Building connections between college and university leaders and executives of companies in the region’s employer base is key to understanding what employers are looking for in college graduates—and learning how institutions can better prepare students for the professional work they will eventually do. In an interview with Business Officer, Scott Lurding, a consultant in such a process, explains how this matchup can be effectively made.
Article By David Rupp, NACUBO
Despite the U.S. economy showing marked improvement in recent months, and the stock market scoring day-after-day historic heights at year’s end, the unemployment rate for workers 25 years or younger remained at nearly twice that of the general population. In the 2014 Federal Reserve Bank report “Are Recent College Graduates Finding Good Jobs?” analysis revealed that, for the period 1990 through the first quarter of 2013, “the unemployment rate averaged 4.3 percent for recent college graduates compared with 2.9 percent for all college graduates.”
The study also found that underemployment for new graduates—defined as working in jobs that do not require a college degree—increased to roughly 44 percent by 2012, compared to 34 percent in 2001.
With a Gallup poll in late 2013 (conducted on behalf of the Lumina Foundation) showing that business leaders have doubts that higher education institutions in the United States are graduating students who meet their particular business needs, it seems a major disconnect is in play. One of the conclusions of the Federal Reserve Bank report is that a way to foster better outcomes for college graduates is “to make sure students have timely information on the fields in which jobs are available, what different jobs pay, and the career path new workers can expect over their lifetimes.” One means by which such information can be generated “would be for higher education institutions to establish or expand their partnerships with businesses. In this way, colleges and universities could develop a fuller understanding of the relationship between their own curriculum, the needs of employers, and the majors selected by their students. Further, close ties between employers and higher education institutions would help ensure that the information given to students on jobs and careers was current.”
That’s where “employer alignment” comes in.
MATCHING PREP WITH POSITIONS
“The work that we do is called ‘employer alignment,'” says Scott Lurding of Altus Advisory Partners, a consulting firm serving higher education. “We help universities align themselves with their regional employer base, by trying to understand better what employers are looking for in college graduates. We take that information back to university leaders so that they can better develop their curricula and programs to prepare their students for the professional work that they will eventually do.”
Regional focus. Lurding’s work focuses on the regional economy surrounding the campus. “Most graduates of a college or university will stay within the institution’s respective region,” he says. “We find consistently that students at institutions we work with would prefer to remain in that region after graduation. Of course, it’s beneficial not to have a ‘brain drain’ in the community, so every way that a university and business community can align themselves to make their local economy stronger benefits everyone.”
Deliberate strategy. Lurding explains that, frequently, the employer alignment process involves the institution hiring Altus as part of a universitywide strategic planning process. Often one of the constituencies or stakeholders is the local employer community. For example, the senior leadership of an East Coast flagship public university needed assistance in gathering information from regional business leaders, with the goal of creating genuine partnerships between the university and business leaders in the community.
“It’s a time-consuming process,” notes Lurding, “and many institutions lack the personnel or business expertise to undertake such analysis. The research for this project took Altus more than three months, conducting about 75 interviews with leaders of 45 different organizations. The goal of the conversations was to identify industry trends, the skills business leaders expect from new graduates compared with what they are actually experiencing, and their perspective about how the graduates of the client university are performing relative to their peers. As an objective third party, we have found that business leaders will give us honest feedback about our client that they might not do if an administrator or faculty member were present.”
Following the interviews, explains Lurding, his company delivered a written report to various constituencies within the university: administration, board, faculty. “We were able to supply specific employer feedback about the way companies viewed the university, its programs, its students—and where they thought potential opportunities might be. For our client in this case, some of the feedback was sobering; in certain areas, there was a significant disconnect between internal and external perceptions. However, the good news was that the business leaders were quite willing to help the university in its quest to improve its programs.
“We identified the most important economic sectors in the region,” says Lurding, “and, from that group, those sectors that represented the greatest potential for the university’s graduates. New opportunities in professional services, information technology, and health care offered tremendous growth over the coming years.” Altus was able to give specific programmatic suggestions from employers that would prepare their client’s students for good jobs with long-term career opportunities.
“For example,” says Lurding, “we suggested adding certain machine languages to the information technology curriculum, developing a program on cyber and systems security, adding a construction management program, or developing cross-disciplinary studies for corporate and consulting jobs in data analytics.”
At the same time, research revealed that the regional finance industry, which had long drawn the university’s students, was in a transition that would result in declining demand and create a negative impact on the future job prospects for graduates. “We also recommended some near- and mid-term curricular opportunities,” notes Lurding, “based on things the university was already doing, but making a few changes to the curriculum that would differentiate it from other ‘competitor’ universities.”
Jump-starting future cooperation and dialogue. “Our analysis was eye-opening for everyone involved,” Lurding explains. “In addition to being able to factor into the strategic planning process the input from this very important constituency of business leaders, administrators helped calibrate changes to the strategic plan in some areas that hadn’t been considered before; and objective feedback allowed for some new perspectives.”
Often there is a follow-on phase following the written research report. “We assist our clients in engaging more deeply with the regional employers and developing processes for ongoing dialogue and feedback,” says Lurding. “We begin by introducing and facilitating connections between senior executives of the regional employers and senior administrators at our client institutions. We have found that long-term alignment and successful connections between employers and universities are most likely when there is engagement and coordination at the top”
Once those initial connections are made, explains Lurding, his firm quickly works to identify university staff and faculty who should be connected with employer executives, based on shared interests and needs. Examples of this include: deans and faculty getting feedback on programs or courses, executive guest lectures in classes or career centers, industry advisory panels at the institution, as well as developing internship and student mentoring programs. “We work to develop processes to institutionalize the engagement between employers and universities to ensure the consistency and coordination required for long-term effectiveness.”
“The traditional lack of engagement between academics and employers has created deeply engrained misunderstandings,” cautions Lurding. “Our goal is to break down those barriers in order to benefit the students. We help our clients with introductions, processes, and recommendations; but success is dependent on campus leaders, faculty, and staff who build upon what we start with regional employers. Ongoing meetings on campus and at the employers’ offices help academics and employers understand and learn from each other, and help to develop true partnerships.”
Wins for both sides. Everyone stands to benefit from the results of campus-employer realignment, says Lurding.
The college can better understand what parts of its curriculum can be realigned to meet the now-recognized needs of perspective employers. Students often gain access to internship programs and other professional training that motivates increased engagement in their studies. Engaged students lead to higher retention and graduation rates.
Connections with local employers translate to graduates who are more likely to stay and work in the region. Local companies benefit by helping grow a larger number of employees with the skills they need to enhance success and profitability.
DAVID RUPP, Pittsburgh, Pa., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.