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Understanding Credential Employment Pathways

With overwhelming number of job seeking services and search engine possibilities, institutions need to help guide their students to the employment pathway suited for them and prepare them to stand out as a candidate. 

With a high unemployment rate, more learners are looking to get back into the workforce as quickly as they can. With the endless number of possibilities on the internet, a job-seeking student needs to be looking at the right careers for them. What’s more, students will need help differentiating themselves from other candidates. Institutions can play a key role in guiding students down the right employment pathways and help them stand out in the sea of applicants. In this interview, Jeff King discusses the progression these pathways have made, how to guide students to the right pathways and how higher ed can help students overcome their most common challenges. 

Jeff 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): How have the credential employment pathways changed in recent years? 

Jeff King (JK): It’s been changing for a while, and the pace of that change is definitely accelerating. There are a number of forces impacting on this, and one of them is a dissatisfaction among many employers with what they perceive to be the readiness skills for a recent college graduate to begin working on Day One. And these skills aren’t necessarily related to the course content in their major. What employers are more concerned about is the kinds of skills that are transferable, that are platform agnostic, human skills. Ability to work as a member of a team with people who disagree with you, for instance, or leadership when the situation demands. And everybody’s very aware of all those surveys, they come out every six months or so, with employers expressing this dissatisfaction.

But another factor having an impact on the credentials-to-workforce pathway is a desire on everybody’s part to ensure that everyone is running on the same gauge railroad, is the way I often describe it. And that boils down to, can employers ingest, for example, the information from colleges and universities in a way that is employer-friendly and useful for them? Many employers still have legacy systems, which are not very friendly to ingesting, for example, electronic transcripts.

Evo: How are employers communicating with higher ed about what it takes to improve graduate readiness for the workforce?

JK: I suppose one could say they’re not communicating well, but that has a lot to do with higher education’s shortcomings. I’ll give you a perfect example. At our own university, where with our version of a comprehensive learner record, which is built to allow an employer to understand what skills a recent graduate would possess in what we term our tenet areas–leadership, global and cultural competency, and so on–very early on when we launched it, we were a little bit shocked to hear employers say that they pretty much saw limited to no value in program advisory boards.

And this shocked us because of course we, at our own university have program advisory boards. And very typically those are maybe a couple of meetings a year, and you have people in the workforce related to the major for the program. And you convene a meeting and the university says everything that it believes it’s doing great regarding preparing grads and you solicit input from the people on the program advisory board. There’s some back and forth, some adjustments made, ideas taken and things actually implemented. But all of the people on our STLR Employer Advisory Board told us that it typically never happens. They go to one meeting, this dance happens. Six months later, they come back, nothing’s changed and the dance happens again.

So higher ed bears some burden for those kinds of opportunities being missed. However, the employers on their end have not moved very quickly in terms of adjusting their systems to ingest information that they actually tell the universities that they want. So it’s just a scenario in which if both sides did more listening and decided, “Okay, we’re going to take this on together and we’re going to address it and make it happen.” I think it could. 

Evo: With infinite search engine possibilities, how can colleges and universities make sure that students are finding the employment pathways that are right for them?

JK: That’s a $64,000 question because you frequently hear job seekers so demoralized, stories of sending out 500 resumes and not getting a bite. I really believe that as conditions exist right now, it is helpful for job seekers to tell their own stories. And what’s supposed to happen for that to occur are the career development operations at colleges and universities, and those people really work hard and they do really great work, but the process of knowing how to tell your own story means you have to know yourself. And I think that that is the key item that would make job searches more successful because it shows employers that job seekers have engaged in some self-reflection, probably through being prompted for that regularly across their undergrad career. Number one, it saves me as a hiring manager a ton of time, because if I can see that documentation about development in these other areas, beyond disciplinary or essential skills or soft skills, when I can see that, I know exactly the kinds of questions I want to ask this applicant, and I don’t have to go through that 15-minute dance with them to pull things out of them because they don’t know how to present themselves.

And the second thing is they have to express how all of that prepared them to add value to a company. The difference it makes to understand this is huge, and graduates can then say, “This is the skillset that I know I developed, and I know when and how I developed it.”

Evo: What kind of information about potential employees is missing from the standard credentials that we offer today as folks go from that learning to working ecosystem?

JK: One of the first things our employer advisory board told us to a was that they don’t look at academic transcripts. And I think everybody knows that. They walked it back a tad to say, “Well, yeah, we will,” to make sure they’re telling the truth, for example, that they have this degree. But when we queried them about this, we got another shock: “Number one, it doesn’t tell us anything. But number two, if it’s a 4.0 student on that academic transcript, it’s almost a red flag.” Why would that be a red flag? Because that may not be somebody who actually has a 4.0 but somebody who knows how to game the system. And we don’t want to hire an employee that works to game the system.

Employers told us, “It frustrates us that we can’t find this out. It’s not on the academic transcript. We don’t look at letters of reference either, because if you get a letter of reference from somebody, they’re only going to say good things about you.” So those went in the circular file as well. 25 years ago, you might be able to trust that someone with a bachelor’s degree in engineering could do all that stuff. They say these days, not so much. And they’re very, very eager to know how to separate out and not hire those candidates that don’t present those skills. 

A good hiring manager can get a gut instinct and then you really do the digging in the application interview, but that’s a really time-consuming process. And they’re just trying to figure out whether there is a better first filter that can be provided from the credential source.

Evo: What are some of the core challenges that learners face? 

JK: Students often struggle to distinguish themselves somehow—what makes them unique? The uniqueness is not going to be something that can be communicated on an academic transcript, for example. There is nothing that is actually presented other than grades, representing student achievement in the content of courses. If an employer is looking to hire for a certain position and has a stack of 25 resumes with attached transcripts from recent college graduates, a student then has to somehow make a case that they’re the best. The challenge in doing that is that knowing what is unique about their achievement, about the skills they possess, and then communicating that in a compelling fashion. An employer may look at the number of people that applied and simply choose the person closest to the job because there was no distinction between the other candidates. 

The second challenge is knowing what jobs out there would be a good fit for the student. There are a lot of employment matching services marketed to both job seekers and employers—we see those advertisements all the time–but it’s difficult for a recent college grad to know how to tap into that stream. What I’m most excited about in this area of defining value add and finding a good match regarding the credentials for a workforce pathway, is the potential for artificial intelligence to play a role in a way that it is not doing now. These employment matching services, for the most part, are built on structured data–survey responses, demographics, data points that exist for job seekers, but lost in that is the color and depth that could be really important in helping a job seeker find the one best position to finding the right job. But if artificial intelligence can find narrative from job seekers where they have critically reflected on how they see themselves in relation to the world, what they want to do, articles and essays that were highly graded—there is a treasure trove of narrative information that can be used. Then adapt and transcribe that into a structured algorithm that would make that a much more successful pathway. 

Evo: How can higher education institutions help overcome these obstacles?

JK: It goes back to the idea of higher ed institutions becoming much more intentional and optimizing a formal institution-wide process to develop essential or soft skills and to track that and assess it so that the learners can see the arc of their personal development. The University of Central Oklahoma and our Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR) initiative does this and provides what we call a “STLR snapshot,” which is the documentation to back it all up. After that occurs, then coaching the student in how to turn that development into a compelling story about themselves that can be used for interviews for grad school or the workforce. The third would on the technology side—having everyone running on the same gauge railroad for getting this data from institution to another or to an employer. Or even from the employer in terms of job opportunities back to the institution. The work that IMS Global Consortium is doing is leading the charge in creating a comprehensive student learner record standard. 

The last thing I would mention is for higher ed to stop being “higher ed” in their communications with employers. Higher education at large has shot itself in the foot many times because of its own “highered-ness”. What I mean by that is, we’re not the ivory tower. We don’t have all the answers, people no longer come to us thinking we do, and they are starting to question the value proposition for a four-year graduate degree at the costs that that degree entails now with shrinking state support and rises in tuition. All of these things are disrupters. Quite literally, a different mindset about reaching out and working with soliciting advice from employers would also help a great deal. 

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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