In Search of Employability: Curricula of the Future, Meet Business

You hear the word “employability” everywhere you go these days, which is no surprise when domestic and international unemployment rates are what they are. Inevitably, the discussion about workers’ readiness for real and beneficial work inevitably turns to the relationship between education and economic development. And although this relationship gets periodically debated, most of the developed and developing world has come to realize that a vibrant, diverse and economically strong society hinges on a strong and diverse higher education system to feed industry, government and business.

Countries around the world are developing policies and infrastructure to grow and import educated talent to feed their local and national economies. International mobility for the educated class is a reality that countries such as Canada, Australia and the UK are exploiting to their tremendous economic benefit.At the core of this economic development principle is an implied (and occasionally explicit) relationship between universities and employers. In general, it is thought that the university is preparing and educating the workforce of the future. Such statements about employability are found in many universities’ marketing brochures, on their web sites and in their mission statements. However, a recent survey by the Chronicle of Higher Ed and American Public Media’s Marketplace suggests that many universities are not meeting this foundational challenge. Employers seeking to fill critical jobs find themselves with large pools of applicants and a dust bowl of qualified talent. 

Northeastern was recently singled out in a post on the Gallup blog In and of themselves, co-ops provide our students with critical and important real-life work experience—exactly the type of experience employers are looking for. Busteed specifically noted the benefit of the placements’ six-month duration.

These students earn college credit, and because they can spend more time in these positions than the typical summer internship, they are able to perform real jobs for the employers who hire them. …Many companies participating end up hiring students that were part of their co-op program. Northeastern was recently singled out in a post on the Gallup blog. In and of themselves, co-ops provide our students with critical and important real-life work experience—exactly the type of experience employers are looking for. Busteed specifically noted the benefit of the placements’ six-month duration.

And the learning doesn’t stop there. Students return to the university and reflect critically on what they learned (or didn’t learn) in their work environment, which, in turn, deepens their learning—making experience as important as the theoretical understanding of issues and problems.

But we can’t stop there. Business and education need to come together to better prepare our students for the specific challenges of the new century. Our academic programs need to be informed by both the faculty’s expertise in theory and research as well as the corporate world’s applied needs and skills. In order to achieve this, educators and employers need to better tune in to each other’s languages.

There are great examples of this already. The Project Management Institute is the voice of the industry when it produces its body of knowledge—tangible and real outcomes informed by employers and used by universities to craft curricula. Silicon Valley and its culture of tech entrepreneurship is filled with businesses and start-ups that have largely been in formed by academia’s commercialization efforts.

Co-ops are one way that educators and employers can work together more effectively to make graduation a step toward real, valuable employment.

In order to achieve better results, we need to conceive of our credentials first as an end product and not as series of courses. This is a challenge, since most academic accreditation agencies are fixated on the credit hour and course level content. An in-depth conversation with employers on the front end of the planning process can inform our curricular design process. Coupled with a co-op program, this way of informing the curriculum can lead to a powerful and exciting option for our students and ultimately for society.

Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t easy work. Although universities and industry have had a symbiotic relationship for hundreds of years, we have not done well in getting to know each other. In recent discussions with business leaders, I was struck by their eagerness for the conversation around the range of issues business is facing.

For example, the transition from introductory and mid-level employment to management and leadership positions in the technical fields is in desperate need of help. Finding and preparing diverse management to lead teams was of particular concern. Cross-cultural competencies and communication percolated as a distinct need. In every case, the business leaders I spoke with were keenly interested in working with their academic counterparts to solve these problems. They were also frustrated that those conversations were not happening as much as they’d like.

The boom of higher education enrollments from the great recession is over. Students and employers are painfully practical and risk-averse in this market—employability is king—and will be for years to come. The institutions that can educate students ready for the workforce of today and tomorrow will thrive. If we become insular and simply repeat our university-as-usual techniques, we will suffer a diminished role in our economy and ultimately in our larger society.