Transforming Curriculum and Higher Ed’s Role in Workforce Success:

with host Dr. Drumm McNaughton and guest Dr. Ashley Finley | Changing Higher Ed Podcast 080

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Transforming Curriculum and Higher Ed's Role in Workforce Success

The Association of American Colleges & Universities’ (AAC&U) new study focuses on workforce success based on employer views through curriculum transformation. The study, “How College Contributes to Workforce Success: Employer Views on What Matters Most,” has been conducted since 2007, and highlights employers’ views on the skills college and university graduates must have to be successful in their first jobs and their careers. The most recent survey, which was conducted in conjunction with Hanover Research in October 2020, describes how employers’ worlds have been shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and what skills they are looking for in prospective employees as the world changes.

Employer Survey Sample for Graduate Skills Analysis

The 2020 AAC&U survey used a representative sample of 250 CEOs and 250 hiring managers; of those, 496 were used (4 respondents were found to be bots…).  Most respondents worked at for-profit companies, but the sample also included executives from non-profit organizations. The study also had a slightly higher proportion of technology companies and involved companies where 25% of entry-level positions require an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.

The study expanded the sample representation from AAC&U’s last survey, conducted in 2018. That survey sought responses from C-Suite executives but did not include hiring managers who were making company employment decisions.  AAC&U wanted to identify gaps between how these two groups described workforce success and analyze their comparative values about higher education’s role in workforce preparedness.

The study found there was no difference in these two groups’ views about the necessary skills of new employees or in how they viewed a college degree. While these findings seem surprising since some corporations are not requiring college degrees, many survey organizations are still noting that certain careers that lead to a middle-class income will continue to require a college credential or degree.

Why a Liberal Education is Relevant to Job Skills

AAC&U is dedicated to all students having access to a liberal education. This philosophy of education helps students develop broad skills that are applicable across a variety of industries in an increasingly complex and diverse world. By comparison, a liberal arts education is based on a specific set of disciplines, e.g., history, English, etc. AAC&U believes that all disciplines are part of a liberal education; in comparison, not all disciplines are part of a liberal arts education.

Liberal education is synonymous with a well-rounded education, which employers consistently indicate is necessary for success. Additionally, employers also rate technical skills as highly regarded in new employees. AAC&U has found that employers do not parse “a well-rounded education” and a “technical education.” They are seeking qualities from both types of education – which provide breadth and depth of knowledge – in their new employees.

In assessing a liberal education, AAC&U’s study asks respondents to rate specific skills. While they consistently rate the skills highly, employers are currently seeking the ability to work in teams, think critically, and analyze and interpret data. In 2018, oral communication was the most valued competency. AAC&U has found that, in general, any type of communication skill remains highly regarded by employers.

Some organizations report struggling with building camaraderie in remote workplaces, which have been necessitated by COVID-19. This is exacerbated by differences in generational values; many employees in the younger generations do not feel the need (or want to) affiliate with institutions, so organizational leaders must find different ways to encourage loyalty and teamwork.

Institutions also have been forced to identify different mediums, such as Slack and Microsoft Teams, to communicate with employees during the pandemic. The growth in these platforms has been significant. Since the pandemic started, Microsoft has monitored the use of Microsoft Teams and found that its use has increased 300% outside normal work hours and on weekends. This points to the skewing of skills and boundaries, and in a positive for businesses – improvements in productivity.

Personal Aptitudes and Mindsets Ranked High for Workforce Success

The 2020 survey included questions specifically on personal aptitudes and mindsets, including drive and work ethic, ability to work independently, self-motivation, persistence, a sense of workplace belonging, and other factors. Employers ranked these traits just as highly as skills such as teamwork, critical thinking, and communications. 

These personal aptitudes and mindsets are important to consider. They can be used to analyze any disparities between what hiring managers are looking for in new employees and what higher education institutions think is important.

The key is to figure out how to teach these skills (or better yet, how to get students to acquire the skills).

E-Portfolios Help Hiring Rates

AAC&U continues to track the growing use of digital portfolios by students and now is noting prospective employers’ increasing interest in viewing e-portfolios. These e-portfolios provide a place where students can demonstrate experiences in which they built key competencies and aptitudes. Additionally, these portfolios go beyond college transcripts and LinkedIn to provide dynamic information to employers.

Higher education institutions should consider developing a rubric that identifies the traits that students should highlight in their digital portfolios. This type of feedback is important throughout the college journey to help students be successful through communicating essential knowledge and skills. This approach to e-portfolios could also help improve graduate hiring rates, which will increase the higher education institution’s ratings.

The Age of Employers Influences Preferences for Job Candidates

Younger employers and those with higher levels of education have a more favorable perception of the value of college degrees and graduates’ preparation for work success. Of particular note, AAC&U’s study found a consistent difference between the views of employers below the age of 40 and those who were above 50 in that they more highly valued experiences related to community engagement. The under 40 group also valued higher education’s efforts to initiate global learning, foster a sense of social justice and encourage community engagement. This group also was more in favor of liberal arts education.

Demographics and differences in generational values may be behind this finding. This group includes the oldest of the Millennials, who are among the most diverse and most socially engaged generations ever in the United States. This group has navigated the 2008 recession as well as the pandemic. The Millennial generation also votes with their dollars, in the corporations they run as well as the corporations and causes they support. Their views—especially as they move into the C-Suite—could have repercussions for civic and community engagement in colleges and universities. Their views also may be bound in the future with workforce success as well as economics.

Other Study Conclusions Higher Ed Should Consider for Curriculum Transformation

In addition to the differences of perspectives based on age, the over 50 group of employers, with some level of post-graduate education, tended to think like younger employers. This shows that employers are different, so higher education needs to understand these differences.

The findings about mindsets and aptitudes also are important to communicate to higher education stakeholders. Faculty needs to understand the importance of these skills and mindsets and how to embed them into the classroom in more robust ways. They also need to help students understand how to develop these competencies when they are struggling.

Employers expressed general support for broad transferable skills as well as technical ability. In fact, graduates who only have the technical ability will not have long-term career success. Employees also need diverse skills that will give them the ability to problem solve and grow.

Three Recommendations for Higher Education Leaders

  1. This is a tricky time in higher education, especially due to significant resource constraints. However, higher education leaders should not cut liberal education programs and courses in the humanities, arts, and sciences at this time. The broad skills that these disciplines can foster are important for students to learn and take into the workforce.
  2. Students and parents need to understand the importance of liberal education programs that provide needed skills for a lifetime. Leaders need to better communicate what these courses offer in developing skills and competencies that employers look for in graduates.
  3. Creating innovative partnerships between higher education, industry and local businesses is important. These partnerships should focus on institutional learning outcomes. How can these conversations build and support students’ understanding of workplace application? Internships often are the common touchpoint. However, a civic engagement experience, study abroad, capstone course or research project could help build students’ understanding of workplace application. The entire journey to a degree should be about creating skill sets that help students succeed in the workplace.


Dr. Drumm McNaughton provides strategy and change management consulting for higher ed institutions. 

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