Why boosting student employment takes a match-maker

Over 1,000 colleges and universities are turning to a data-driven match-maker to help pair students with the right jobs—and to tweak course offerings to meet employer needs.

career-match-employerMore than ever, colleges are being judged by the kinds of jobs their students land after graduation…and whether or not they land them.

In a rapidly changing global economy, however, preparing students for tomorrow’s jobs is no easy task. To meet that challenge, schools are increasingly turning to technology to help identify needed skill sets and tailor their curricula to an evolving marketplace.

“Universities and colleges are really trying to keep up with what employers need,” said Trudy Steinfeld, assistant vice president and executive director of the Wasserman Center for Career Development at New York University. “Not everybody is going to go on to graduate school or pursue an academic track. Most people are going to work and they have to have the skills that employers are seeking.”

(Next page: Using a data-driven career match-maker)

Making a match

As part of its efforts to place students with employers, the Wasserman Center uses Symplicity’s Career Services Manager, a data-driven software solution that acts as a kind of match-maker, marrying the needs of employers to the skill sets of particular students.

“We are working to use technology—both cognitive analysis and predictive analysis—to identify what the jobs are and their underlying requirements,” explained Bill Gerety, CEO of Symplicity, whose products are in about 1,500 higher ed institutions. “We want to simplify a process for putting the right person and the right skills in the right job.”

To be effective, the system relies on data—lots of data—from both employers and schools. With student permission, schools can analyze student skills and goals against corresponding data from prospective employers.

“Students and employers are looking for a more customized experience,” said Steinfeld. “We’re not saying, ‘OK, this is the job for you,’ but we’re absolutely doing searches based on the skills and the job descriptions.” In response to a search, the system might spit out three students, for example, who would then receive a message alerting them about a potential job.

Steinfeld feels this kind of screening system gives NYU students a leg up by providing employers with an easy way to review qualified applicants. “We are very aggressive in finding employment for our graduates,” said Steinfeld. “Helping to make the process a little more personalized and putting our graduates in front of employers—we think that works really well.”

Not so fast

Unfortunately, in today’s constantly evolving marketplace—especially in fields such as computer programming—employers cannot always find qualified students. Based on conversations with hiring managers, noted Gerety, “positions are staying open longer and longer because they’re not finding applicants with the right skills to fill the positions.”

The problem isn’t that universities are failing to teach students. Rather, the skills students learn can become outdated by the time they graduate. “Industry’s turning so fast,” explained Gerety. “During the four to five years that a student has been studying programming or computer science in school, there have been one to two evolutionary transitions in industry.”

Not surprisingly, by the time a college senior starts looking for work, it’s too late for them to embark on a different path. Students can either hope that companies will give them the training they need or they can pursue these skills in online courses or another educational setting.

(Next page: Data to foster coursework changes for proactive action)

It’s never too late

To address situations like these, schools such as NYU are now using Symplicity’s employer-generated data—along with more traditional employer feedback—to foster coursework changes at the freshman, sophomore, and junior levels.

“No longer can you just say, ‘We’re going to have our academic program and it’s not going to be tied to anything going on in the external world,'” said Steinfeld, who recently briefed two schools’ faculty about employer expectations. “There are conversations with faculty going on: How do we change the curriculum? How do we encourage more of our students to pursue studies outside their majors that will give them the skill sets they need?”

According to Steinfeld, NYU curriculum committees ask Wasserman Center staffers to brief them a couple of times a year on what employers are saying. “We know faculty are serious about this because they are asking for this type of information,” she added.

Skills the job down the road

Given the rapid pace of change in industries across the board, though, it’s problematic for schools to spend their time constantly chasing the next big thing. “Which job do we prepare students for?” asked Steinfeld. “The job right after graduation? Or the job they’re going to have five years down the road, which could be their third job?”

To that end, NYU is also working to develop students who have the intellectual flexibility and breadth to tackle a wide range of challenges—many of them yet unknown. “What do employers really want at the end of the day?” said Steinfeld. “They want GSPs—Good Smart People. Good smart people have a really strong foundation in a very broad sense in terms of what higher education has to offer. Companies want employees to be passionate about what they do, but they also need them to be smart and be able to turn on a dime.”

Don’t dismiss Liberal Arts

While recognizing the need to keep university curricula in sync with industry developments, Steinfeld feels that reports of the demise of liberal arts programs in higher education are overblown. “I think that there’s pressure in certain public institutions to deliver more professionally or vocationally linked majors, but I’m not so sure that that’s totally what’s happening,” she said, adding that this year’s applicant pool for liberal arts students was the highest in NYU’s history.

Even so, she does believe that schools, whether professionally focused or liberal arts, can and must do more to support employer needs—and that today’s students are not always fully prepared for the workplace.

“We think there’s a gap in what might be considered soft skills,” said Steinfeld. “A lot of it has to do with students not being able to write, speak, and change gears quickly; analyze situations; and problem solve.”

NYU’s College of Arts & Science is addressing these issues through changes in its courses, as well as through an initiative that the school calls its Professional Edge Program, where juniors and seniors with high GPAs can take courses in a wide range of professional fields ranging from magazine and website publishing to financial analysis. Students who complete these free courses, which are hosted by NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies, receive a certificate.

Underlying NYU’s decisions about how to prepare students for tomorrow’s jobs lies data. “We have data on everything at this point,” said Steinfeld. “We could not do our jobs effectively without a really robust technology solution. Not a day goes by that I don’t get a request for data about the kind of students we have, majors, placement outcomes, number of job listings, or how many applications we’ve received. It has changed the way we do business.”

Andrew Barbour is an editorial freelancer with eCampus News.

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