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Reimagine Education: innovation can help plug skills gap

The gap between the skills graduates have and what employers are looking for, is making room for new innovations to enter the landscape to help bridge the divide. Meanwhile as some universities are innovating, others have a way to go.

L-R: Roger Berry, Fullbridge; Jerry Huang, iTutorGroup; Matt Sigelman, Burning Glass Technologies; Nunzio Quacquarelli, QS. Photo: The PIE News

"There’s a great opportunity for higher education institutions"

These were some of the talking points at this month’s QS-Wharton Reimagine Education conference held in Philadelphia this month.

Universities need to think about how they’re evolving their curricula to enable students to develop 21st century skills, said Nunzio Quacquarelli, CEO of QS.

“This whole movement of innovation in learning also ties in with innovation in nurturing employability”

“It’s clear that the traditional models of learning, teaching, etc., are not necessarily cultivating all the skills that employers of today are looking for,” he told The PIE News.

“This whole movement of innovation in learning also ties in with innovation in nurturing employability,” he continued. “New learning solutions may cultivate skills that employers want to ask modern graduates, but we don’t know yet, we have to measure it.”

Different regions have a gap in different skills, added Quacquarelli, for example technology and literacy skills.

However, the more universal soft skills including communication skills, resilience, and team playing are what employers note that graduates are lacking.

Research from Gallup in 2014 shows that 96% of chief academic officers at HEIs believe their institution is effective at preparing its graduates for the workforce. Meanwhile, only a third of business owners agree that graduates are leaving education with the skills needed for their company.

Nurturing employability was one of the categories of this year’s Reimagine Education Awards, an annual contest showcasing innovation in education. Projects from education institutions and companies demonstrated the impact that their ideas are having on employability outcomes.

The winning initiative was Incubation Cells from Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico, which helps enhance the economic potential of doctoral research by creating tech start-ups and teaching entrepreneurial skills.

Also a joint winner was X-Culture from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, which fosters collaboration across borders, with students forming international teams to complete projects across the semester. The programme sees 4,000 students participate from 120 universities each semester.

Vas Taras, X-Culture’s project coordinator, said previous students have told him how much their participation in the programme is valuable to their employers.

In many cases, people are not always “prepared for the international collaboration” when they enter the workforce, he told The PIE News.

“But the reality is such that at least in Europe and North America, probably in more and more countries and other regions, people have to work internationally.”

The project has also held symposiums and meetings with corporations including Mercedes-Benz, Louis Vuitton and Home Depot, allowing participants to connect with employers.

In a panel session discussing the 21st century skills gap, industry stakeholders discussed how new models can enter the marketplace to help bridge the gap.

There is room for both private sector businesses and higher education institutions to fill the skills gap, argued Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, which provides analytical data on the job market.

“Certainly there’s a number of private sector players who are doing a great job at filling that gap, but there’s a great opportunity for higher education institutions,” he said.

Roger Berry, CEO of Fullbridge, which offers courses to develop employability skills, warned that often these attributes are spoken about as if they are “disembodied from an actual human being”.

“We also sometimes talk about them as if it’s one and done, like you’ve gone into a process, checked that box and you’ve got the skill.”

Fullbridge aims to partner with universities and organisations to deliver a learning experience that equips students with the skills they need in the workplace.

“It’s not about a classroom experience,” Berry later told The PIE News. “When people come into our programmes, these young people actually go through a work day. That’s one of the most shocking things, is literally figuring out how to work 8.30 to 5.30, or 6pm. We recreate those days for them.”

“I think there are a lot of barriers to selling solutions, not least the fact that universities are very conservative”

New products and initiatives that enter a university environment and aim to shake up the traditional model of learning are not without challenges.

“I think there are a lot of barriers to selling solutions, not least the fact that universities are very conservative. Decision makers are not always up to speed with requirements of the marketplace,” said Quacquarelli, adding that there can be an “understanding gap” between universities’ decision makers and the marketplace requirements.

Berry commented that he looks to universities that are open to experimentation.

“Often you find community colleges or colleges with less permanent faculty being the ones that reach out to innovate more,” he said.

While Quacquarelli said the level of true innovation in nurturing employability on a large scale is fairly limited, the solutions are still in their early phases of implementation.

“The skill gap is real, it exists, it hasn’t narrowed much in the last five years,” he said. “But universities are beginning to wake up to the need to listen and to change, and we expect that a lot of these innovations will have an impact.”

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