workforce-readiness-college

Should institutions have better “employer leadership?”


New brief outlines how employers can work to strengthen the talent pipeline from colleges & universities under current accreditation regulations.

A new brief from the commerce side of the arena says that employers are anxious to have more of a say in higher ed’s talent pipeline. But how to accomplish closing the skills gap under current accreditation rules that don’t always focus on outcomes?

That’s the big issue tackled in the new brief from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation (USCCF) Center for Education and Workforce, and USA Funds, to help businesses close the skills gap they complain is keeping them from hiring knowledgeable employees.

According to a Gallup survey cited by the brief, only 11 percent of business leaders perceive college graduates to be ready for work, whereas 96 percent of chief academic officers in colleges believe students are adequately prepared to start their careers. Even students noticed the disconnect, with only 35 percent feeling prepared to enter the workforce.

“This is increasingly problematic because of the increasing number of nontraditional students who are now entering higher education to improve their career opportunities,” states the report. “With higher education being the chief source of talent for our business community, it is of paramount importance that we begin to address this disconnect.”

In an effort to strengthen the talent pipeline, the USCCF delved into research around its Talent Pipeline Management initiative, which focuses on supply chain management. USCCF then applied lessons learned from supply chain management to “a rapidly changing postsecondary environment where higher education accreditation plays a major quality assurance role.” [To learn more about the Talent Pipeline Management initiative, and specific lessons learned from supply chain management, read the full report.]

Approach #1: Strengthen Employer Voice in Existing Accreditation

According to the brief, one of the lessons learned from creating better talent pipelines within industry is to work within existing parameters instead of waiting for often slow reform.

This approach, argues the brief, would improve accredited colleges’ and universities’ responsiveness to employer needs, and could be accomplished by building on current accreditation reform recommendations to:

  • Accreditation Governance and Management: Strengthen employer involvement in governance as well as institutional and program review, which could involve mandatory membership of employers on accreditor governing bodies and review teams.
  • Institutional Mission: Require accredited institutions to declare whether workforce readiness or career preparation is part of their mission and, if so, provide information on how they evaluate success in achieving this part of their mission.
  • Advisory Groups: Require accredited institutions and programs to have employer advisory groups for all of their programs that have a workforce readiness or career preparation mission.
  • Performance Measurement and Reporting: Require accredited institutions and programs to measure and report on performance metrics most relevant to employers and to meet minimum performance levels to remain accredited.

Yet, this approach is not without its challenges.

(Next page: Challenges to strengthening employer voice in talent pipeline)

USCCF notes that one of the challenges to strengthening employer voice within existing accreditation is that employers are one of many stakeholders and not end-customers.

“Employers operate along the periphery of this system and do not play a meaningful role in terms of its governance or operations; they are seen as one of many stakeholders,” explains the brief. “While employer partnerships in higher education are receiving more attention than ever before, employer input is still largely driven by participation on advisory groups or through customized training projects and industry initiatives to address a major skills gap. Although employers play a larger role in publicly-funded workforce systems through local workforce boards and sector partnerships, these systems are relatively small in size and scope and address only targeted populations.”

Another challenge is that outcomes that matter most to employers are often “undervalued,” write the brief’s authors. For example, accreditation reforms addressing student learning outcomes do not always require that institutions develop and validate these outcomes with employers.

“As a result, accredited institutions and programs could measure student learning outcomes and meet student learning goals without closing the gap between what employers need and what colleges produce. Even if institutions and programs validated their learning outcomes with employers, they still might not address the assessment and credentialing requirements employers require,” explains the brief.

Yet another challenge is the fact that employers need a larger, and more diverse, marketplace of talent suppliers, especially since accreditation does not address the non-credit-certificate market within and outside of higher education, including educational certificates awarded by nontraditional provider, such as bootcamps.

Also, “this higher education accreditation system addresses mainly colleges and universities operating within the U.S. and does not have clear recognition and jurisdiction in mature and emerging global markets,” states the brief.

Approach #2: An Employer-Led Quality Assurance and Supplier Certification System.

Another way to strengthen the talent pipeline within higher ed would be to allow for an employer-led system that would “empower the business community to establish their own system based on leading practices in supply chain management,” explains the brief. “Such a system would be supported through substantial incentives provided by employers, including priority access to jobs, work-based learning opportunities, and tuition assistance. It would also provide needed leverage for accreditation reform initiatives designed to improve responsiveness to employers among accredited colleges and universities.”

USCCF proposes that such a system would have three major components:

  • The fundamental quality management principles for building supplier certification requirements;
  • A layered approach with different levels of requirements that reflect the diversity of employer needs being met, and
  • A supplier recognition system that includes supplier certification.

This approach, says USCCF, would include the full range of education and workforce partners that could become suppliers of talent throughout the world, including accredited higher education providers. “It also would be neutral with respect to how providers organize and integrate their services and credentials—as long as they can provide the necessary assurances to be a recognized supplier. This would result in incremental and disruptive innovation among both existing and new providers.”

However, this approach also is not without its challenges. For example, the approach would require employers to implement supplier quality assurance and certification as part of a larger talent pipeline management strategy, which is just one part of the process.

“This approach would, minimally, require employers to improve how they work together to communicate their competency and credentialing requirements and how they align their performance measures and incentives to support end-to-end talent pipeline performance,” describes the brief.

Another challenge outside of employer collaboration and alignment would be in providing supplier incentives to participate and become certified. Though employers can provide incentives like priority access to jobs, internships and tuition assistance, the incentive structure “already built into the existing accreditation system—namely, access to Title IV student grants and loans and to related direct federal and state investments—is still substantial,” explains the brief. “Any solution would have to provide clear guidance to accredited providers on how they could meet employer requirements while also meeting accreditation requirements.”

What it comes down to, says USCCF, is that employers should continue to pursue accreditation reform, but also begin exploring an independent employer-led approach.

For much more information, including USCCF’s roadmap for an employer-led assurance and certification system, developmental considerations, and recommendations for scaling and sustainability, read “Changing the Debate on Quality Assurance in Higher Education: The Case for Employer Leadership and a Roadmap for Change.”

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