Bridging the Last Mile to Close the Skills Gap

by Lee Maxey – CEO of Mindmax

According to U.S. employers, a lot of American college graduates aren’t prepared to join the workforce. A 2016 survey by PayScale noted that only 50 percent of the nation’s employers believe college graduates are ready for professional careers.

So what skills do managers want that graduates lack?, which reported on the PayScale survey, noted the top skill desired is writing proficiency. After that came public speaking skills and data analysis. The soft skills managers crave but most graduates can’t seem to demonstrate are problem solving, paying attention to detail, communication, leadership and teamwork.

The news isn’t all bad, though. There are people working on the problem. Mike Sweet, CEO of Credo Reference, launched Credo Education last year to help universities assess their instruction in core skills like critical thinking, communications, global citizenship, logic and reasoning. Ambiguity is something that graduates seem especially uncomfortable with, he told me.

American Public University System — a for-profit, online learning institution composed of American Military University and American Public University – uses Credo assessments to evaluate how well the APUS courses teach these much-needed workforce skills. That, in turn, helps APUS evaluate thousands of students per term and prepare them to contribute the day they are hired by an employer.

Ryan Craig, author of “College Disrupted: The Great Unbundling of Higher Education,” said senior executives want the problem-solving skills that can be developed through a rigorous liberal arts curriculum. The skills gap lies in part in the applicant tracking systems that filter for technical skills instead of cognitive skills, he said.

When those cognitive skills haven’t been sharpened, companies like Fullbridge Inc. say they can deliver. Through products like its Learning Labs, the company gives students a taste of the business skills they’ll need and a chance to apply what they learn. In a way, Fullbridge is like a finishing school for an era in which the jobs that companies have are evolving year to year.

Whether its Credo’s service or Fullbridge’s approach, the goal is to arm graduates with real-world skills in a more purposeful way. That’s an uphill climb when many companies don’t know what their needs will be a few years from now. Not only are new jobs being created at a rapid pace but the environment within which grads will work is undergoing a metamorphosis with the evolution of collaborative robots, machine learning, drones and automated vehicles.

To date, companies have recruited graduates based on their behavior, personality and some credentialing. Once recruited, companies put a new hire through some sort of training. That may have worked 30 years ago. But the world is moving too fast for companies to succeed for long with this approach. Like any race, the first employer to complete the “last mile” wins.

Finishing the last mile brings CEOs to a crossroads. To use a sports analogy, the CEO can forgo a first pick (a new graduate) and instead find a veteran who’s been a top performer for two or three years. That’s a greater financial investment, of course. Or the CEO can find the brightest 22-year-old graduate relatively inexpensively while hoping they develop into a valuable employee.

My advice to CLOs is this: First, build partnerships with the universities your best employees come from. Second, be more expressive about what you want a college’s graduates to have in terms of durable, critical thinking skills. Ask yourself: How is my company making sure the schools we know and work with are preparing grads to contribute to our workforce?

By sitting down with the deans of your partner schools, CLOs can explain what’s working, what’s needed and what’s on the horizon.

All the experts I’ve spoken with agree that it requires a partnership between the suppliers of competencies (higher education) and those who want the competencies (CLOs).