How Companies and Colleges Can Get the U.S. Back to Work

STEM students need to work in the classroom and learn in the workplace.

Learning on the job, for credit.

Photographer: Daniel Acker

Last Friday, the Labor Department announced that the U.S. economy had enjoyed a record 76 consecutive months with job gains. Yet at the same time, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports that 5.6 million jobs remain unfilled because of a pernicious “skills gap” -- or mismatch between employers’ needs and workers’ abilities. In a Business Roundtable survey, 45 percent of C-suite executives say hiring is particularly difficult in so-called STEM fields, those requiring expertise in science, technology, engineering and math. 

College graduates themselves are no less concerned: A national survey commissioned by Northeastern University found that just 14 percent of recent college graduates believe their education prepared them to work with artificial intelligence and robotics -- innovations poised to transform the American workplace.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in labor economics to conclude that business as usual is not working. To close the skills gap and keep our economy from stagnating, businesses and academia must join forces. For starters, we see four paths to partnership:

Modernized curriculums: For centuries, university course catalogs were like geological strata -- layers upon layers of academic offerings built on a faculty-centric view of the world. Given the pace of change today, faculty members must be willing to adapt their courses to provide the job skills and knowledge employers actually need. This doesn’t mean adopting a vocational model at top research universities; it simply means aligning what students learn with business imperatives.

One successful model is the University of Maryland’s Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students program. The nation’s first four-year undergraduate honors program in cybersecurity, ACES features a “living-learning” model in which students live together, take classes together and collaborate on multidisciplinary problems. Supported by partners such as Northrop Grumman, Amazon Web Services and the National Security Agency, ACES focuses on the team-building skills valued by industry that aren’t always taught in college. Students also get professional coaching and career advice directly from senior industry executives. Over time, it will demonstrate to companies in other fields how this sort of curricular collaboration can develop the talent pipeline. 

Lifelong learning: As the technical skills needed for the global economy evolve over time, industry and academia can partner to help workers update their knowledge quickly or make a mid-career shift from their undergraduate training into new, in-demand occupations. A good example is the collaboration between the State University of New York-Empire and the Flatiron School, a programming boot-camp in Manhattan that was established in 2012. Under the program, which has the backing of the U.S. Department of Education, an economically diverse group of students take basic classes in the humanities and sciences at Empire while they learn web development at Flatiron. In 2015, according to Flatiron, 98 percent of the program’s graduates got jobs, at an average starting salary of $74,000. Other innovative models, such as master’s degree programs curated by employers and “competency-based learning” -- which allows student to progress at their own pace as fast as they master content -- can help bridge the skills gap in high-growth fields like information technology and health information.

Hands-on learning: Nothing prepares students for a career better than actual work experience integrated with their studies. Summer work stints are simply not sufficient to give them the skills to contribute right out of college; only long-term internships with employers can do that. Northeastern University’s cooperative education program -- in which students alternate semesters of classroom learning with those spent at full-time jobs -- involves a network of 2,900 U.S. and foreign employers. Students apply their academic knowledge to professional challenges in real-time, and then bring their experience back into the classroom in a learning-feedback loop that makes the faculty better teachers teach and gives their peers insight onto the broader world. But such program requires a commitment on both sides: Universities need to build up the infrastructure to offer a range of learning opportunities, while businesses must be willing to give students meaningful work.

Research partnerships: The best teaching is enlightened by research, and here too industry and academia can do more together than in isolation. Embedding industry researchers within a university is the central feature of the University of New South Wales’s Engineering Industry Research Fellowship. Launched in 2015 in Sydney, it allows 25 private-sector researchers -- who remain employees of their companies -- to partner with the university’s world-class engineering faculty for up to a year on projects of mutual interest. The university’s vast research facilities open new possibilities for the corporate fellows, while the program exposes UNSW students to the business imperative of focusing on customer problems while they get a feel for higher order-skills like systems thinking and entrepreneurship.

These are just four potential approaches to collaboration; others might center on partnerships around managing and utilizing Big Data or on intellectual-property commercialization. The Business-Higher Education Forum, of which we are both members, is helping forge partnerships on all these fronts. The point is that most academic-industry joint efforts have been sporadic and in general have mostly benefited one party or the other. To have a lasting effect, they must be reciprocal and mutually beneficial. Policy makers can also help, for example, by allowing students to use Pell Grants or federal student loans to enroll in programs offered by nontraditional employer-providers but credentialed by universities.

The American higher education system has long been the envy of the world. To maintain that primacy in a globalized era, our universities are going to have to find partners in the commercial world, while corporations will need to help shape the next generation of young workers.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the authors of this story:
    Joseph E. Aoun at
    Wes Bush at

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Tobin Harshaw at

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