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Industry and academia need to work together to close the skills gap

The technology skills gap is a thorny problem to solve. People might not have the technical skills for current jobs or those that are growing in demand, like those around the internet of things. On the other hand, personal and social skills are desperately needed across the board, but it’s challenging to train and assess people around these capabilities.

A couple of trends complicate the efforts to address the skills gap. First, the rapid evolution of technology is outpacing the speed at which traditional academic institutions are able to deliver new training to the market. Second, there’s a disconnect between industry and academia around what technology and “soft” skills are needed and how best to deliver them.

Industry and academic institutions need to work together. It’s not a new idea, but it’s one that’s at the center of more policy and funding conversations today. Creating deeper and more consistent engagement between academic institutions and employers will go a long way toward ending the skills gap.

Collaboration needed

Getting to that point, however, is going to take a lot of work. I recently heard an executive from a large employer ask a representative from a university, “I don’t understand why the people you’re training and delivering to us aren’t equipped to do the jobs we need.” The university representative replied, “I think the better question is ‘why don’t we know what you need?'”

That hits it on the head. It’s not a lack of motivation for schools or employers. The conversation just isn’t happening consistently across the board. There are challenges even when there is great collaboration. Sometimes an academic-industry partnership gets off the ground, and then the priorities of the business change or leaders leave. Like any initiative, the “project” gets reevaluated and reprioritized, sometimes leaving the academic institution holding the bag for something they can’t support on their own.

Another challenge is time. Many talent pipeline initiatives start in elementary school and focus on exposure and excitement around different fields in technology. These initiatives take a long time to pay back for an employer and those initiatives are hard to sustain year over year. This is a particularly tough position to be in for companies who need IoT talent, oh, yesterday.

Fortunately, there are examples of successful academic-industry collaboration and the conversations with employers are becoming more creative and formalized. Success often begins with companies identifying the specific skills they need for specific job roles they need to fill. Simply saying “we need better-trained people” is too vague. Even if the roles are likely to change in the future, companies can map out a list of skills needed to grow and evolve within a role or company.

Creative look at degrees

Getting the conversation started is one important step. Given the rapidly changing nature of technical skills, academia needs to be more agile and innovative around program creation and employers need to demonstrate flexibility in the type of skill validation they require for employment.

Even today, many employers use a bachelors’ degree as the standard yardstick for entry-level employment. However, the technology changes faster than a school can get a course approved in the catalogue (which can take years). In order to address this challenge, academic institutions and employers have several options at their disposal:

  • Build more IoT-type programs at the associate degree level. This requires industry collaboration on the curriculum and the willingness of employers to hire people with an applied associate degree. The benefit is an expanded pool of qualified candidates with a faster initial turnaround of skilled talent.
  • Offer up non-degree up-skilling and reskilling courses for specific areas of need. These courses can be offered to people going through a degree program who can use these courses to supplement their degree coursework, or to provide training to people already on the job. Schools are able to spin up non-degree courses faster than degree courses because they don’t have to go through the catalogue/academic approval process. These courses are more likely to be current and relevant to today’s workforce needs with industry input. Non-degree courses could also lead to an industry certification.
  • With employer involvement, industry certifications can be developed which enable employers to have confidence that particular skills have been developed. A certification/badge enables a person to share and broadcast their specific skills to potential employers. Certifications validate that people have the skills they say they have, which is critical for employers. Employer involvement is needed around mapping job skills for the development of the certification. Employers would need to put their money where their mouth is and hire people who have the applicable certifications for their needs.

Looking ahead

Developing transparency around mapping the specific skills to specific job roles, and then designing and delivering innovative training programs, certifications and degrees around those topics will be critical for closing the IoT skills gap. Employers and academia can work together to provide learners with the skills they need to obtain or advance within a job and connect them to employers who are looking for those specific skills.

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