSync, our team facilitated a series of focus groups with colleges and companies. We organized development sprints around these focus groups, allowing us to watch potential end users interact with our prototypes and gather key insights. The feedback obtained from these sessions guided subsequent development sprints, resulting in a continuous cycle of focus groups and development sprints.

Next Steps

In May 2021, we completed our first set of live trials with two company-college pairs in the Atlanta area, one of which involved Georgia Tech Professional Education. In the coming year we anticipate three more sets of trials and are actively recruiting pilot participants for them. By September 2022, we hope to not only create an application that responds to the challenges and opportunities for the future of jobs and workers, but to offer a model for industry-academia collaboration that addresses the needs of the evolving American workforce.

Disclaimer: Embedded links in articles don’t represent author endorsement, but aim to provide readers with additional context and service. 

Author Perspective: