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Taking responsibility for the graduate skills gap

April 2019

Many employers and academic institutions are concerned that graduates lack the necessary soft skills to succeed at a high level. But what is the solution and whose responsibility is it?

As an organisation that spends time working with both educators and employers, we at FutureLearn regularly hear that graduates lack the necessary soft and digital skills to thrive in the modern workplace, and that - given the pace of change in technology - this gap is widening.

In order to tackle this problem, it's sensible to look at whose responsibility it is to do something about it: the employer, the educator, policymakers, or the individual.

What is the graduate skills gap?

In 2018, Bloomberg surveyed 200 senior-level individuals, 100 each in academia and business, focusing on four primary themes: preparedness, skills, collaboration, and planning. The survey found that 65% of corporations and 56% of academic institutions viewed graduates as ill-prepared in some way.1

The most significant area in which graduates were lacking was soft skills - with 34% of corporations and 44% of academic institutions reporting that graduates possessed hard skills but lacked the necessary soft skills to perform at a high level in the workplace. The report reflects that 'this soft-skills deficit is problematic as it suggests new hires are ill-prepared to tackle some of the most difficult and common challenges they will face in today's workplace'.

Meanwhile, statistics from The Open University's Business Barometer corroborate the existence of a widening skills gap.2 Its report found that 94% of SMEs are struggling to find workers with the right skills and three in five senior business leaders believe that the skills shortage has worsened over the past year.

This is clearly an issue that concerns both employers and educators, and one that will require strategic collaboration and cohesive planning to successfully combat.

We should be talking about the potential lack of digital skills of the teachers, parents and policymakers who are guiding digital natives

What role does technology play?

An important consideration when looking at the skills gap is the impact of technology. Not only are graduates expected to be equipped with soft skills, but employers are also looking for employees who have extensive and up-to-date digital skills.

A recent report from LinkedIn found that three out of the top five emerging jobs were in blockchain development and machine learning.3 Skills in areas such as cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence are becoming invaluable and while the assumption is often that digital natives are born fluent in all things technological - in fact, many graduates do not possess the specific digital skills needed for these types of roles.

This misconception may stem from the observation that people born in 1995 have a better grasp of today's technology than people born in 1975. While this may be true, rather than assuming all digital natives will somehow 'just get it', we should be talking about the potential lack of digital skills of the teachers, parents and policymakers who are guiding these digital natives. If they hold some of the responsibility around graduate skills, what support do they themselves need?

This mismatch between the emerging needs of employers and what's covered on higher education curricula is something that needs to be addressed, and soon. An Accenture report has warned that an absence of the skills needed to drive technologies forward could cost the UK £141billion in GDP growth.4

Strikingly, the Bloomberg survey found that only about half of businesses and two-thirds of academic institutions have a formal plan for addressing the impact of emerging technologies. The need for a formalised, co-operative, and well thought-out approach to addressing the digital skills gap is highlighted by the finding that 55% of corporations plan to evolve job responsibilities to reflect future needs, which means existing employees will need to be reskilled as their job roles change.

Why does this skills gap exist?

Dorian Warren, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and former professor at the University of Chicago and Columbia University was quoted in the Bloomberg report arguing that the important thing to focus on is why the skills gap exists. He suggests that the question needs to be asked of the business and academic communities - as there is clearly a disconnect and lack of communication between the two spheres.

Findings from the survey support this claim as only 38% cent of corporate respondents reported that they are actively collaborating with their academic counterparts to shape curriculums and establish education-to-work pipelines.

David Williams, a principal with Deloitte Financial Advisory Services, agrees that the skills issue is really a collaboration problem. He is quoted in the report saying 'academia has every right to say they are turning out the smartest, best-educated students ever, but business clearly wants a different mix of skills'. 'How do these groups collaborate around developing the skill sets that will produce the most important and relevant work product?' he asks.

Employers need to commit to engaging with and investing in methods of upskilling and reskilling

Where do we go from here?

The House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) committee recently reiterated their call for digital literacy to become the fourth pillar of education.5 However, though educators will undoubtedly play a crucial and active role in developing the digital skill set of the future workforce, the responsibility does not lie solely within academia.

Employers must also do their part, particularly given the rapid pace of change in the workplace. The rate at which job roles and required skills evolve means that employers need to commit to engaging with and investing in methods of upskilling and reskilling.

Zia Khan, vice president of innovation at the Rockefeller Foundation, also crucially points out that there needs to be an adjustment to the linear academia-to-business understanding of the skills development process and he predicts that businesses will increasingly feed problems back to universities and colleges to help shape the curriculum and guide research efforts.

It is also important that the government should equally be held accountable for their role in the process - steps need to be taken to address the disconnect between policymaking and the delivery of in-demand skills.

Is there an online solution?

In the spirit of collaboration, FutureLearn recently hosted a Graduate Employability Breakfast which brought together educators and employers to discuss the question: Whose responsibility is the graduate skills gap?

If collaboration is the key to successfully understanding and solving the skills gap, it is important to consider what this will actually look like. For FutureLearn, it's working with organisations like the Institute of Coding to create opportunities for computer science graduates. It's launching a digital skills programme with Accenture, designed to help learners make sense of the ever-evolving digital world. It's providing an online hub for the National Centre for Computing Education to deliver a comprehensive programme of support for computing teachers.

These projects demonstrate how online learning can be used to facilitate tailored digital skills training. They are an example of one way that educators, employers and government can work together to target the skills deficit.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects

Notes

  1. Building Tomorrow's Talent: Collaboration Can Close Emerging Skills Gap, Bloomberg, 2018.
  2. Skills Shortage Costing SMEs £5.5 Billion, New Business, 2018.
  3. LinkedIn 2018 Emerging Jobs Report, LinkedIn Economic Graph, 2018.
  4. Digital skills gap could cost UK £141 billion in GDP growth, Consultancy.uk, 2018.
  5. Disinformation and 'fake news': Final Report, House of Commons DCMS Committee, 2019.

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