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Why employer-university collaboration is an absolute imperative

Mark Lester - FourthRev

Earlier this month, new data revealed just how hard the tech industry is being hit by staff shortages, with a deficit now approaching 70,000. Demand is clearly exceeding supply, and simply trying to hire more tech workers is no longer a sustainable or viable option.

The result is that reskilling, upskilling and training employees are more crucial than ever for companies hoping to build digital-ready workforces that can lead their businesses into the future. Yet, given the size and complexity of this growing skills gap, neither employers nor universities can solve this problem alone.

This makes employer-university collaboration (EUC) a necessary imperative if we are to meet both the job needs of individuals and the talent needs of employers. However, existing models of EUC, such as apprenticeships, are struggling to keep up with the pace of change.

If we are to harness the true potential of EUC as a solution to the widening skills gap, we must start to support and implement more diverse, agile and flexible formats of collaboration.

Why is employer-university collaboration needed?
The digitisation of the global economy has been significantly fast-tracked by the coronavirus crisis, with company digital transformation agendas shifting forwards by up to 7-years. Consequently, our post-pandemic economy will almost certainly look different from that which came before. In fact, the World Economic Forum has forecast that digitisation of the global economy will result in 85 million lost jobs, primarily resulting from AI & automation, whilst simultaneously creating 97 million new jobs.

If we are to succeed in this new economy, the workforce of the future will require specific and different technological, social and emotional, and higher cognitive skills. With individuals and employers still looking to universities to nurture these higher-order capabilities, the higher education sector is uniquely positioned to prepare learners with the technical skills they need to secure a role in the digital economy, and equip them with the higher-order capabilities to accelerate their careers.

The sector has begun to respond to this challenge by getting closer to employers (mostly through industry partnerships) in recent years, making adaptations to their offerings in line with the everchanging employability needs of students and the talent needs of industry. However, these efforts have been limited by two major obstacles: speed and scale.

The traditional university system has faced challenges in ensuring content, curriculum and learning experiences can be built at the pace of change needed to keep up with the digital economy. For example, it often takes more than 18 months to develop a new undergraduate course, and the typical refresh cycle for courses is close to 5 years. The result is that, although higher education typically provides a good foundation for pursuing a future career and offers the right vehicle for developing the capabilities required by an increasingly advanced digital economy, existing EUC efforts have often fallen short in providing an up-to-date education at the speed and scale that employers and individuals need.

Is the apprenticeship model scalable?
A useful example to illustrate the need to rethink how employers and universities collaborate is apprenticeships. By offering the opportunity to combine working with studying to gain skills and knowledge in a specific job, this model of EUC has forged new opportunities for people to enter the workforce. It has also gained significant political support and a strong incentive for employers to fund places in recent years, with the UK government introducing an apprenticeships levy in 2017, forcing businesses with payrolls of more than £3 million to reserve 5 percent of wage costs for training in the workplace.

However, the challenge with the model is that it only serves a very limited segment of learners, fundamentally restricting the impact funding can have in addressing the UK’s digital skills gap. Most importantly, apprenticeship programmes do not currently speak to those that need to develop new technical skills to better perform in existing roles that have undergone digital transformation or those seeking to transition into the tech industry from other declining professions by studying part-time.

For example, funding can be used to transition into a new role within a company, such as when you move from a bank teller to a data analyst. However, you can’t use funding to upskill in your existing role (which may have got much more technical) or transition to a new role at a new company or in a new industry.

This is particularly important considering that one in four over 45s are now thinking about switching careers, which means that reaching this demographic will be critical if we’re going to meet the increasing demand for high-growth technology roles. However, as the bulk of funding is directed towards the apprenticeship model, we are sitting on an untapped goldmine.

The case for funding more diverse formats of EUC
The size of the challenge ahead of us clearly demands a scalable response but, as has been made clear above, traditional models of EUC have simply failed to scale, particularly those that are solely focused on skills and improving chances of employability. Now is this time for the government to build on the recent success and foundations the apprenticeship model has laid and start thinking about distributing funding to more impactful and scalable EUC.

There are numerous examples of these more agile models at work, such as where universities are engaging in new partnership models, which offer programmes that can be expertly developed and designed with industry and rolled out rapidly, regularly updated and adapted for use. For example, Coventry University has partnered with FutureLearn, a massive open online course (mooc) platform created by the Open University, to launch credit-bearing micro-credential courses.

As the transition to a more digitised economy demands a workforce with highly developed digital skills, as well as, for example, complex problem-solving ability and adaptability, another example is our recently launched “Career Accelerator” programmes. These unique 6-month, online courses help develop the technical knowledge and practical skills needed to perform in real-world roles, as well as the cognitive capabilities essential for ongoing growth and the human skills crucial for gaining and retaining jobs.

What these models of collaboration have in common is that they make it easier for universities to offer an up-to-date, market-driven curriculum in a flexible way that will widen access for learners. This means that they can help prepare people with the technical skills they need to secure a role in the digital economy, and also equip them with the higher-order capabilities to accelerate their careers. Unlike the apprenticeship model, they also allow people with a diverse range of experiences, backgrounds, and ages to access the technical, analytical and human skills they need to thrive in the digital technology sector, which democratizes accessibility and facilitates scalability.

Rethinking our approach to EUC
To enable individuals to lead fulfilling and successful economic and social lives, and for the economies of the future to succeed, we must close the digital capability gap. Huge progress has been made in EUC in recent years to make this gap smaller, but if we are to take the size of the challenge ahead of us seriously, now is the time to start thinking more about speed, scale, agility and flexibility.

Put simply, if we are to meet the current mismatch between the huge demand for digital talent and the dramatic shortfall of graduate and working professionals with the requisite digital capabilities, support must be given to new and agile forms of EUC before it’s too late.

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