Friday, March 20, 2015

Recent Accomplishments.

The last time we posted an update, we had just been awarded a supplemental grant from the National Science Foundation, we were doing analytical coding, and it was very cold.  Not only have we accomplished a lot since then, but was almost 70 degrees outside this week! 

For example, we are working on a book deal, with a final draft due in Spring of 2016 (a quick turnaround, right?).  While the book will focus on the question of how educational and industry fields align in preparing students for successful lives and careers, it will also concentrate on a few talented instructors with whom we have interacted across the state.  The aim? To highlight their curricular, instructional, and advising practices and better understand how they cultivate valued competencies in the classroom.  The book will also generally emphasize the importance of partnerships between educators and employers. 

Besides the book deal and the supplemental grant, the team completed the herculean process of analytically coding every interview from this study (over 150 people talked to us).  Analysis of ALL of the free list data has started, and we have outlined the first paper to come out of the study actually, parts of it have already been composed!  

We are looking forward to sharing more with you as we continue to develop our findings.  In the meantime, we will keep on analyzing, writing, and disseminating our results in a variety of ways.

We are making some serious progress!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Inside Higher Ed Op-Ed.

The intention of the piece is to get more people to think about the current rhetoric surrounding the “skills gap” as well as subsequent policy responses at the state and national level.  We argue that Governor Walker and President Obama’s approach to the “skills gap” is problematic, bolstering our case with a sneak peek at data we have collected in the field over the last year and a half.  Since this is the first time we have publicized results, we are anxiously awaiting feedback and comments.  (In fact, you should probably go read the article and leave a comment right now).

As you’ll see, the article discusses some of our more surprising findings.  For example, educators and employers believe that “work ethic” plays a very significant role in workers’ success.  Employers and educators alike also cited an interesting suite of skills as being important for success, including so-called “hard” skills like technical knowledge or technical abilities, and “soft” skills like lifelong learning, communication, and teamwork.  While the data in part confirms recent trends, our unique methodological approach will allow us to better understand how key stakeholders look at these important issues.  Participants said some pretty fascinating things about these skills and the roles they play in success.

We conclude the piece, first, with three important recommendations for business and postsecondary leaders: (1) appreciate how a liberal and general education prepares students for the workforce, (2) support educators in using active learning techniques in the classroom, and (3) create opportunities to foster partnerships between educators and employers.

We also end by pointing out that the current debate would benefit from a much more open discussion of one important question: what is the purpose of higher education in the United States of the 21st century?     

What do YOU think?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Supplemental Grant Awarded!

In the grayest and snowiest of times here in Wisconsin, some exciting news hit our inbox yesterday from the National Science Foundation.  Our study was awarded a supplemental grant that will extend our current project to include focus groups with students and new hires.  Given that the current project is looking at education-workforce pathways and alignment issues between educators and employers, it makes sense to speak with those who are actually moving between these sectors.  Also, few studies have utilized the voices of students and new hires when investigating the skills gap, so this addition to our study should prove fruitful for our findings.

We have been in the thick of analysis for about two and half months now – in other words, we have been spending lots of time both in NVivo coding and in meetings discussing emergent themes.  We thought the study was exciting before, but now we have some pretty incredible data to back that feeling up.  Once it is in better shape, we will share some highlights!

Besides coding, we have begun the groundwork for the first peer-reviewed paper coming out of the study – a summative piece reporting the findings from the project as a whole. 

With piles of blankets and lots of hot tea and coffee, we continue to move forward! 

More to come.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Updates and What Is Coming!

It’s been months since our last update, and we have a lot of news to share! 

The first year mark of the study (October 1) has passed, and during that time we have accomplished a lot.  In our travels around Wisconsin, the three members of our team have chatted with over 150 individuals who are working in manufacturing or biotechnology businesses or related initiatives or who are teaching or advising students on pathways into these industries.   We conducted many shop floor and laboratory tours and learned more about the factors that shape hiring, that affect curriculum and instruction, and that influence the formation of partnerships between higher education and the workforce.  We also gathered some very interesting data concerning the “skills gap” and what our participants thought of that phenomenon…

In terms of publications, we released a report on the conundrum concerning what STEM jobs actually are and what that means for subsequent labor market analyses.  A proposal regarding work ethic in the classroom has been accepted for a poster session at the Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) in Chicago, so we will start sharing our results on that front at that conference in the spring.

In November, Matt and I traveled to Washington DC to the Meeting of the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE).  I presented a paper on undergraduate study habits (an idea that we are hoping to loop into workforce development), and Matt and I met a variety of interesting people working on higher education-workforce development projects.  We were excited to see the field embrace this line of research, and we enjoyed the models and ideas that others put forth.  A high point for me was attending a panel about the mis-specified STEM crisis that grappled with questions that were relevant to our study and to the report we just released.

So what lies ahead during the chilly months of December and January?  We are in the thick of our analysis now and are exploring every detail that our participants shared with us.  The coming months will be a carnival of analysis, interpretations, meetings, discussions, more analysis, and RESULTS!  As we march on, we promise to post more frequent updates with interesting findings and relevant stories. 

We will also pursue our in-depth follow-up interviews and observations in the coming months.  We’ve just selected around six postsecondary education instructors to closely follow and analyze in order to better understand their curriculum design, teaching, advising, and their partnerships with industry.  Their interesting and unique stories will bring to life some of our most important findings.

Lastly, please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments or contact us directly with your insights.  If anything, our fieldwork has taught us that collaboration and teamwork is key, and we would love to hear from you!

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Thoughts from the field: Training a business major to run AutoCAD

Just got back from more fieldwork in Western Wisconsin, where I and a member of the research team hung out at the local community college, 4-year university, and lots of factories.  One of the enduring impressions of my time there was an interview and shop floor tour with the Director of Tooling at a mid-size company that made mostly automotive parts.  Upon answering my question about the applicant pool for recent openings, he bemoaned the fact that the local community college graduated so few students in his area (i.e., tool and die), but really, what he needed was people with a strong work ethic, a good head on their shoulders, and a willingness to learn.  This was largely due to the fact that they had to train people anyways on their own machinery and in-house processes.  In fact, he noted that sometimes experience (whether on the job or in school) was a negative, as this meant people came into the company with ideas about how things should be done.  In other words, a complete newbie could be molded to fit the organizational culture and workflow.

This was clear when he mentioned that two recent hires were business majors looking for work, and who were hired to do design work, mostly using AutoCAD software.  They trained the new hires to use it and after a couple of months they were off and running.  Sure, it would have been ideal to not have to spend the time doing that training, but the guy I was talking to observed that the skills and aptitudes that got these people through college - hard work, good reasoning abilities, willingness to learn - were in the long run more valuable than an abridged training period. 

While we have many results and findings coming out from this study, this one is rising to the top because we're hearing it across the state and across sectors.  Since our focus is on how classroom teaching and training programs can be designed to meet the needs of both employers and educators, the question becomes one of how to leverage the expertise and insights from instructional designers (especially in the learning sciences, and also in STEM education circles) to help people design their curricula and organize their classrooms.  But, it also points to the fact that, because these aptitudes are learnt from childhood and strongly molded in the home and community, that the answers to these issues are not solely to be found in our schools, colleges, or universities.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Can "soft skills" be taught?

This is one of the recurring questions that comes to mind as we enter the mid-point of this study.  Raised by some employers and educators, this question gets to one of the biggest areas of need we are seeing in the workplace - the ability to communicate, reason, problem-solve, and be a team player.

Unsurprisingly, many people have thought long and hard about this, and here is a nice post from the Workforce Solutions group at St. Louis Community College.  A key idea is that:

"By the time students show up at an institution of higher education, they have been socialized to a large extent. They come with habits, preferences and behaviors deeply rooted in their personal experiences. So, the likelihood that a college student will be able to demonstrate acceptable non-cognitive behaviors in class is more of a function of what they learned from their parents, K-12 education and other experiences."

The author then goes on to state that this doesn't mean the postsecondary teacher is off the hook, and we are collecting some very nice examples of course curricula and classroom techniques that teachers (mostly in community colleges!) are using to explicitly cultivate the so-called "soft skills."  I call them so-called because it's a pretty awful catch-all term, especially since it is intended to capture some behavioral norms that are culturally embedded - something the term "skills" doesn't really capture.

In any case, figuring out how to cultivate these aptitudes and skills in students seems to be something that would benefit not just the workforce, but the students themselves as they embark on their careers and lives.  Figuring out just how to do that is turning out to be one of this research program's primary areas of inquiry. 

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Lots of news about the workforce and education

This seems to be a good time to be thinking about these issues, or depending on your perspective, perhaps an unfortunate time.  In any case, the past 2 days have seen a few noteworthy developments on the topic being addressed by this study: the relationship between employer expectations and what educators are providing to students.

First, President Obama highlighted these issues in his 2014 State of the Union.  Some choice selections include:

"So tonight, I've asked Vice President Biden to lead an across-the-board reform of America's training programs to make sure they have one mission:  Train Americans with the skills employers need, and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now."

"That means more on-the-job training and more apprenticeships that set a young worker on an upward trajectory for life. It means connecting companies to community colleges that can help design training to fill their specific needs. And if Congress wants to help, you can concentrate funding on proven programs that connect more ready-to-work Americans with ready-to-be-filled jobs."

"Of course, it's not enough to train today's workforce. We also have to prepare tomorrow's workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education."

Second, in Waukesha today the President, continuing on this line of thinking, made it clear what types of postsecondary degrees and training he felt would lead one to a fruitful, middle-class, family-supporting career:

"A lot of parents, unfortunately, maybe when they saw a lot of manufacturing being offshored, told their kids you don't want to go into the trades, you don't want to go into manufacturing because you'll lose your job.  Well, the problem is that what happened -- a lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career.  But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.  Now, nothing wrong with an art history degree -- I love art history.  (Laughter.)  So I don't want to get a bunch of emails from everybody.  (Laughter.)  I'm just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need. "

Finally, a report came out of Bentley University (in MA) called the Prepared U Project which is about the types of skills students need to succeed in today's workforce.  The data released this week are based on 3,149 respondents (corporate recruiters, biz executives, college students) and there's a lot of good stuff in there.  One being that 19% felt that "hard" skills were essential, 14% felt that "soft" skills were essential, and 66% said both.  That's a topic that we're addressing directly in our own study, and its great to see others are tackling this issue, in part to counteract some of the more simplistic ideas about what constitutes a skilled workforce or marketable skills that are out there.