Working Classes? Preparing for Employability

By John O. Harney

On June 28, the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) convened members of the Commission on Higher Education and Employability (CHEE) in Providence to discuss concrete ways New England employers, education leaders and policymakers can work together to ensure a successful, equitable workforce future.

The Commission comprises high-powered educators, employers, economists, policymakers and several students. It is chaired by Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, the self-described “action-oriented” chief executive who has brought Johnson & Johnson, Virgin Pulse and Vistaprint Corporate Solutions to the Ocean State and attracted national attention with her plan for free college tuition.

NEBHE has historically been interested in higher education’s connections with economic and workforce development. Now, there’s a new urgency. As NEBHE President and CEO Michael K. Thomas wrote in an op-ed in the Providence Journal the day before the Commission convened, “Our region faces a fast-changing modern economy, as well as challenging demographic shifts, and it’s time that we optimized how higher education works with other stakeholders in our regional economy—starting by providing our students with the right skills to match tomorrow’s jobs.”

Disconnects everywhere

The Commission has a tall order. Job One is to get educators and employers simply to speak to one another.

In a recent Gallup study, 96% of college representatives said they felt confident in their institution’s ability to prepare students for the workforce, yet only 11% of business leaders agreed that today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies that business needs. Also the cultures are very different.

Kelli Vallieres, a NEBHE associate and CEO of Sound Manufacturing, a Connecticut provider of metal fabrication, recounted an “externship” she has worked on with the local high school that took ages to put together. Why? Partly because schools have so many mandates put on their time, said Vallieres.

Vermont state Rep. Kate Webb, a Commission member, added that employers have difficulty articulating the skills they need. Rounding out the dysfunction, students struggle to represent the value of their foundational skills, intelligence, adaptability and resilience … making it hard for employers to assess their strengths.

Several Commission members agreed on a need to address the disconnect between the culture of employers on one hand, and educators on the other.

Working on a plan

To help the Commission develop recommendations due out later this year, the membership is divided into working groups. At the June 28 meeting, working groups focused on: Effective Use of Labor Market Data & Intelligence; Targeted Higher Education Partnerships; and New Economy Tech Skill Bundles.

New Hampshire economist and Community Colleges Chancellor Ross Gittell and Andrea Comer, vice president with the Connecticut Business & Industry Association Education and Workforce Partnership, are co-chairs of the working group on Targeted Higher Education Partnerships.

Their working group embraced the full range of education providers—including public, private and new kinds of credentialing organizations—to prepare students and faculty with the talents demanded by the economy.

Gittell recounted “takeaways” from the inaugural meeting held May 31 in the Rhode Island State House. Among them: Students need opportunities for “work-integrated learning” where they learn at the workplace perhaps while earning credits or other credentials. To be attractive to employers, they also need a combination of “foundational” skills (a preferable term these days to “soft skills”) such as resiliency and industry-specific skills. There is also a need to integrate career planning early in student lives. A role for organized labor. And a regional outlook. Gittell used the example of Portsmouth, N.H. landing a big company that chose the New Hampshire seaport partly due to its proximity to Boston, Mass.

Another key to the Commission’s work, said Gittell: Industry needs to come to the table with money.

But co-chair Comer offered a caveat. She noted that Connecticut is still struggling to recover from the recession. GE and Aetna rubbed salt in the wound with their recent decisions to leave the Nutmeg State. We need to do more to encourage employers to stay, rather than asking more of them, Comer warned.

No picking winners and losers

Gittell said he cringes when he harkens back to the government policy of picking industry winners and losers. Instead, he said, New England should promote its diversity of industries across the whole region, not just in Boston and Cambridge.

The working group suggested that the Commission: Define common characteristics of best practices, create a template of partnerships that work, devise a taxonomy of workforce skills, develop granular credentials, analyze local demographic differences and produce a regional playbook along the lines of the “Communities that Work Partnership” sponsored by the Aspen Institute and funded by the U.S. Department of Commerce and private foundations.

Also the working group noted intersections between workforce investment boards (WIBs) and public schools in industry clusters. Some suggested looking at teaching itself: adapting inquiry-based, rather than traditional, techniques and creating “externships”—essentially summer internships to help teachers adopt techniques that energize students.

The group also coalesced around suggestions to watch ROI and even to develop a “business case” for the Commission itself.

Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) President Rosanne Somerson righted the ship, noting that the Commission’s goal is to create citizens and culture as much as jobs, which should at least be meaningful and fulfilling.

Love the sound of burning glass

Matt Sigelman, CEO of Burning Glass Technologies, spoke to the Commission about his firm’s belief that jobs have a “genome.” If you want students to have successful middle-class lifestyles in the 21st century, he told the audience, they need certain skills. Among those skills: data science. The jobs are not in data science per se, said Sigelman, but more than three-quarters of middle-skill occupations require digital skills. Digital skills should be integrated into every major at every degree level.

The value proposition of liberal arts seems to rise and fall. But conventional wisdom suggests that liberal arts grads will do fine with employers as long as they also have the more practical, industry-specific skills employers are looking for. For example, a student studying the classics or anthropology may be more successful with social media experience.

Hybrid jobs that mix skills sets are also the most human, so less easily automated, Sigelman said, because people increasingly will be asked to manage automation. The Rhode Island School of Design now prefers the term “intelligent augmentation” to “artificial intelligence” because it feels less like a human job-eater and more like a blender of human judgment and data.

Most of the jobs that require a college degree also want a lot of work experience, Sigelman noted. He also said there has been a larger increase in management jobs than in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) since the Great Recession; yet “middle-skills” workers (with more than a high school diploma, but less than bachelor’s degrees) are more likely to manage than MBAs.

Several employers ask for bachelor’s degrees in much larger percentages than the share of current workers in the occupation who actually have them. For example, 60% of job postings for administrative assistants ask for a college degree, but only 20% of current AAs have one. They do increasingly need digital skills. But Sigelman says a college degree is a proxy for some skills that could be offered in a more efficient way.

There’s a perception that those with college degrees can advance in an organization without needing more formal education.

Burning Glass has reported that among job ads that explicitly request credentials, most requested just one of 50 specific creds. Still, certifications and other signals such as academic minors and transcripts that show job-market skills help students demonstrate workplace skills. Also, Seligman added, “brand” matters for a higher education institution (HEI), including regional HEI brand recognition.

Employers are generally likely to invest in employees’ last-mile applications—training in the technical skills that employers want and that change fast, but colleges don’t offer.

Also different kinds of HEIs leave a different mark on the skills conversation. Kerry Healey, the president of Babson College and former Massachusetts lieutenant governor, observed that skills like resilience and adaptability, banishing fear of failure and learning how to be creative are things that need to be “baked in” to the curriculum for everyone. Last-mile skills like coding and computer languages and internships can be pursued extracurricularly on Fridays and weekends.

Sigelman suggested the Commission develop “communities of practice” in areas such as career services. Degrees matter, but how do we make sure they represent a bundle of skills, making them more relevant and sustainable over the life of a career?

Chasing talent

Talent is the name of the game, stressed Travis McCready, president & CEO, Mass Life Sciences Center (MLSC), in his expert testimony to the working group on Targeted Higher Education Partnerships.

He told the group that the MLSC offers a “wide aperture” for talent through middle and high schools, vocational-technical schools and postsecondary education. He added that pharmaceutical companies such as Novartis, Amgen and Shire have migrated toward talent hotspots in the Bay State.

Here too, an equity component surfaces. School districts with high free- or reduced-lunch populations are specially invited to apply to the MLSC for funds to buy high-quality lab equipment. Once you get to college level, McCready warned, it’s too late if you’ve never worked with a graduated pipette.

Community colleges also get access to MLSC funds for lab facilities and courses. But McCready acknowledged that the MLSC is not an expert, so it serves as convener of industry and community college presidents to encourage relationships. The MLSC offers what are essentially internships and apprenticeships. They are not all lab-related. Life sciences companies need finance and liberal arts specialists too, but, McCready said, the liberal arts students who tend to get hired have some understanding of science.

Noting that more half of New England college students attend independent HEIs, Roger Williams University President Donald Farish pointed out an irony in spending big money to lure private industry but skimping historically on spending for private higher education. Especially when the demography tells us we need to bring in more students.

McCready said the MLSC has worked with Harvard and MIT, as well as small private colleges that fill a niche, such as Wellesley College with its efforts to increase women in life sciences and Regis with its work to accelerate immigrant entry in the disciplines. The MLSC had also experimented with Dean College, which traditionally had no life sciences.

Nevertheless, 70% of UMass grads stay and work in the state, and McCready pointed out that money invested in UMass in recent years was “catch-up” after years of low state investment.

Despite all its successes, the MLSC hasn’t cracked the code yet on black and Latino students, said McCready. Only 6% of Latino students go on to get hired by industry.

Equity imperative

The tough record with black and Latino students relates to the Commission’s so-called “Equity Imperative.” NEBHE wants to ensure that the workforce vision serves all New Englanders. It’s not only a matter of social justice, but also as a matter of sound economics in the slow-growing region. Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire have the oldest median-age populations in America. And where there is population growth, it’s among groups—both urban and rural—that have not been well-served by education or the job market.

All babies are equal at nine months old; but by age 2, socioeconomic factors begin having an impact on their cognitive development. An attainment gap appears. By high school, a dropout gap has taken has taken hold … soon to translate into an “employability gap.”

Underrepresented groups, for the purposes of addressing the employability gap, include: students of color, students from low-income families and first-generation students. Susan Brennan, associate vice president of university career services at Bentley University, added students with disabilities to the groups New England should bring into the equation. Some could add children of incarcerated people and scores of other sources of inequity.

At Eastern Connecticut State University—which is about 30% students of color—lower-income, minority and first-generation students often had no cars, so had difficulty traveling off campus to internships. White students got most of the internships, said President Elsa Núñez.

Eastern’s Work Hub eliminates that need, allowing students to develop practical skills doing real-time work assignments without having to travel off campus, and providing the insurance company Cigna with a computer network and facility where its staff could provide on-site guidance and support to Eastern student interns. Moreover, Núñez observed that the boss in Eastern’s internships automatically becomes the mentor—important in the employability discussion.

Commission member Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University and guru of competency-based education, said a critical factor is to provide internships and mentors for students of color; also cultural, not academic, mentorship is needed for students who get the feeling they don’t belong, as Núñez said of her own beginnings in college.

In case anyone still doubts an equity imperative, LeBlanc cited the hard data from Deloitte showing benefits from diversity in teams. RISD’s Somerson said diversity is crucial to innovation. Núñez had a solution for companies that want a fast track to diversity: Forgive student loans.

Rhode Island College President Frank Sánchez added some keen insights to the equity panel.

Why is the conversation missing the large segments of unemployed and underemployed people who are not connecting with traditional educators? How do you formally embed employability in the curriculum? How can we bolster compassion in nursing and teaching, or help businesspeople connect with diverse populations?

Sánchez added that ironically many of the things that HEIs do to raise stature—such as increasing tuition and raising standards—hurt the most vulnerable students. To which Núñez remembered a mentor’s quote: “We can be an elite institution without being elitist.”

Some pointed out a simple overlooked truth on equity: the profound importance of stable state need-based financial aid, which has been generally up and down in New England.


A working group on labor-market information (LMI) weighed real-time vs. traditional LMI. Real-time LMI has the virtue of capturing in-demand employability skills. But working group members agreed that the two types of LMI are complementary and should be bolstered by local intelligence, conversations with employers, local economic drivers and student body makeups.

Berkshire Community College President Ellen Kennedy suggested that the information be tweeked for different sectors to establish benchmarks and skillsets. And that exemplars offer best practices. And perhaps that the Commission identify five essential knowledge points to brand New England and make it attractive for businesses to settle.

Working group members hailed recent LMI initiatives including WorkReadyNH and Maine is IT!, a U.S. Labor Department-funded partnership with Maine community colleges. They also floated the idea of a partnership to share costs of working with outfits such as Burning Glass to look at resume data to study career progressions and occupational transitions. And they spoke of communicating how LMI can be used to improve institutions’ business practices.

Student voices

A key aspect of the NEBHE Commission is the voices of students.

Great Bay Community College alumna Heather Bollinger thought the region could benefit from a regionwide version of WorkReadyNH. That’s a Granite State program that teaches students interviewing skills so they are prepared to enter the workforce.

Another student rep on the Commission, Mariella Lucaj of the Community College of Rhode Island, recommended marketing the Commission’s work directly to students—and encourage them think differently about their skills—and job prospects.

Desirae LeBlanc, a University of New England student on the Commission, recommended finding a way to push students to want to seek out internships; spoke of her own experiences with service learning programs helping her with employability skills.

Alas, in a nod to today’s sometime-linear thinkers, one of the student reps suggested it’s critical that a student know where they’re going. That led to a few comments about “pathways,” once all the rage, but apparently losing some luster. (Though Comer acknowledged that such structure is especially beneficial to students from underserved areas.)

Even the term “skills” was questioned as connoting lower-level work. Then, oh no, “competencies” and “proficiencies.” Add to that “scaffolding” and “emerging digital skills” and “putting ideas in a parking lot” and you see why at several points, Commissioners spoke of the need to create a sort of glossary showing definitions in the new language of career education.

Last point: We need to include all stakeholders at the table in at least yearly engagement to sustain the work. Perhaps a New England consortium for partnerships?

John O. Harney is executive editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education.

Related Posts:

Commission on Higher Education & Employability

Talent 4.0: How Employable are New England’s College Graduates and What Can Higher Education Do About It?

NEJHE (and Connection) on Higher Education and the Workforce



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