A new assessment tool created for higher education institutions to track and measure the career success of their graduates was launched this week by nonprofit organization Quality Assurance Commons. The tool, which is called the Employability Self-Assessment, helps institutions identify the key skills employers want in candidates in the current and post-pandemic workplace.
The ESA has already been piloted at 20 colleges and universities and is being implemented at eight higher education institutions in the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities System, according to a company press release.
Even before the pandemic, organizations were seeking candidates who showed strength in soft skills. Seventy-five percent of HR professionals who were having recruiting difficulty reported a shortage of skills among candidates for job openings in the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2019 report on the global skills shortage and bridging the talent gap. According to the report, the top three missing soft skills reported by employers were problem solving, critical thinking, innovation and creativity; ability to deal with complexity and ambiguity; and communication.
Research has continued to reinforce a widening soft skills gap over the past five years, says Ralph Wolff, founder and president of QA Commons. But he says COVID-19 has put more pressure on higher education institutions to increase capacity of the soft skills that matter for employment.
“Employers tell us too often our graduates have technical and academic skills, but not the requisite soft skills that are critical for job success and promotability,” says Aaron Thompson, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education in Kentucky. “In today’s COVID-19 world, employability skills are as important as ‘hard’ skills. Adaptability and resilience, along with the ability to work remotely, are key skills for the future.”
The CPE has worked with QA Commons since November 2018 after Thompson was appointed president. Higher education should be seen as a lynchpin to building the workforce of the future in Kentucky and beyond, he says.
How it works
The ESA was developed to bridge the soft skills gap by helping integrate them into higher education institutions’ curricula, Wolff says. The first step is to evaluate the existing curriculum: “Does it integrate critical soft skills within the context of each discipline? Are faculty members aware of relevant soft skills, and are they equipped with the necessary tools to embed these skills into the framework of the course?”
The ESA includes a field-tested framework that higher education programs go through to align curricula with current employability needs, according to the press release. Each program will be supported as they develop proficiency in eight 21st century skills — Essential Employability Qualities — researched and identified by QA Commons as critical: communication, thinking and problem solving, inquiry, collaboration, adaptability, learning, principles and ethics, and responsibility and professionalism.
The ESA also measures whether the program transparently describes the major that students will receive and the skills they are required to learn, in order to better match with career options, Wolff says, and then this is paired with information on salaries and career pathways that will help students plan for their own professional growth in the workplace.
“In the end, a school has a clear benchmark of how their students are faring in the workplace, and how exactly to round out its curriculum with training for current, in-demand skills,” Wolff says.
Six colleges or universities in Kentucky have already gone through the ESA, and 13 of 16 programs are now certified in QA Commons’ eight EEQs. “In this process, we learned a great deal about where gaps exist within and across programs and where good practices are being implemented,” Thompson says.
“Students should have a greater understanding of the skills they bring to bear on their course of study, and those they’ve acquired leading up to completion,” he adds. “Using the ESA, program stakeholders can clearly see for themselves where they are doing well and how to do better.”
Why soft skills?
Wolff says that people often say education is the great equalizer. While this is true, he says he believes that in today’s world of work, soft skills are an even greater equalizer.
“The need for various technical skills will evolve over time, but the soft skills are transcendent and transferable,” he says. “Employers have long needed employees who exhibit superior human skills, and in a mostly remote and automated environment, these capabilities have never been more important.”
Learning and development professionals have historically pointed to solutions like microlearning and coaching in order to close the soft skills gap employers are currently facing, but clearly development of these skills can also be achieved earlier for a learner, within higher education. Thompson says QA Commons is a “powerful ally” in their mission to help higher education prepare learners for current and future workforce needs.
“These kinds of partnerships are critical as institutions assess their relationships and alignment with employer needs,” he says. “An outside perspective and structured process enabled us to tighten the connection between academic curriculum and the real world, and is a critical step in ensuring students can succeed amid widespread economic uncertainty.”