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3 Skill Insights to Support Career-Relevant Instruction

March 23, 2021 by Remie Verougstraete

When students see how education connects to their professional goals, they are more engaged and motivated in the learning process, and more likely to say their education was worth the cost.

In a previous article, we looked at three reasons why faculty should embrace skillification as a tool to help them achieve this desired synthesis of classroom teaching and career relevance. If you haven’t read that yet, we encourage you to check it out. But here’s a one-sentence summary: Faculty have a lot to give and a lot to gain when it comes to highlighting the relevance and value of the skills students develop in their courses.

In this article, we turn our attention to the question of “how”? In particular, we cover three skill-based insights that institutions can share with faculty to help them design and deliver work-relevant instruction. 

While data alone can’t (and shouldn’t) tell faculty exactly what to teach or how to teach it, it can (and should) inform decisions, inspire discussions, and guide thinking about how to best “link learning and work through career relevant instruction” (to borrow a phrase from Steven C. Taylor and Catherine Haras’ ACE white paper).

So, without further ado, here are three data points for equipping faculty to engage today’s career-focused learners. 

 

3 data points for faculty

 

1) The work-relevant skills in their course descriptions and syllabi

It may seem ridiculous to suggest you can support faculty with insight into their own course documents (which they probably wrote). But consider that many faculty members are career academics. The language of the labor market is not their native tongue. Consequently, a little data goes a long way in helping them validate the career-relevance of what they’re teaching and ensuring that relevance is accurately reflected in their course descriptions and syllabi.

To give faculty a running start on this analysis, institutions can compare the language used in curriculum documents with the language used by employers and job-seekers in millions of online job postings and professional profiles. While that may sound like a lot of work (the kind of administrative burden we advocated not laying on faculty in our previous post), tools like Skillabi make it easy to do this comparison quickly, easily, and at scale.

As Paul Turcotte recently shared after using Skillabi to create “marketable skill” resources for faculty:

It’s a great way to get an objective, outside perspective of the skills that are being presented in your syllabus. It does a good job bringing forward that list of skills that are actually articulated in those documents, and then connecting them to the overall program structure.

– Paul Turcotte, director of institutional research and assessment at Texas A&M University-Central Texas

 

Skillabi surfaces the work-relevant skills in course descriptions and syllabi.

 

This “objective perspective” supports faculty in at least two ways:

1) Validates the job-relevant skill terms already present in course documents, which lays the groundwork for even more valuable insights regarding employer demand for those skills (on which, more in a moment);

2) Identifies where skills are absent or simply don’t reflect the terminology used in employer job postings and professional profiles.

These data points should spark conversation among faculty and academic leadership around the skills that are taught, the skills that are not, and what changes (if any) should be made to curriculum or course descriptions. More importantly, it is the first step towards equipping faculty to surface these career-relevant connections to learners in their classroom.

 

2) How the skills they teach relate to market demand

Identifying skill terms is a good start, but the real insight comes from seeing where those same skills surface in the labor market. This is, after all, one of the main benefits of skillifying curriculum in the first place: achieving a direct, apples-to-apples comparison between your academic programs and the world of work.

Keeping in mind that the objective here is equipping faculty to engage students, it makes sense to focus on the data points most relevant for the future job-seekers sitting enrolled in your faculty’s courses.

  • What employers in your region are posting jobs that ask for the skills you teach?
  • What other skills appear in those postings?
  • What are the most common job titles associated with these skills?
  • What kind of salary do those job postings advertise?

Anchoring answers to these questions in the specific skills you teach (the ones you surfaced from course documents, like we talked about in the previous section) offers key advantages to faculty who want to highlight the full relevance and job market value of the courses they teach.

Unique advantages of a skill-based approach (click to expand)

When equipping faculty to answer students’ questions about career relevance, there are distinct advantages to using a skill-based approach. For example, comparing skills to skills (the ones you teach vs. the ones employers ask for) can help to overcome the limitations of government taxonomies and crosswalks that pre-determine which occupations are “relevant” for graduates of specific programs.

And don’t get us wrong: CIP codes, SOC codes, and the crosswalks that connect them are helpful. They continue to play an important part in program management and career advising by providing a standardized structure for analyzing how higher education relates to the labor market. Skills, on the other hand, offer a less structured but more nuanced view of how what students do in class relates to employers’ needs.

For example – a professor teaching “Introduction to Philosophy” as part of a General Education program might emphasize to students the broad applicability of a skill like “Critical Thinking,” which is sought after in both healthcare and business roles. What’s more, faculty can back up these claims with concrete examples of the employers, job titles, and even wages that illustrate this demand. Suddenly, nursing majors and accounting majors alike can see the surprising connections between a philosophy course, and their professional goals.

 

Skillabi serves up job market insights specific to the skills taught in your institution’s courses.

 

After all, as we’ve seen in our research on Degrees at Work, academic majors are often only loosely connected with future career paths. What’s more determinative is how individuals apply their skills and knowledge to solve real-world problems they and their employers face. The professional possibilities are usually broader than students realize, and this knowledge can help to encourage and shape their academic journey. Skill insights equip faculty to know, and show, these connections.

 

3) Growth trends for relevant skills

This last point is all about adding context and perspective to the detailed insights derived from points one and two. We do this by zooming out to consider change over time.

Knowing the historical trajectory of demand for certain skills, while not a crystal ball, can shed light on the future that helps faculty (and students) anticipate shifts in the job market. As the great Gretzky would say, it helps them “skate to where the puck is going.”

For example, if a particular skill is prevalent in postings but is less common now than it was 12 months ago, it’s likely still worth teaching…though you might want to monitor what other skills or technologies could be emerging to replace (or complement) it.

Likewise, if a skill is rare in job postings but shows noticeable growth over the past year, you don’t necessarily need to drop everything and overhaul your curriculum to specialize in it. But, faculty might consider researching further, talking to employer partners about it, and otherwise laying the groundwork for potential changes in the future.

 

Analyst shows the top skills by percentage growth for job postings in a particular region. Shown here: Skills in job postings for Logisticians and Project Management Specialists in Texas from Mar 2020 – Feb 2021.

 

Of course, trends don’t have to be positive or negative to be meaningful. There’s a lot to be said for durable demand. If a skill’s prevalence in job postings persists over time, it can give faculty and students confidence that the skill is not a mere flash in the pan.

For example, UW Tacoma’s Professional Development Center used Emsi data to demonstrate professional opportunities for graduates of their Practical Risk Management certificate program. In an information session for prospective learners, program development manager Saralyn Smith shared her findings that the state of Washington saw over 40,000 unique job postings since 2016 (an average of 10K per year) that asked for “risk management” skills (excluding specialized cybersecurity roles, which she filtered out to ensure the postings data was relevant for program completers).

 

 

While this presentation was for prospective learners, it’s easy to see how similar data could be leveraged to engage current students as well. 

As a brief aside, note that skills data is also a great launching pad for more comprehensive labor market research. For example, using Analyst, you can start by searching job postings for a specific skill term, but then connect that research back to occupations, industries, or related licenses and qualifications (as in the UW Tacoma example). This broader analysis is beyond the scope of our article, but it’s worth pointing out that for faculty who want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes…it goes pretty deep.

 

Putting insight into action

Once you’ve got the data in hand, it’s time to collaborate with faculty on how to best leverage these insights. We’ve already touched on a few ways to do this, but here are several more suggestions for how faculty can put the data to work:

  • Make taught skills explicit in course documents and course descriptions. This formalizes and reinforces the connection between coursework and career goals. (It also lays the groundwork for enriching transcripts with skills data, if your institution pursues that kind of initiative in the future.)
  • Design assignments that help learners develop and demonstrate high-demand skills that are associated with high-wage jobs.
  • Incorporate work-relevant skills into grading rubrics to help learners consciously develop and assess their proficiency in those key areas.
  • Talk to industry contacts (or establish new ones) to verify trends. Job postings data can tell us that a skill is less prevalent than it was two years ago, but it can’t tell us why. This is where real relationships with regional employers are invaluable. (Many of the most successful programs we’ve seen at both community colleges and universities involve close collaboration with industry partners.)
  • Show employer partners how the skills you teach align with their needs. Explore partnership opportunities (including internships or co-op experiences) that could help fill skill gaps.
  • Call out career connections in lectures. Sharing a few example job titles or employers at the start of class can be a simple, low-effort way to alert students to the career relevance and labor market value of topics about to be covered.

Sharing data for maximum impact

As we mentioned in our previous article, labor market data may sound like the exclusive purview of institutional research or career services departments, but there are good reasons for circulating these insights to those who have the most face-time, and often the most influence, with learners: the faculty who instruct them. 

In other words, delivering career relevant education is a team sport. When institutions proactively provide them with relevant data, it sets up faculty (and ultimately students themselves) for greater success in effectively integrating learning and work.

To learn more about surfacing skill insights for your institution, fill out the form below. We’ll be in touch soon to show you how our data can help.

Remie Verougstraete

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