The great digital skills gap: why graduates are unprepared for today’s workforce

According to a recent article in the Harvard Business Review, 96% of university chief academic officers believe their graduates have the requisite skills to enter the workforce. However, only 11% of business leaders agree. Moreover, a report from Bentley University found that 61% of business industry decision-makers give colleges a C grade or lower on preparing students for their first job.

That gap – between the skills college students have and the skills they need – means that graduates, even business school grads, are making their entrée into the job market ill-prepared for today’s quickly changing demands. As we shift to a digital economy, digital skills are becoming more and more important for students to master. Yet these crucial lessons are often neglected in today’s college classrooms.

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Most universities do a great job training students for the “hard” skills related to their chosen fields. Yet soft skills like digital etiquette, social media literacy and time management are often not highly emphasised. Faculty must focus on major subject matter, leaving little time to teach students these other skills. Furthermore, though the majority of students are intimately familiar with a wide variety of technologies, many still can’t successfully apply them in a work environment.

Understanding the chasm

When university leaders look carefully, they may find they have one or more insidious digital skills gaps residing on their campuses. First, a generational skills gap exists where the digital skills of students exceed those of their professors. Those professors may have fallen behind due to the swift advance of technology, and now find that their abilities are out of date.

This leads to a second common skills gap: the chasm between the skills professors actually possess, and the skills they should be teaching. Well-intentioned and dedicated university professors simply can’t teach their students the skills they themselves lack.

Third, an inequality of skill levels exists across the spectrum of college students, with some possessing a broader or deeper skillset than others. This can challenge the university learning environment, which must educate across vastly different competency levels. Despite these skills gaps, leaders at universities and colleges are the architects who must engineer coursework that incorporates both the hard and soft skills that will empower tomorrow’s workers.

In August 2014, the University of St. Thomas' Cameron School of Business in Houston, Texas, approached digital training platform Grovo for help integrating digital skills into its existing curriculum. The faculty of the school recognised that the schools’ students needed to learn and master critical Internet tools and digital applications like Microsoft Office, Excel, LinkedIn and Prezi.

“Certain other skills that are necessary, but that aren’t necessarily taught in the classroom, go hand-in-hand with learning in the classroom,” said Jaqueline Ali DeLeon, former academic programs administrator at the Cameron School of Business.

The school’s leaders wanted a solution for 904 graduate and undergraduate business school students, so onboarded all professors and students to Grovo’s digital learning platform. This complemented the school’s proprietary lessons, which were also uploaded into the platform.

Professors at the business school, initially skeptical of a microlearning platform, began embracing the digital lessons, and even confessed to learning new skills themselves. The number of bundled lessons has now doubled. Additional videos outside of the original bundles, on topics such as professional development and project management, have been assigned, and at least one professor leveraged the proprietary training builder to design and deliver content of her own.

Blended learning

“I constantly seek innovative ways to enhance students’ performance within and outside of the classroom,” said Dr. Shuoyang Zhang, assistant professor at the Cameron School of Business. “The two-pronged approach provides the full coverage as well as the flexibility – almost like a hybrid course combining online and in-person formats.”

The college’s goal is to better prepare students for the job market, make them more competitive, and let them apply textbook and other learning in analysing real world cases. “I was able to put customised social media and blogging modules together for my students,” Dr. Zhang added. “I could see the difference, comparing with the previous semesters before I implemented these lessons. Overall, students felt more confident at the end of the semester in advancing their future career.”

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The college’s leaders found that business school students quickly embraced the new platform, while many eagerly consumed more lessons than they were assigned. Grovo has found that learners, on average, complete 50% more content than is required of them.

University leaders, tasked with the job of educating our future workforce in the face of rapidly changing technology, have it tough,” said Jeff Fernandez, CEO and co-founder of Grovo. “It will be the forward-thinking schools that provide blended learning solutions, on top of traditional classroom training, who will distinguish themselves competitively in the higher education market.

“By doing so they’ll address the growing skills gaps threatening our campuses, while attracting students ready to embrace the expectations put upon them. Schools who don’t will simply be left behind, failing to meet the needs of a generation preparing to enter today’s fast-moving world.”

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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Digital Skills Gap