10 best practices for universities to improve lifelong employability

30 June 2023 Consultancy-me.com 7 min. read
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According to research from the World Economic Forum, there is a growing mismatch between the skills of graduates and those needed in the labour market. To close this skills gap, a range of public and private interventions need to be fostered, with improving the employability of university graduates one of the key strategic pillars.

So how can universities better align the skills of their graduates with the demands of 21st century and the future labour market? To find out, Boston Consulting Group studied the strategies of 23 universities worldwide who excel in achieving a high lifelong employability.

Based on the analysis, four experts from the firm’s Middle East division – Leila Hoteit, Maya El Hachem, Ammar Al-Hajjar, and Wassim Aouad – outline ten learnings that can help any university with increasing their employability performance, across: academic programs, workforce readiness, holistic development, and enabling capabilities.

10 best practices for universities to improve lifelong employability

Academic Programs

Well-designed academic programs ensure that courses cover in-demand skills. There are three imperatives:

1. Improve the learning experience in academic programs by optimizing student admissions and the number of seats per program. Align student admissions in particular specialties with labor market needs and ensure that increasing the number of seats per program does not significantly affect class sizes or access to learning resources.

For example, the University of Oxford, as part of its strategic plan, employs labor market forecasting to increase admissions in high-demand specializations. To ensure continued access to resources, Oxford is simultaneously building additional facilities.

2. Integrate high-demand skills into programs to align with labor market needs. It is critical to shift the focus from knowledge-based to skills-based learning. To inform this effort, engage with employers and industry groups to identify misalignments between skills developed in academic courses and those sought by the labor market. Collaborating with these partners to co-develop solutions, such as redesigned curricula, can help bridge existing skill gaps.

For instance, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology forecast the growth of digital jobs in Australia. The university then formed strategic partnerships with major employers to establish pathways and programs aimed at reskilling current students so that they can access these job opportunities.

3. Empower students to develop interdisciplinary skills by offering flexible academic program selection. Allow students to select multiple majors or minors, pursue dual degrees, or add electives to the core curriculum. Another approach to promoting flexibility is modularizing courses—dividing the curriculum into small discrete units that are independent, nonsequential, and typically short in duration.

Modularization offers students more flexibility, choice, and mobility and gives working professionals better lifelong learning opportunities.

Brown University’s Open Curriculum, established in 1969, is a prime example of offering program flexibility. By customizing their course of study, students can create an interdisciplinary pathway or fully specialize in a specific field.

Workplace Readiness

Universities must assist students in translating learned skills into practical experiences relevant to their career path. There are two imperatives:

1. Provide industry-specific career advice and mentorship, tailored to each student’s career path. Create programs that pair new students with academic advisors and establish peer mentorship programs between senior and junior students. Additionally, involve the university’s alumni network and employer partnerships to give graduating students access to industry-specific career advice, job opportunities, and professional networks.

For example, since its establishment in 2002, the Stanford Alumni Mentoring (SAM) program has been fostering connections between current students and more than 200,000 alumni. SAM connects students with alumni through an online platform that offers various engagement models, ranging from open forum-style discussions to structured one-on-one mentoring.

2. Encourage experiential learning in the early stages of a student’s university career. Incorporating experiential learning through practical courses, mandatory internships, job-shadowing, or simulated competitions inspires students to build a workplace-ready skillset and mindset.

For example, at the University of Chicago, experiential learning is mandatory in some departments. This includes the renowned Harris School of Public Policy, where all students must complete both professional and research internships. Additionally, the university’s Summer Links program offers all students access to social impact internships during the summer break.

Holistic Development

Top universities encourage the development of a well-rounded skillset through out-of-classroom experiences. There are two imperatives:

1. Support abundant extracurricular and affiliation events. Offering extracurricular programs that complement academic learning encourages holistic growth, helps students connect with peers, and supports creative interests.

For example, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), boasts a well-established extracurricular program that encompasses both career and personal interests. UCLA has more than 1,000 student clubs, with three-quarters of enrolled students holding a club membership.

2. Develop student life skills and encourage career satisfaction. Create online tools and in-person programs to support students in improving life skills and navigating the transition to employment. Providing students with support channels, such as self-assessment toolkits and other resources, can help them identify personality traits and career aspirations, ensuring their post-graduation plans align with their life skills, values, and interests.

For example, Wake Forest University’s Ready7 toolkit develops student life skills across seven broad themes, including personal branding, networking, and leadership.

Enhancing Capabilities

Leading institutions have created data-driven support services that leverage emerging technology and form strategic partnerships. There are three imperatives:

1. Collaborate and align on student-centric support services across the university. Establish an integrated, student-centric “one-stop shop” career service offering for personal, academic, and professional development. The availability of this service, along with access to university and professional stakeholders, helps to ensure that students get the right support when needed.

For example, Johns Hopkins University launched its Student Services Excellence Initiative (SSEI) to modernize student services and cater to evolving student needs through a redesigned central student information system. The SSEI takes a student-centric view to provide a seamless experience across all touchpoints, such as recruitment, admissions, registration, and career services.

2. Integrate data and new technology into the career services offering. Incorporating predictive analysis tools and graduate employment data can help modernize career services. By developing an in-depth understanding of labor market trends and skills requirements, universities can update their academic programs accordingly.

For instance, Harvard University and Northeastern University have partnered with Lightcast (formerly known as BurningGlass) to include labor market predictions in career services portals used by staff, students, and employers.

3. Form strategic partnerships with employers and other key stakeholders. Collaborate with employers, professional associations, and other universities to provide students with international experience or foster niche, high-demand skills.

For example, the University of Cape Town has established international industry affiliations, such as with the CFA Institute (Chartered Financial Analyst Institute) and the CAIA Association (Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst Association). These partnerships enable the university to design academic curriculums that include in-demand skills defined by industry associations. They also create pathways for students to obtain internationally recognized accreditations (such as completing CFA/CAIA level 1 exam) while pursuing their degrees.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) is well-known for its variety of high-quality programs offered alongside partner universities worldwide, including fixed-term international exchanges, joint degrees, concurrent degrees, and double degrees.