Building Inclusive Pathways to Skills for the Digital Economy

There is no shortage of reports on the future of work in a digital economy and others documenting the skills gap. PwC’s Talent Trends 2019 reports a steep increase in concerns among CEOs—to nearly three quarters—about the availability of skills and half reported that this gap is limiting innovation. Despite a dramatic increase in the number of undergraduates enrolled in courses and bootcamps teaching digital skills, the seeming misalignment of postsecondary degrees with skills needs has caused many to question the value of academic degrees. But what is often unsaid–or at least unconnected–is how dramatically skills demand in the job market is changing, and how rapidly, challenging higher education’s ability to respond.

The economy’s and companies’ skills demands are changing faster than can be effectively communicated to colleges and universities. The exponential growth of data, automation, and AI-driven analytics tools that spawned the digital economy mean that every company, on some level, must become a tech company in order to innovate. The speed of change and the scale of demand require all students to have at least foundational digital skills in order to bring value to their future employers. Indeed, a 2017 report from the Business-Higher Education Forum and PwC, reported 2.35 million data science and analytics-enabled jobs requiring data science and data analytics skills and two-thirds of those positions are analytics-enabled functional analysts and decision makers.  That report projected increase of almost half a million positions data-savvy professional jobs by 2020.

My organization, the Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF), has demonstrated that business-higher education partnerships are a powerful tool to meet this demand for talent in the digital economy. But in order for students to learn the skills they need, business and higher education must form partnerships that empower higher education to nimbly respond the demand for new skills. Ongoing partnerships can provide the real-time inputs and feedback that make degrees more relevant, students more successful, and business more productive.

BHEF recently completed a five-year National Science Foundation grant to develop diverse regional talent ecosystems of two- and four-year higher education institutions and STEM-driven business. Because of these partnerships, more underrepresented students persisted and succeeded in a variety of challenging STEM fields. With the support of the grant the City University of New York, Miami Dade College, Northeastern University, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Washington University in St. Louis partnered with IBM, NextEra Energy, Raytheon, the Water Council, and Boeing (respectively). This list isn’t just impressive names: these efforts resulted in real new credentials and student success, from the creation of stackable credentials to increased diversity of STEM graduates. (More details can be found in BHEF’s forthcoming publication, Building Bridges to Success.)

These kinds of business-higher education partnerships can succeed at any school, in any region. BHEF believes that engaging strategically with higher education and following a proven partnership implementation process are crucial to the success of these partnerships, and we’ve seen dozens of BHEF-member companies and institutions and hundreds of projects flourish with our tested approach. More students are acquiring the skills employers need, one partnership at a time.

Businesses can play a unique role in collaborating with higher education institutions to develop human capital, but first we need to develop the partnerships and processes that foster real-time skill development. Our economy demands it, and our students deserve it.