Colleges are increasingly looking at the particular skills employers seek, using data analytics to mine thousands of job listings. They’re using tools rich with timely job market data like LinkedIn and Burning Glass plus an array of other data sources to inform decisions on curriculum, program expansion and even new campuses.
Northeastern University, headquartered in Boston, was one of the first to use Burning Glass’ Labor Insights tool and decided to open a Seattle campus focusing on graduate degrees.
Data for the Seattle region showed Northeastern there were an above-average amount of job openings requiring a master’s degree. While Seattle has a high number of associate’s and bachelor’s degree-holders, just 13 percent held graduate degrees when Northeastern came to the city, compared to Silicon Valley’s 19 percent.
Northeastern also looked at metrics like the number of Fortune 500 companies in the area, population growth, diversification of industries and the unemployment rate to determine if there was a market for its programs.
“It’s actually the same way a company might go about building a product or initiative,” said Sean Gallagher, Chief Strategy Officer at Northeastern.
He said the private research university also met with about 200 regional employers and surveyed potential students to inform its decision. The Seattle branch has seen a 30 percent increase of enrollment year-over-year, with 469 current students, according to a university spokesperson.
Using Data To Fine Tune Curriculum
Once Northeastern decided on the location, it used data to fine tune its curriculum, as well. The legal studies program refined its offerings after data pointed to a need for finance and biotech law.
And growing evidence of job opportunities in data analytics led Northeastern to offer at its Seattle, Boston, Charlotte and Silicon Valley campuses an intensive two-month, post bachelor’s degree course called Level.
The Wall Street Journal reports that with a higher job change rate than any other nation and more job openings than new hires, “granular data from job listing services” is beginning to re-shape the tricky relationship between employers and higher ed. In one instance, the engineering school of a Michigan community college refined its curriculum to match 85 percent of the most frequently sought aptitudes.
Gallagher said it’s one thing to have employment forecast data, that’s broad and updated relatively infrequently, but another to have information from hundreds of thousands of actual job listings.
Can A School Really Be ‘Too Vocational’ These Days?
It takes time and resources to devote to developing job market-aligned programs, but also a particular mindset, he said.
“For the most part, outside of community colleges, many colleges have an aversion to aligning highly to the job market, and a fear they’ll be perceived as too vocational,” Gallagher said.
Washington State University has also used Burning Glass to decide on degrees to offer at the Vancouver and online campuses.
But there’s a flip-side. WSU also makes sure to focus on broader skills that won’t be outdated as the job market changes, said John Schneider, associate dean of the university’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture.
“As a four-year institution we’re trying to inculcate skills that have a more sustained duration of value,” he said.
Fundmental Tech Skills and Ability Learn Are Big Assets
Schneider shared the story of a computer science student who took classes at WSU and learned the programming language C, then found the university she transferred to focused on another language, Java. When she applied for a job at Amazon, it was using Perl, but Schneider said the company was willing to teach the language since she already had the fundamental skills it valued.
WSU stays attuned to the changing needs of employers with advisory boards of professionals that give various departments feedback twice a year. Schneider said the public university’s research capacity also keeps faculty updated on industry trends, as researchers work closely with the private sector.
The school also works with the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which conducts an annual survey of employer needs. NACE’s Job Outlook 2016 found that the top qualities and skills companies wanted were good verbal communication skills, the ability to work with a team and to solve problems.
Technical, job-related knowledge was ranked seventh on the list, right before proficiency in software programs.
Employers Divided On Preparedness Of Workforce
A 2014 Gallup poll found employers divided on how well American colleges are preparing students for the workforce.
About a third disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competencies that my business needs,” with another third agreeing and the rest neutral.
Just 11 percent strongly agreed that colleges were preparing students adequately for their business.
Some Washington businesses work closely with local education institutions to ensure workforce needs are met.
Earlier this year more than a dozen Washington companies that had partnered with community colleges received $1.1 million in matching grants from the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to create employee training programs.
Among them, Green River College received $133,900 to train Esterline Technologies Corporation employees in electrical assembly and manufacturing skills.
Data Analytics Opportunities Abound
One skill that turns up when data analysts examine job listings? Data analysis. A 2015 study from Burning Glass and General Assembly found the demand for data science skills had tripled over five years.
And LinkedIn put statistical analysis and data mining second from the top in its list of “The 25 Skills That Can Get You Hired in 2016.”