Evidence continues to roll in that American workers are out of position for the high-value jobs of today and tomorrow. Start with the fact that there are 7.3 million unfilled jobs, millions of which are high-skill positions in IT, professional services and healthcare. Then add that employment growth in IT is stagnant — a phenomenon that is entirely a supply-side problem.
What are America’s colleges and universities doing to solve the problem? Until recently, they’ve been a big part of the problem. Academic programs at colleges and universities are controlled by faculty members who typically aren’t incentivized to align curricula to employer needs. Few are interested in what employers are seeking, particularly for entry-level positions. Many have never worked in the private sector or have only outdated or tenuous connections to non-academic employers.
Most educators simply resist the idea that instruction should be aligned to employment opportunities. Colleges have always positioned themselves to help students gain the skills they need to get a good fifth job, not necessary a first job. Unfortunately, the labor market has changed: If you don’t get a good first job, you’re unlikely to get a good fifth job. And currently, around 45% of new college graduates are not getting good first jobs and find themselves underemployed.
In early August, EMSI, a provider of labor market analytics that is part of the Strada Education Network, released a study showing that our current system of post-secondary education is not providing linear paths to good first jobs, but rather a “crazy flow” or “swirl.” The report analyzed millions of graduates from six very different majors and found that graduates of all six are effectively going after the same jobs in sales, marketing, management, business and financial analysis.
Commenting on the study in Inside Higher Education, experts concluded that straightening the swirl might require integrating actual work into academic programs. “This really makes a strong case for work-based learning,” said Jane Oates, a former official in the U.S. Department of Labor during the Obama administration, now president of WorkingNation. “Colleges and universities need to provide students with practice in the context of the workplace,” agreed Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Creating clearer pathways to good first jobs by connecting school and work becomes even more critical considering that a recent survey found that 61% of all full-time jobs seeking entry-level employees at least on the surface ask for at least three years of experience, and that summer employment for students remains near an all-time low. With this backdrop, perhaps 45% underemployment for new graduates is as good as we can do.
New models are emerging to better connect school and work. New career services management platforms like Handshake offer much more functionality than legacy systems to connect students with employers recruiting on campus. Portfolium — a division of Instructure — allows students to create ePortfolios of their work and show their skills to employers.
Many colleges and universities have invested in experiential learning and work-study programs. Some schools do this better than others; Northeastern University offers the most comprehensive co-op program of any American institution. But few have been able to do it systematically, for the same reasons academic programs aren’t well-aligned to employer needs. That’s all changing with the rise of new marketplaces connecting students and faculty with real work from real employers.
If you don’t get a good first job, you’re unlikely to get a good fifth job.
One such marketplace is Parker Dewey. Named for progressive educator Francis Parker and philosopher John Dewey, Parker Dewey helps employers create “micro-internships”: real projects that employers need done but that can be outsourced to college students. In Parker Dewey’s micro-internship marketplace, the employer defines a project and sets a fixed fee for completing the work. Parker Dewey reaches students through career services postings and attracts applicants for the project. Then the employer selects one or more students to do the work. The marketplace makes it easy for employers to try out students who may have no work experience and therefore reduces “Hiring Friction,” i.e. the reduced propensity of employers to hire candidates who literally haven’t done the same job before, and the reason so many entry-level jobs seem to be asking for experience.
Another marketplace that’s gained even more traction is Riipen, a platform that got its start in Canada, connecting Canadian colleges and universities with employers, but now growing rapidly in the U.S. While Riipen works with employers in a manner similar to Parker Dewey, its approach to colleges and universities is very different. Rather than approaching career services, Riipen incorporates employer projects directly into college and university courses, thereby connecting employment and employability with the beating heart of colleges and universities: individual faculty.
Riipen’s three-sided marketplace of employers, educators and students appears to provide a more effective vehicle for gathering talent (and employers) on the platform; once faculty incorporate projects into their coursework — e.g. a professor of marketing adding a project reviewing and analyzing Google Ads data — the projects become mandatory and more students complete them. On Riipen, small and mid-size businesses tend to provide real-time projects, while larger companies have begun to re-use the same projects in a bid to test dozens or hundreds of students and recruit top performers. Over the past year, Riipen reports an order of magnitude increase in platform usage by employers, faculty and students.
New marketplaces like Riipen have the potential to be win-win-win-win. First, employers recruit better talent, and more reliably; content valid simulations are more than twice as accurate as any other talent screening mechanism or criteria. And it’s more cost-effective than attempting to recruit on campus. Second, universities augment career services and improve employability of graduates, which should allow them to attract more students. Third, for the first time, faculty can easily incorporate real work projects into their courses — projects that students will be energized to complete knowing there’s a real employer on the other end. And last but not least, students gain a way to stand out from the pack by exhibiting their abilities in a meaningful context, hopefully clearing a path to a good first job at the same employer, or if not, gaining valuable relevant work experience.
In a few years, as a result of marketplaces like Riipen, completing real work projects as part of an academic program should be commonplace. So there’s also a fifth winner from marketplaces that connect school and work: the overall economy. Millions of new college graduates will get relevant work experience, many more will find good first jobs and our workforce will be better positioned for the high-value jobs of today and tomorrow.