While colleges have continued to do a reasonably good job of preparing students with the cognitive skills they need to become successful professionals, employers have changed. Systems and processes that were once physical or manual are now digital and automated, and governed by sophisticated new business software or SaaS platforms that require dozens — if not hundreds — of hours of training in order to navigate them competently. To prepare students for a post-Covid future, colleges and universities need to double down on preparing them for digital jobs. But even teaching platform skills aren’t enough. Few employers are interested in hiring candidates who’ve just completed a training program, they’re looking for relevant work experience. The good news is that there are two promising models for colleges to go beyond the traditional career services function to provide students with relevant digital training and work experience.
When the world paused for Covid, there was a real sense of stasis or loss in higher education, as the remote experience failed utterly to replicate or replace the immersive on-campus experience. But while higher education paused, the rest of the world didn’t stop. In fact, digital transformation of the economy accelerated. Back in May of 2020, MIT’s David Autor referred to the pandemic as an “automation-forcing event,” an idea that’s proved prescient as companies double down on digital transformation in order to engage with all stakeholders — customers, suppliers, shareholders, lenders, and especially employees — remotely.
So as students returned to campus this fall and campus leaders tout a return to some kind of (masked) normalcy, it’s natural to want to throw frisbees around the quad and put all the digital, remote stuff behind us. Headlines about the hot labor market for college grads make it even more tempting. Unfortunately, given the digital transformation we’ve seen, this is the calm on campus before the storm. Colleges and universities must urgently figure out how to provide students with digital platform skills and get them essential relevant work experience. Institutions that do so will position themselves at the forefront of higher education in the post-pandemic era.
Before Covid, higher education was facing a crisis of employability as nearly half of all college students were graduating into underemployment. This crisis has been building for decades. While colleges have continued to do a reasonably good job of preparing students with the cognitive skills they need to become successful professionals — critical thinking, problem solving, executive function capabilities — employers have changed. Systems and processes that were once physical or manual are now digital and automated, and governed by sophisticated new business software or SaaS platforms that require dozens — if not hundreds — of hours of training in order to navigate them competently. Within the enterprise, every department or function has spawned an alphabet soup of SaaS: Pardot (marketing), Marketo (digital marketing), Google Adwords (digital marketing), ZenDesk Plus (customer service), NetSuite (finance), Financial Force (finance), Workday (HR), and the customer relationship management (CRM) platform Salesforce, the most popular SaaS platform in American businesses. Salesforce has told me they believe there are between 300,000 and 400,000 open positions in the U.S. for Salesforce administrators, developers, analysts, and consultants, with millions more to be created in the next five years.
Recognizing that a lack of trained talent on these platforms will inhibit growth, companies like Salesforce have made significant investments in developing training resources and programs like Trailhead. But self-paced online courses only work for a small minority, and generally not for those who need the most help getting good jobs. So the question becomes, who will provide this training?
Employers themselves don’t seem to be the answer. Before the Great Recession, more employers were accustomed to providing training for new employees. But as a result of the economic downturn, increasing entry-level churn and the higher cost of bad hires, many large and mid-size companies abandoned entry-level training programs. Hiring friction continues to rise for employers, and the prevailing view is that new hires should have the requisite skills from day one.
Higher education institutions are also failing to answer the bell. You can count on two hands the number of colleges and universities that offer courses on SaaS platforms like Salesforce. Or consider Epic, the leading electronic health record system at U.S. hospitals and health systems. When you’re talking to your doctor and she’s not looking at you, but rather typing into a screen, odds are she’s interacting with Epic. And while it takes a long while for health care professionals to become accustomed to Epic’s hundreds of functions, learning how to configure or integrate Epic in order to comport with a hospital’s existing systems and departments takes hundreds of hours. The invaluable professionals who help hospitals do this important work are called Epic certified analysts. And despite the fact that there are approximately 50,000 unfilled Epic certified analyst jobs at hospitals, health systems, and service providers, not a single postsecondary institution in America offers a relevant course or program for these skills.
But even teaching platform skills aren’t enough. Few employers are interested in hiring candidates who’ve just completed a training program, even if they have a Trailhead certificate. They’re looking for relevant work experience.
The increased pressure on relevant work experience is a direct result of the increased hiring friction that employers are feeling. The bar has been raised due to the increased cost of making a bad hire, increased churn at the entry level, and sclerotic hiring systems that screen out hundreds of potentially qualified candidates. It’s common knowledge that the best qualification for a job is whether candidates have previously succeeded in a similar job. But that’s a problem for emerging roles like SaaS jobs, many of which simply didn’t exist before.
The good news is that there are a couple of very promising models for colleges to go beyond the traditional (limited) career services function to provide students with relevant digital training and work experience.
The first is a revolution in work-integrated learning, a revolution that is occurring due to — wait for it — digital transformation. Internships have been around for decades, but systematically integrating them into coursework is hard. That’s why there’s only one Northeastern University, with its famous Global Network (co-op program). But the emergence of new online marketplaces for work-integrated learning is making it possible for every college or university to offer students relevant work experience as capstone experiences in hundreds of courses. That’s what Arizona State University (ASU) has done with its marketplace for work-based learning, which utilizes the platform Riipen to allow students to tap into one million hours’ worth of experiential learning projects. While it’s too early to see if work-based learning is helping graduates get better jobs, the concept is getting a lot of traction; in just three years, Riipen has delivered over 100,000 work-based learning experiences from nearly 20,000 employers to students at over 350 colleges and universities.
The second is the emergence of a new set of intermediaries that partner with colleges and universities and operate what’s being called a “Hire-Train-Deploy” model. Consider the University of North Florida (UNF), a public institution that serves some 17,000 students in Jacksonville. In June 2020, while many of its peers were wringing their hands about reopening, UNF launched a first-of-its-kind partnership with Optimum Healthcare IT, a consulting firm that helps hospitals implement and configure Epic. The arrangement enables new and recent UNF graduates — many biology or life sciences graduates — to enter a 12-week apprenticeship program that allows them to gain proficiency on several Epic modules, and pays them the entire time as they learn on the job. At the end of the 12 weeks, apprentices join Optimum teams that service hospitals — with the expectation that Optimum’s hospital clients will eventually want to hire those apprentices for great health care IT jobs. So far, Optimum Career Path has launched healthcare IT careers of over 100 consultants who can expect to be making six-figure salaries in a few years.
ASU and UNF are just two examples of institutions thinking beyond the needs of the here and now, preparing students for the digital present and future. Colleges and universities that double down on preparing students for digital jobs will be the ones best positioned to redefine higher education in the years to come. In the face of so many immediate-term decisions about vaccines and mask mandates, that’s not easy to do. But it’s our best shot at building a system that actually serves students, and gives them greater potential for a return on their investment after years of paying eye-watering tuition bills.