Published on 2018/04/03

The Essential Employability Qualities Certification: Assuring Graduates Are Prepared for the 21st Century Workforce

The EvoLLLution | The Essential Employability Qualities Certification: Assuring Graduates Are Prepared for the 21st Century Workforce
When it comes to workforce preparedness, the expectations of employers and students have moved significantly past those of the institution. It’s critical to recognize this gap and create a framework to help minimize its effects.
Preparing learners for employment has become an expected outcome of higher and postsecondary educational programs, regardless of discipline or degree level. Yet surveys and studies continually reveal a growing divide between what students and their families are seeking from a college education, what higher education is offering, and what employers say they need.

The 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index reported that 98 percent of Chief Academic Officers rated their institutions as very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work, but only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agreed that graduating students have the skills and competencies they need. McGraw Hill’s 2016 Workforce Readiness Survey revealed that only 25 percent of students are in a major with established career paths, and only 40 percent of seniors felt that their college experience had been very helpful in preparing for a career. The 2016 Gallup-Purdue Index identified that since 2010, 86 percent of incoming freshman have said that getting a job represents a critical factor in their decision to enroll in college, compared with 73 percent of incoming freshmen between 2000 and 2009 who said the same.

For adult learners returning to college to complete degrees, this percentage is even higher. Whether real or perceived, there are significant gaps between what employers and students are looking for, and what higher education programs deliver.

The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher & Postsecondary Education, in partnership with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) and with funding from Lumina Foundation, set out to better understand these gaps and to develop a new approach to quality assurance focusing on workforce readiness. The QA Commons was formed, and 27 academic programs from 14 institutions agreed to collaborate in a co-design process to certify programs that prepare graduates effectively.

The “Soft Skills” are Essential Qualities in Today’s Dynamic World of Work

As Vaill (1996) suggested more than two decades ago in his book Learning as a Way of Being: Strategies for Survival in a World of Permanent White Water, modern life is like “permanent white water,” full of novel situations and messy problems that require people to be able to address not only the know-what and know-how, but also the know-why of a given subject. The metaphor of permanent white water holds particularly true for the 21st century world of work.

Regardless of industry or job, employees must be able to think critically, identify and solve problems creatively, engage with others collaboratively, communicate effectively, approach new situations differently, and learn and adapt continuously. While employers often refer to these abilities as “soft skills,” they are in fact Essential Employability Qualities (EEQs), and they are not specific to any discipline, field or industry. They are applicable to most work-based, professional environments and across the variety of jobs within a given organization. In total, they represent the knowledge, skills, abilities, and experiences that help make sure that graduates are not only ready for their first job, but also for a lifetime of engaging employment and participation in the rapidly changing workforce of the 21st century.

In considering a new quality assurance approach, we realized that evaluating job placement and starting salaries only provided one piece of the puzzle. We believed that learning had to matter, and thus we created a draft set of competencies that reflect the Essential Employability Qualities (EEQs) that support the notion of employability as “the ability to find, create and sustain work and learning across lengthening working lives and multiple work settings.”

The EEQs represent current and future employer expectations as reflected in numerous studies, such as those completed by Burning Glass, LinkedIn, ACT, the Foresight Alliance, Jobs for the Future, Career Tech, the Business Roundtable, O*NET, third way, National Network of Business and Industry Associations, and the Institute for the Future, to name a few. The qualities can be appropriately adapted to degree and certificate programs of different levels, timeframes, and modalities, and many of the EEQs build upon existing learning frameworks embedded in many programs.

In fact, the EEQs align with several nationally adopted academic frameworks, including the Degree Qualifications Profile, AAC&U’s Essential Learning Outcomes, NACE’s Career Readiness Competencies, and the Connecting Credentials Framework. However, by necessity, the EEQs need to be developed in applied, work-relevant contexts. It’s one thing for a student to be able to write a well-researched 15-page position paper on fair trade or immigration; it’s another for the student to be able to apply these writing, research, and presentational skills to a real work-based problem or employer need on a completely different timeline.

Identifying The Gaps

Our research identified three primary gaps between higher education and employers. The first gap is what has become referred to as a skills gap, the now overly used phrase that refers to employers’ critique that graduates do not have the skills needed in the workplace. The second gap is the demonstration and documentation of graduates’ actual skills and abilities. Traditional transcripts that record courses completed and grades earned do not communicate what external audiences need to see, or what students know and can do. The third gap—the identification of and alignment to employer needs—is being addressed in many disciplines and fields (particularly many of those with programmatic accreditation; see the December 2017 Association of Specialized and Professional Accreditors’ report about employer engagement), but contact with employers, let alone engagement or partnership, remains completely absent in many other programs.

As we explored these gaps further, we identified several key elements that would help eliminate these gaps. The first is learner preparation. It is critical that learners develop the knowledge, skills and abilities for employability in a rapidly changing workplace, regardless of field or discipline, and that they have numerous opportunities to apply their learning in work-relevant contexts.

Another critical factor is meaningful communication about what graduates know and can do. Graduates’ employability qualities need to be made visible to external stakeholders so there can be increased clarity about graduates’ abilities and thus trust in the quality of programs. Cooperation and collaboration with employers are critical factors as well – employers need to be engaged in the design, implementation and evaluation of programs. Finally, an intentional, effective coordination between academic programs and essential student service programs such as career services and advising, can realize great benefits for students as well as for employer engagement efforts.

Co-Designing A New Quality Assurance Process

Over the past eight months, The Quality Assurance Commons has partnered with 27 programs from 14 institutions to design a new way to evaluate educational quality that is focused on developing learners’ Essential Employability Qualities (EEQs). In addition to the representatives from these 27 programs, we have engaged members of The QA Commons’ Advisory Board, employers and employer representatives, as well as our Student Quality Assurance Advising Delegation (SQAAD) in this process.

The programs represent approximately 35,000 students and are diverse in their disciplines, degree levels, delivery models, faculty profiles, institutional types, accreditation, student demographics, and locations. This intentional diversity has allowed us to test ideas across multiple educational contexts, to identify possible value-propositions for different kinds of programs, and to learn from the variety of disciplines and fields and approaches represented.

In creating the EEQ CERT, we are addressing the serious gaps between higher and postsecondary education and employers; signaling to employers and prospective students that a program provides relevance and value; identifying programs that may become “preferred providers” for employers; and encouraging the connection of academic learning to workforce needs and graduate readiness.

The EEQ CERT Criteria & Emerging Promising Practices

As a result of our work together, we have already identified several initial promising practices that programs have in place to address these gaps, and we have created and are testing a draft set of Criteria for Certification. The criteria are both outcome-based and descriptive of high impact practices for preparing students for employability: All graduates leave the program with assessed demonstration of the EEQs; all students have effective support systems for employability; employers are engaged in the design, development, and evaluation of the program to meet their needs; students and graduates are engaged in assuring program quality; and the program provides information about the program and its outcomes to prospective and current students, employers, and the public. This spring, our partner programs will provide portfolios of their available evidence, through which we will continue to test the criteria and design a rigorous evaluation process.

Each of our 27 partner programs has also shared their promising practices for preparing their graduates for the world of work. We have learned of the Experiential Learning Pathways and Ethnographies of Work course at Guttman Community College in New York; the Student Transformative Learning Record at the University of Central Oklahoma; competency-based badging at Brandman University; the applied, course-embedded community service offerings of the Forensic Science program at University of Central Oklahoma; capstone projects that are situated in workplaces and co-taught with employers in the Industrial Engineering program at CETYS University in Mexico; and the alignment of the Eight Alverno College Abilities to the EEQs and the validation of students’ learning for each ability, at each of four levels, at multiple times throughout the students’ program. These are just a few of the promising practices that are emerging from the EEQ CERT co-design process, and we are eager to share more as they become visible to us in the near future.

As many of our partner programs have illuminated, traditional forms of education and training—the simple transmission of knowledge, skills, and processes—are no longer sufficient as global and local conditions continually change, technology automates, and people must work differently. Furthermore, evaluating program quality on metrics such as job placement and starting salaries leaves significant questions about graduates’ real career preparedness.

Learning approaches that address employers’ defined needs and include experiential and applied opportunities in work-relevant contexts for all students—and that focus on the Essential Employability Qualities—will be more critical than ever in the dynamic world of work of the 21st century. With 20 million students in higher education institutions along with many others in certificate programs from these and alternate providers, we believe we can make workforce readiness academically rigorous and a part of all or nearly all curricula and certificate programs.

The QA Commons will serve to assure prospective students and employers that graduates of EEQ-Certified programs are ready for employment—now and in the future.

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