Skill-Related Highlights for Higher Ed Leaders

Published on Jun 14, 2021

Updated on Nov 3, 2022

Written by Remie Verougstraete

Skill-Related Highlights for Higher Ed Leaders

At Emsi, we’ve talked a lot about the implications of an increasingly skill-based economy for higher education. But we’re hardly the only ones with something to say! To help you keep up with the national conversation, we’ve aggregated some of the recent articles, policy recommendations, and news stories that shed light on the significance of skill-level insights for the future of learning and work.


1) US Chamber of Commerce Policy Recommendations

The US Chamber released a set of policy recommendations aimed at addressing the nation’s growing “jobs gap.” Their proposed agenda touches on issues ranging from apprenticeships to immigration reform. Of particular interest to HE leaders, they include a section on improving “educational and job training opportunities for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Their recommendations push for greater transparency around education-to-career pathways, including the use of Learning and Employer Records (LERs), which we’ve written about before. There are some intriguing proposals for how to fund lifelong learning and skills acquisition, including: Portable “Skills Savings Accounts,” income share agreements, and, perhaps most notably, expanding the Pell grant to cover “non-credit bearing courses that provide skills and credentialing for in-demand jobs.”

While the US Chamber doesn’t have authority to enact these policies, their support indicates that these ideas are in the mainstream of policy discussions. Just last week, an amendment that would’ve expanded Pell grants to cover short-term programs (along the lines of the Chamber’s proposal) made it to the Senate floor, before ultimately getting blocked, for now. These and other proposals to expand funding and access to programs focused on work-aligned skills are worth keeping an eye on.


2) Cengage Graduate Employability Report

A new report from Cengage finds that “half of graduates don’t apply to entry level jobs because they feel underqualified and almost one in five don’t have needed job skills.” It also delves into recent graduates’ perception of whether or not degrees should be required for most jobs (some major CEO’s say “no”), and the need for employers to “de-stigmatize non-traditional degrees.”

It’s clear from these findings that learners have an appetite for a closer connection between classroom learning and the world of work they enter after college. For colleges and universities, this highlights the dual priorities of not only teaching work-relevant skills, but also helping learners themselves see and articulate how their college experience connects to their career goals. In other words, institutions must instill both competence and confidence.

Obviously, this responsibility spans multiple departments, from academic leadership to career services. But faculty may be especially well positioned to execute on both of these dual priorities. As we’ve argued recently, this is one reason for institutions to support faculty with skill-level insights that illuminate how course curriculum aligns with the skills employers value (and learners need). Equipped with the right tools, faculty can help students consciously develop the fundamental human and technical skills they need to confidently enter the job market.


3) The Growing Importance of Decision-Making on the Job (NBER)

A new working paper for the National Bureau of Economic Research spotlights the growing importance of decision-making abilities in the modern economy. According to the author, Harvard economist David Deming, one effect of our increasing ability to automate routine tasks is that, “remaining job tasks are increasingly open-ended and require workers to make decisions and adapt to unforeseen circumstances, which explains why employers consistently rate problem-solving and critical thinking as the most essential needs among new hires.”

Deming’s findings reinforce what we have seen in previous research projects and work with groups like NAFSA and America Succeeds: human skills are in-demand skills. But Deming goes further by connecting the growing value of “soft skills” to an actual shift in the peak age of earnings from the late 30’s to the mid-50’s. As Deming notes in his abstract, “a substantial share of this shift is explained by increased employment in decision intensive occupations, which have longer and more gradual periods of earnings growth.”

This research has at least two implications for higher education:

  1. It illuminates the value of surfacing “soft skills” like problem solving, critical thinking, and decision making as they are cultivated through various (sometimes underappreciated) dimensions of the college experience. For example, we’ve written on how a skill-based approach to the general education curriculum can help learners appreciate the value and relevance of courses outside their major. The same principles can apply to boost engagement with, and appreciation for, liberal arts programs more generally.

  2. It also raises intriguing possibilities for working adult learners and the institutions that serve them. While soft skills are obviously essential, it’s also clear that core technology and data skills are increasingly important in the economy (see our recent profile on demand for data visualization, for example). For adults looking to capitalize on the upward shift in peak earning years, it could be worthwhile to supplement their wisdom and experience with some up-to-date technical skills. They don’t have to learn to code, but they should at least have the tech savvy and data fluency to manage their coder colleagues.


4) Enabling pathways to opportunity through a skills-based architecture (JCBE)

Western Governors University has been a pioneer in leveraging skills data to improve learning and employment outcomes for graduates. In a recent article published in the Journal of Competency Based Education (JCBE), two vice presidents pull back the curtain on WGU’s project to build a “skills-based architecture.” Based on this architecture, they are able to better guide upskilling and reskilling, as well as surface the value of those credentials and degrees to employers. 

While most institutions don’t share the scale or resources of a WGU, institutions of all types and sizes can glean from their philosophy and approach to skills while contextualizing those efforts to their own mission. To learn more about WGU’s work, you can also watch a presentation from Kacey Thorne (Director of Program Architecture) at the 2020 ASU+GSV conference, or read about WGU’s early skill mapping pilot project with Emsi.


We hope this brief roundup of skill-related news and research is helpful and informative. If you want to learn more about using skills data to optimize your curriculum and provide personalized learning recommendations, let us know! We’d love to learn about the work you’re doing and explore how Emsi data can help.