Can university-business collaborations solve the global skills gap?

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Could U2B collaboration be the answer to the skills gap?

By Emma Richards 

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Access to appropriately skilled workers has always been an important determining factor in a business’s success, both small and large alike. But finding those right people isn’t always easy and in our increasingly tech and data-driven world, the search is becoming ever more challenging.

The highly debated digital skills shortage is a truly global problem and, given the pervasive nature of technology, it’s leaving no country or industry untouched.

The European Commission (EC) believes there could be as many as 756,000 unfilled jobs in the European ICT sector by 2020. And this will only worsen as skills gaps across all industries look set to widen during the Fourth Industrial Revolution, with advances in artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and other emerging technologies happening in ever shorter cycles.

“All companies are becoming tech companies as competition to compete in the digital marketplace continues,” co-founder and CEO of General Assembly, Jake Schwartz, told Training Industry.

“As a result, we’re rapidly shifting toward an economy in which every employee needs a variety of modern skills. For everyone from entry-level hires to the C-suite, being tech- and data-literate is an integral part of the job description.”

Economies will pay the price for the skills gap

A 2018 report from Accenture found G20 countries could be in line to miss out on as much as US$11.5 trillion in GDP growth over the next 10 years if they fail to adapt to meet the needs of the new technological era.

At the highest end of this, failing to close the skills gap could cost China up to 1.7 percent of its average annual growth rate in the next 10 years, or more than US$5 trillion. Economies with a stronger skills base could also still lose big, with as much as US$975 billion in the United States and US$264 billion in Germany being missed out on.

Beyond the economic impact, the risk includes greater rates of unemployment and intensified income inequality.

As well as the rapidly changing pace of technology, the EC places the blame for the digital skills gap on a “lack of synergy between educational systems and the requirements of the labour market.”

Only 10 percent of human resource departments have implemented a recruitment or training programme to close the digital skills gap. Source: NESA/Unsplash

Accenture points out it is almost impossible for universities to keep up. They claim current education and corporate learning systems are not equipped to address the coming revolution in skills demand, and propose shifting focus to experiential and work integrated learning, carried out in collaboration with the industries struggling to fill jobs.

In many cases, companies are having to train graduate employees in skills they ideally should have learnt while at university. But this doesn’t have to be the only way. Rather than sit on the sidelines and be unhappy with the results, industry players can collaborate with universities to develop a valuable curriculum that will benefit both students and businesses – a potentially hold the key to bridging the skills gap.

Could U2B collaboration be the answer to the skills gap?

“There’s no other way you will without businesses and education institutions working hand in hand,” Counsellor for Education and Science at the Australian High Commission, Kuala Lumpur, Bernadine Curana, told U2B.

“The pace of change means they can’t not be working together… It’s an expensive model to have people [retraining] in their workforces.”

While online learning will be able to fill in some of those gaps by making learning more flexible and allow people to upskill as and when required, there will still be a role for formal education, Caruana said.

“You need to bring the latest research and development in. Businesses have a remit, they’re there to make profit, not generally to upskill, that’s not their core skill, so that’s where education institutions will continue to play an important role.”

And she’s right. While 80 percent of executives regard digital transformation as being important for their company’s overall business strategy, only 10 percent of human resource departments have implemented a recruitment or training programme to close the digital skills gap.

It’s already happening

Greater involvement from the private sector in education is already being tested in many universities with more and more students entering the job market having benefitted from a collaborative approach between universities and industry to nurture in-demand skills.

Industry leaders are increasingly stepping up to the plate to help tomorrow’s workers develop and hone the skills they’ll need to compete by taking a hands-on role in developing specialised curricular programmes.

Microsoft is a prime example of this. The computing giant has taken a deep interest in the education of today’s undergraduates and works with universities to embrace digital transformation under their Microsoft Education Transformation Framework.

A core principle of their approach is to “emphasise future-ready skills to help students thrive in jobs not yet invented.”

They also currently operate 120 Microsoft Innovation Centres (MIC) in 33 countries across the world, many of which are in collaboration with higher education.

Equipped with Microsoft software, devices and skilled IT specialists, each MIC acts an innovation hub where students, academic researchers, and entrepreneurs can exchange ideas and resources to create new companies and spur economic development.

“We look to partner with universities that are really quite innovative, that are flexible, and that have the ability to change fairly quickly,” Director of Education for Microsoft Asia Pacific, Don Carlson, told U2B.

“Universities have to have the ability to change fairly quickly. When we talk to a university and ask, ‘how long does it take you to put in a new programme from inception to delivery?’ and they say, ‘three or four years,’ you just don’t have that, you have three or four months. Everything’s so fast.”

To make curriculum transformation as easy as possible, Microsoft has developed a professional programme with the nine core relevant digital subjects – including data analytics, artificial intelligence, security and coding – complete with online virtual labs, and they work with the university to get them implemented quickly.

It removes the need for the university to develop its own platform on which to host the courses and gives them access to the latest in digital skills training.

“You don’t have to build all of this from scratch,” Carlson said. Once the curriculum is integrated, students leave university with their degree, along with industry recognition.

“It’s based on industry globally, and what’s being asked for. We work at a company level, globally to understand what businesses want and to get that input.”

SMEs need to get involved

But it’s not just industry powerhouses like Microsoft that are getting involved with university collaborations.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are some of the hardest hit by the skills gap, with 94 percent of UK SMEs having struggled to find workers with the right skills in 2018.

The Open University’s 2018 Business Barometer, which monitors the skills landscape of the UK, found 61 percent of senior business leaders report the skills shortage has worsened over the past year. And 69 percent of SME leaders believe large employers are using their higher resources to monopolise the best talent, leaving many priced out of the labour market.

Universities could be the answer to this problem. Many universities are starting to work with SMEs to assist them with the latest research, expertise, and access to cutting-edge equipment they otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to use. But they are also placing students into small businesses; plugging a position while also equipping students with relevant skills.

Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick partners SMEs with students in a variety of ways, including knowledge transfer partnerships (KTPs), apprenticeships, and work placement schemes. But it’s understanding the specific needs of each individual company that make these collaborations so valuable to all parties.

British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond (C-L) view a human powered submarine during a visit to the Warwick Manufacturing Group facility at the University of Warwick on September 1, 2016. Source: Carl Court/Pool/AFP

“Our role [at WMG] has always been to think about the customer. It’s not about, what is the best way for us to deliver, it’s what does the individual [student] need and what does the company they’re working for need,” Director of External and International Relations at WMG, Professor David Mullins, told U2B.

“That involves a requirement to be delivering knowledge in the right form, in the right way and in the right manner… We have to align with what the business is looking for, what is best for them and best for the individuals involved.”

WMG is somewhat of a pioneer in the field of university-business collaborations, starting out in 1980 with a bid to reinvigorate the UK manufacturing industry. Under founder Professor Lord Kumar Bhattacharyya, it has become one of the world’s leading education and research groups, with relationships with over 1,000 global companies and has helped over 1,800 SMEs build their business.

More and more educational organisations like WMG, with an emphasis on industry, are appearing every day and their close relationship with business makes them well placed to know exactly what skills are lacking in the modern-day workplace.

The number of different forms of collaboration available for businesses to team up with academia means there’s increasingly little reason to still be complaining about the skills gap.

As Caruana of the Australian High Commission says, the only way to succeed in bridging the skills gap is if both sides work together.