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The competency gap between academia and industry

competency gap

Oppida’s Natalia Mishchenko recently talked to Dr Marcus Bowles, a director and the chair of The Institute for Working Futures, about the competency gap between academia and industry and the way for the future.

Dr Bowles’s main focus is on building the people and strategic capability required to achieve desired futures. He consults with regions, large organisations, governments, and industry groups in Australia and internationally.

His research effort is primarily driven through the Digital Economy and Regional Futures project located at the University of Tasmania where he holds a professorial level appointment. Dr Bowles is well known for his work not only in vocational education and training reform in Australia and overseas, but also in ways to enhance the adoption and use of information and communication technologies (ICT) by communities, businesses, industries, and nations.

bridging the gap between academia and industry

Watch the interview below to listen to the conversation about competency gap.


Video Transcript


Natalia: How would you describe the traditional relationship between academia and industry in your view?

Marcus: The universities seem to have a very confused understanding about how to work with industry, and how to share what they think is important with people who probably don’t think what they’re doing is actually up to date or contemporary. And they can’t understand why we, in many cases, are disrupting the sector, and will continue to disrupt the sector in some major ways in the near future. 

Natalia: So in your opinion, this a pretty massive disconnect between academia and industry?

Marcus: By and large, the world of future work and where education and training needs to be and the capabilities we actually need in the future workforce are lagging too far behind. I know it takes a long time for many universities to put new curricula through. But we’re now working with very nimble microcredentials, and small stacks of credentials that can be packaged against a qualification. The big problem is universities simply think that means short courses on what they already have to offer. 

I’m working across at least five of the major top 30 ASX companies, and I don’t think there’s a university that has on its books a course that looks like what we actually want to use. So we go to the universities and actually harness their expertise—where they’re good—to write a course that actually reflects where we want the curriculum to be. And we don’t try to change the whole qualification, we just want them to change a bit of it. 

Skills mismatch

Natalia: Absolutely. So in terms of this skills mismatch, can you share some insight with relation to how and where the skills match actually began?

Marcus: I think it’s a point in time. I think what we’re seeing is that the world’s changing at greater speed, and we’re seeing that, particularly with automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and all the rest of it.

It wasn’t that it wasn’t predicted. I mean, for 15 years, we’ve been predicting where jobs will be, how certain human activities will be replaced by technology and automation. We knew the scale and impact. It certainly wasn’t the 50% that we started to hear with great trumpets blaring and public acclaim and anxiety. I think we always knew what it would be. COVID really is a dampener on how many jobs we’re losing to automation, but actually has increased how many jobs we’re creating due to automation. So the big change that we’re seeing is that universities aren’t keeping pace, nor are they nimble enough to be able to design and package learning that reflects what jobs will be. There are two reasons for that.

One is they’re still in swimming lanes of disciplines. Most of all the major technology-created jobs cut across disciplines. When we talk about new collar or care economy, or we talk about green-collar jobs, where the big 80,000 new jobs being created in Australia, they’re in sustainability, green technologies, batteries in one area there. The others are in programming, data fluency and use of cybersecurity and other areas. And in the care economy, it’s multidisciplinary approaches to homecare and to medical services. So we’re seeing changes in how it’s being delivered that just don’t fit the way universities are designed. 

Competency gap between academia and industry

Natalia: Absolutely. So there’s obviously a massive competency gap between academia and industry. Can you tell me what is the gap in your opinion, and does employability lie in human skills rather than qualifications?

Marcus: I think that there are two key things. Let me deal with the last bit first. So we’ve been tracking human capabilities and we’ve had human capability standards. I wrote a book on developing human capability standards in the late 90s. My PhD and background is actually in technology change in organisations. And counterintuitively, the more technology we have—the faster we have innovation, the more rapid that impacts how we do, how we organise work and how we live in our society—actually, the more humans we need involved in the process. So humans shift from being consumers to, in actual fact, being the ones who are orchestrating how it’s going to occur, when it’s going to occur, exploring different ways that we can use this technology. And so the human capabilities are really non-technical.

If you think about a career as a T, we talk about the stem of the T being what we call a deep technical skill. So the disciplines are swimming lanes. Across the T, across all the disciplines, are the human capabilities, soft skills, enduring skills, employability skills. What did someone call it the other day? Dynamic literacies, they call them in schools and in global curricula. We’re talking about the fact that we need people who can collaborate, communicate, problem-solve, critically think, have adaptive mindsets where they’re actually looking at problems. If they don’t work, they don’t give up, they bounce back and look at different ways of doing it. We need to be resilient and continually persist to explore ways to do things differently. So those are the things across the top of the T that we know that 60% of all future jobs are concluding. 

But the second really big aspect in that which we need to understand, and the biggest change of all, is it’s not just about skills and knowledge, job competence—it’s actually about mindsets and cognitive abilities. We need people who are motivated, willing and able to learn, to adapt and to respond. And so a lot of the mismatch—the second part of your question—is where we had people in swim lanes that we thought were really technical— people working in technologies or in data or in old processes—and when we profile their mindsets, we actually found it’s much easier to take that person with the right attitude, and cognitive abilities, and move them into where we thought we have a skills gap. It’s cheaper and easier to reskill that workforce to move to a new area of emerging work than it is to actually find people and try to fit them into that gap that have the wrong mindsets. So a lot of the work we’re doing at the moment is actually using the cost savings from not making people redundant in areas of work that are, if you like being automated, but have the right mindsets and values alignment, and moving them with stacks of credentials and very short bundles of courses, to where they have a sustainable employment opportunity. 

Natalia: How do you train people to shift mindsets? Because that’s a really hard thing to do when they’re programmed in a particular way. 

Marcus: This is a really important conversation piece. So one of the areas where universities are probably not good to build the future workforce is actually in psychometric areas. Because if they see a deep trait, if they’re trying to build something which is innate to you, it doesn’t fit a mass curricula approach. It doesn’t fit the approach where you might be a misogynistic bastard, but quite good at economics. I don’t care if you’re a misogynistic bastard and have the wrong mental attitudes and your cognitive abilities are really biased towards gender and other things. But in the workplace, we do.

And it’s the hardest thing, and the most expensive thing, and the most time-consuming thing; to change attitudes and mindsets as opposed to skills.

So if we continually have education providers pumping out mass education that generates people into a workforce that is looking for a different mindset, then we have a major problem. We have a workforce that’s pumping out skills and knowledge that aren’t quite right. We can adjust it and we can do it fairly quickly. And employers have been doing that for a very long time. But the gap is widening—not only in the skills area—the critical gap is widening in our expectations of what makes someone employable.

Critical capabilities of the future workforce

Natalia: So what are the most critical capabilities of the future workforce given all these gaps that we’ve created and all the challenges that we need to solve? 

Marcus: So the most critical ones are actually the human capabilities. So from my point of view, the Institute for Working Futures has done the research; we’ve done four major iterations and included 20 Australian clients. But the biggest research was also when we’re working with Deakin University investigating the future of employable skills– they’re trying to disrupt their own business model. They created Deakin Digital to look at how they could create courses that would target such highly employable skills. They worked with IBM Watson and did global research on 60,000 future jobs—amazing research, it’s headed up by a number of really smart people. And what they did in terms of the project and everything else, actually resolved that it was quite scary. When they looked at what they found, there’s probably 10 capabilities that most people, if they had them, would be more employable than their normal graduate. What they then did was smart—they built them into the curricula as the course learning outcomes that every graduate should have: graduate learning outcomes, graduate attributes.

The step beyond that, which was the scary step and not many universities in Australia have made it—very few globally have done it, so they lead the way—they then in many ways blinked, because we actually need the curricula to not only, underneath what we’re delivering as a discipline, deliver the human capabilities—like critical thinking, about your ability to have emotional intelligence or empathy, to be able to solve complex problems, to collaborate at speed, to have data fluency—those things actually, instead of being things that are a byproduct of your discipline-based education, employers need to see it and understand that it’s been assessed. So in many cases, you need to flip the curriculum, so that instead of saying, “I’ve done Management 101”. You actually want to know that you did Management 101 in a way that generated collaborative human capability to a certain standard. And “to the standard” means that we’ve actually created an outcome that is a currency. Everyone can compare what they’re doing to the standard code. Problem-solving level one, or critical thinking level seven, which is an executive level. 

At the moment, we have a lot of universities packaging short courses and putting credentials on them, and selling them to the marketplace called management, marketing. And it’s no different from running that in their qualifications. Because what one university delivers is marketing. What another one delivers is marketing. Yes, they’re supposed to be aligned, but the learning outcomes aren’t comparable. And the understanding of what’s assessed and how it’s assessed ultimately really comes down to the brand of the university and whether the employer chooses to trust it.

Natalia: So how do we solve this problem, Marcus? What are the main solutions? 

Marcus: I think the most important thing to realise is that, in spite of what we’re doing, in spite of government funding, employers have already moved on. They cannot maintain a supply chain of talent that isn’t feeding their growth or their transformation. So that’s the reason we have 22%—depending on who you believe at the moment—we have a 22% growth rate in corporate investment in education and training. And it’s now worth more than the vocational education and training public spend. And public spending on vocational education and training is at negative 2%.

And so you’ve got applied skills competence on the government side, which is called the vocational education and training agenda, as opposed to higher education, which is for the greater good and for knowledge building, but both are not growing as fast as the investment of the private sector in their own solutions. 

And globally, the universities in particular, have not realised that there are global solutions and platforms that are emerging right now that will see, I would expect, about 30% of the people who come into undergraduate degrees, in actual fact seeking other solutions where they can be working for a company, undertaking learning—earning and learning—and still get the qualification. And so for many organisations, it’s actually preferable to set up a feeder system to fill the skills gaps with learning that is actually specific not only to their need, but it’s portable to every employer—because every employer sees it’s being done to a standard, and the microcredentials will still carry university credits—but they won’t be enrolled in a university. They’ll be employed by a company and doing the first part of their degree with that company.