To contend with a reported lack of critical skills internally and among new hires, employers are sharpening their focus on workforce planning. And they expect the types of educational opportunities colleges offer to change.
That's according to panelists at BMO Capital Markets' 19th-annual Back to School Conference held Thursday in New York.
"There's brand risk, reputational risk, by allowing people to reach a terminal point in their career, and (companies) are trying to think more carefully about the talent plan within the enterprise and also where people will end up over time," said Frank Britt, CEO of Penn Foster, a skills training firm, during a panel about the future of work and reskilling.
And while reports indicate new technology is fundamentally changing existing jobs and resulting in the creation of new ones, Matthew Sigelman, CEO of labor market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies, said that trend is incremental. Rather than seeing many new jobs emerge, he argued, it's more often that existing ones are adding new requirements.
That could raise the salary and knowledge levels of the workers required and make jobs harder to fill. Sigelman gave the example of a marketing manager, a position that now often requires the ability to work with customer data. That went "from being really quick to fill to really hard to fill," he said.
"(This) represents a real challenge for educators in terms of how they can keep their programs up to date," he said, as well as for workers and employers.
What can colleges do?
Staffing firms aren't a new phenomenon, but a breed has emerged to help companies find, screen, hire and even train entry-level workers. Among them are companies like Talent Path and Revature, which train college graduates and place them with companies. And just as staffing companies are adding training, training grounds like boot camps are incorporating job placement services, said Revature CEO Ashwin Bharath.
Colleges and universities, which come at job readiness from the vantages of academics and career services, also play a role. Sigelman said he tells university partners that they "need to think of themselves as recruitment agencies with a school attached."
Tailoring credentials and instruction to employers' needs is one way to do that, which may challenge the four-year degree model, he and other panelists said. And involving employers in curriculum development is essential, Britt said.
That's already happening. Colleges increasingly are using a technique called skills mapping to make sure the knowledge and abilities required to succeed in a job are covered in their curricula. Some companies, particularly in the tech sector, are working with colleges to develop curriculum around their platforms. And other employers are working with institutions to expand tuition benefits for their employees.
Sigelman doesn't think the employer push will drive the market away from degrees, however. "The future of work is increasingly human, so the core foundational skills for 21st-century work are incredibly important," he said. "But you need to be able to apply them together with on-the-job skills."
Will how employers validate learning change?
Whether and how employers accept the range of nondegree credentials is a growing question, particularly as states put money into public education offerings that serve them up. Panelists suggested an answer may come as companies reevaluate their learning and development priorities.
One way they are doing that is by examining who among their workforce has the so-called soft skills that make them more likely to be retrained successfully, said Jeff Frey, executive director of learning for Talent Path.
"There's a question of starting point," Sigelman said. "Part of the reason why I think (learning and development) investments have tended not to be very successful, have tended not to be very systematic, have tended not to last beyond the next recession, is that they tend to be supply-driven — I've got people and I need to train them."
However, he added, employers are starting to realize they need to look bigger. That is, identifying what talent they will need to tackle disruptive ideas and technologies, what talent they have currently, and how to close that gap.
"That becomes a business priority," he said.