Assuring Graduates are Prepared for Work and Careers: The Essential Employability Qualities Certification
By Melanie Booth, Ed.D., Executive Director, The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher & Postsecondary Education
To what extent does today’s postsecondary education address tomorrow’s work?
The 21st century workplace is predicted to become increasingly complex, interdependent, and dynamic, and workforce participants must be able to continually learn, reflect, and develop new skills and abilities. Technologies such as AI and robotics, along with new working conditions and environments, are resulting in massive changes. For example, it is projected that 65 percent of children entering primary school today will ultimately end up working in completely new job types that don’t yet exist (World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs Report, 2016). Adaptability in this environment is key; furthermore, employees must be able to think critically, identify and solve problems creatively, engage with others collaboratively, communicate effectively, approach new situations differently, and learn continuously.
While employers often refer to these as “soft skills,” these are actually Essential Employability Qualities (EEQs), and they are not specific to any discipline, field, or industry. Study after study from organizations such as Burning Glass, LinkedIn, ACT, the Foresight Alliance, Jobs for the Future, Career Tech, the Business Roundtable, O*NET, third way, National Network of Business and Industry Associations, and the Institute for the Future (to name a few) reveal the significance of the EEQs for today’s and tomorrow’s workforce.
EEQs help define the knowledge, skills, abilities, and learning experiences graduates need not only for their first jobs, but also for a lifetime of engaged participation in a rapidly changing workplace and necessary piers of support for their social and economic mobility.
The data about the gap between employer needs and what higher education provides reveals a significant issue: are postsecondary educational programs adequately preparing students for this dynamic world of work? Ninety-eight percent of Chief Academic Officers rate their institutions as very or somewhat effective at preparing students for the world of work, but only 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree that graduating students have the skills and competencies they need (2015 Gallup-Purdue Index). Only 25 percent of students are in a major with established career paths at their institutions, and only 40 percent of seniors feel their college experience has been very helpful in preparing for a career (McGraw Hill’s 2016 Workforce Readiness Survey). And since 2010, 86 percent of incoming freshman have said that getting a job represents a critical factor in their decision to enroll in college, compared with 73 percent of incoming freshmen between 2000 and 2009 who said the same (Gallup-Purdue Index, 2016).
Other major changes in the postsecondary landscape have a significant impact too. There is an increasing diversity of learners in age, preparation, racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and attendance patterns, and the number of high school graduates is decreasing. These new majority learners call for different learning environments and new approaches for career readiness. At the same time, there has been a rapid development of new kinds of providers and educational approaches: certifications, coding academies, and competency-based programs, along with a proliferation of credentials such as badges, nanodegrees, and new forms of certifications are creating multiple pathways and options for learners. Increasing costs and debt that learners must take on, in addition to widespread concerns about the overall value and return on investment of higher education, has resulted in an intolerance for the inadequate preparation of graduates for a 21st century workforce.
Designing a new approach to assure quality
Whether real or perceived, the gaps between postsecondary education and what employers are demanding seem to be increasing. So what can be done to assure the quality, relevance, and value of a postsecondary educational program? Accreditation in postsecondary education was not designed to respond to this rapidly changing environment, nor to address the Essential Employability Qualities for all types of programs and all learners. New quality assurance approaches have been sorely needed to respond to this environment, including methods that directly engage key stakeholders, namely employers and students. The reality of this issue has been the impetus for our creating The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher & Postsecondary Education (The QA Commons).
The QA Commons was established in the fall of 2016 to design a new approach to quality assurance that would respond to this changing landscape of postsecondary education and that would directly serve the needs of learners, employers, and our larger society. With funding from Lumina Foundation and in partnership with the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS), we have researched and identified the issues, challenges, and opportunities that a new quality assurance approach needed to address. As a result of our work – and in partnership with 27 academic programs from 14 institutions across the country, including Ashworth College and Strayer University – we have created the Essential Employability Qualities Certification or EEQ CERT . Employer representatives, as well as student representatives, were also key participants in the co-design process, adding their valuable perspectives about the potential value and relevance of such a Certification to our thinking and design. When implemented in fall 2018, the EEQ CERT will certify bachelors, associates, and certificate programs that prepare their graduates with the essential employability qualities.
The 27 programs from 14 institutions that participated in the co-design project represented approximately 35,000 students and were diverse in their disciplines, degree levels, delivery models, faculty profiles, institutional types, accreditation, student demographics, and locations.
This intentional diversity allowed us to test ideas across multiple educational contexts, to identify possible value-propositions for different kinds of programs, and to learn from the variety of disciplines, fields, and approaches represented. With employers’ and students’ voices at the table, we created Certification Criteria that are both outcome-based and descriptive of high impact practices and conditions for preparing students for employability:
- All graduates leave the program with the assessed demonstration of the EEQs in work-relevant contexts.
- All students have effective support systems for employability.
- Employers are engaged in the design, development, and evaluation of the program.
- Students and graduates are engaged in assuring program quality.
- The program provides information about the program and its outcomes to prospective and current students, employers, and the public.
In considering the challenges that a new quality assurance approach needed to address, our co-design group recognized the limitations of traditional metrics around graduate employment, namely job placement rates, graduates’ starting salaries, and graduate and employer satisfaction, all of which provide a limited set of evidence about a program’s effectiveness. The focus on Essential Employability Qualities is a focus on learning – and thus the demonstration and assessment of learning matters. While the EEQs have been clarified by labor market information, they also nicely align with several existing academic frameworks, including the Degree Qualifications Profile, AAC&U’s Essential Learning Outcomes, NACE’s Career Readiness Competencies, and the Connecting Credentials Framework. By necessity, the EEQs are best developed through direct practice and application; learners must have high impact learning opportunities in which to develop, practice, and apply their knowledge, skills, and abilities in work-relevant contexts.
Lessons from the field: Combining a developmental process with a rich learning network
As many of our 27 co-design partner programs illuminated, traditional forms of education and training are no longer sufficient as global and local conditions continually change, technology automates, and people must work differently. Learning approaches that address employers’ defined needs and include experiential and applied opportunities in work-relevant contexts for all students – and that focus on the Essential Employability Qualities – will be more critical than ever in the dynamic world of work of the 21st century. While some educational programs are being better informed by labor market data for a given field or industry, and the use of employer advisory boards is becoming more common practice, there is a continued need to identify strong and effective practices that lead to good student outcomes, and to support programs’ and institutions’ ability to adapt to this need.
As a result of our work with our partner programs, we were able to identify several of their programmatic and institutional promising practices to support students’ development of these qualities:
EEQ development and assessment
- Degree programs intentionally designed to develop, address, and assess expected EEQ exit proficiencies so there is assurance that all students will graduate from the program fully prepared.
- Applied projects designed to address real problems in a partner employer’s organization.
- Course-embedded community service projects that allow students to directly apply their learning to real community needs.
- Specific assignments designed so that students can learn content while also practicing different EEQs (e.g., written proposals, presentations, team-based formats, etc.).
- Experiential learning pathways that allow students to apply their learning in work-relevant situations at several points throughout a program.
- Team-based capstone projects situated in workplaces and co-taught with employers.
- Classes co-taught with employers; employers involved in directly assessing student work.
Career development, planning, and support
- Courses intentionally designed to support students in understanding the world of work and its expectations.
- Career development programming integrated across the curriculum and over time, such as embedded career planning activities in courses.
- Guest speakers from industries and organizations embedded in courses to engage students in considering industry or organization-specific career possibilities.
- A cross-campus integrated approach to career preparedness through civic engagement.
- Enhanced student records that convey students’ EEQ development and outcomes in visually accessible and appealing ways.
- Competency-based badging practices that communicate students’ abilities in visible, verifiable ways.
- Employer engagement models that go well beyond a traditional Advisory Board into authentic partnerships, or even “employer-attached” curriculum and pedagogy (where employers serve as co-faculty and assessors of student work).
- Employers and programs working together to develop and test new approaches, such as badging, developing talent pipelines through partnerships, and work-integrated learning modules.
- Use of findings from well-designed alumni surveys, which address not only program satisfaction but also graduates’ sense of preparedness for employment, graduate employment outcomes, and feedback for program improvement.
- Purposeful inclusion of alumni who employ program graduates into advisory boards or other feedback mechanisms.
The programs we partnered with also revealed the need to approach the process of certification as a developmental process, complete with self-assessment, formative feedback, a rich network of resources and learning partnerships, and a continuous improvement approach to support programmatic and institutional development. Through encouraging the connection of academic learning to workforce needs and graduate employability, The QA Commons will also provide insights and resources for groups interested in learning and developing important institutional conditions, program design elements, and teaching and learning practices.
From promise to practice
Once fully implemented, the EEQ CERT will provide a significant new way to address several current and emerging needs. First, it will address the need for a new way to signal to employers that a given program prepares its graduates for the world of work by making visible quality programs that could become “preferred providers” of talent.
For prospective students and their families, the EEQ CERT will communicate the relevance and value of a given educational program.
Students are looking for a return on their education investment – initially and over time – that leads to better quality of life and a better chance at paying off student debt efficiently.
The EEQ CERT will provide this third-party validation to reduce risk and increase confidence as students choose a program of study. It will also give graduates of EEQ CERT programs a way to communicate the quality of their preparation to prospective employers. A graduate from an EEQ Certified program will have an official digital record with which they can communicate their completion.
Leaders of postsecondary institutions need to be able to demonstrate to prospective students, parents, donors, and industry/employer partners that they are meeting their institutional missions and contributing to the public good by preparing their students for employability. Having programs certified by an external third party will greatly support efforts in student admissions, retention, completion, and satisfaction; employer and community-based partnership development and satisfaction; and alumni engagement and satisfaction. Furthermore, for many program faculty and administrators, ensuring that students graduate ready and able to apply their academic knowledge is becoming more and more critical. Academic leaders recognize the imperative that their programs be relevant and valuable given the changing world of work.
We believe that by making workforce readiness academically rigorous and a part of all educational programs through learners’ development of Essential Employability Qualities, we can assure prospective students and employers that graduates of EEQ Certified programs are ready for employment – now and into their future.
- ACT https://www.act.org/content/act/en/products-and-services/workforce-solutions/act-national-career-readiness-certificate.html
- Burning Glass – The top 10 soft skills employers look for most: http://burning-glass.com/the-top-10-soft-skills-employers-look-for-most/
- Career Tech https://www.careertech.org/cctc
- Institute for the Future http://www.iftf.org/futureworkskills/
- Jobs for the Future http://www.jff.org/publications/building-pathways-credentials-careers-and-economic-mobility-recommendations-trump
- LinkedIn: https://blog.linkedin.com/2016/10/20/top-skills-2016-week-of-learning-linkedin
- McGraw Hill’s 2016 Workforce Readiness Survey – https://www.mheducation.com/news-media/press-releases/2016-workforce-readiness-survey.html
- National Network of Business and Industry Associations http://www.nationalnetwork.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Common_Employability_Skills-03-30-15.pdf
- O*NET https://www.onetonline.org/skills/
- The Business Roundtable http://businessroundtable.org/resources/taking-action-connect-learning-work
- The Foresight Alliance http://www.foresightalliance.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/The-Futures-of-Work-1.12.2016.pdf
- Third way http://www.thirdway.org/report/automate-this-building-the-perfect-21st-century-worker
- World Economic Forum, The Future of Jobs Report, 2016 http://reports.weforum.org/future-of-jobs-2016/
- 2015 Gallup-Purdue Index Report – https://news.gallup.com/reports/197144/gallup-purdue-index-report-2015.aspx
- 2016 Gallup-Purdue Index Report – https://news.gallup.com/reports/199229/gallup-purdue-index-report-2016.aspx
MELANIE BOOTH, ED.D., is the Executive Director of The Quality Assurance Commons. Prior to this, Melanie served from 2013-2016 as the Special Assistant to the President and Vice President of Educational Programs for WASC Senior College & University Commission (WSCUC). In this role, she led and developed all of the organization’s educational outreach activities, including educational workshops, leadership seminars, learning retreats, the Assessment Leadership Academy, and the organization’s annual conference, the Academic Resource Conference (ARC). From 2005-2013, Melanie was the Dean of Learning & Assessment and Director of the Center for Experiential Learning and Assessment at Marylhurst University in Portland, OR. She has also held academic positions at Saint Mary’s College of California, Grays Harbor Community College, and San Diego State University, and most of her postsecondary work has been with and focused on non-traditional (now “new traditional”) adult learners.
Contact Information: Melanie Booth, Ed.D. // Executive Director // The Quality Assurance Commons for Higher & Postsecondary Education // 503-327-1351 // Melanie@theqacommons.org // https://theqacommons.org/ // Twitter: @QACommons