Many sides of skills gap issue – what the universities can and cannot do

By Dr. Senthil Nathan, Co-Founder and Managing Partner of the MENA Region for Edu Alliance. The Context: Reasons for students pursuing higher education have changed dramatically in the past few decades.

Just one hundred years back, going to a university was considered an elitist privilege for a select few from the community. Moreover, the reasons for attending college were to do with the broadening of intellectual horizons for the students. Only a few high school graduates went straight to college.

In 2017, about 70% of high school graduates enrolled in college [1]. The ratio of college students to 18 to 24-year-olds increased 20-fold, from 2% in 1900 to 40.5% in 2017 [2]. University education is becoming a matter of automatic progression in the USA. Over a third of the working population, today has bachelor degrees or higher – this was at 5% in 1940.

The past few decades have also seen manifold increase in tuition costs and hence increasing student debts. In-state tuition and fees at public four-year institutions increased from $3,190 in 1987 to $9,970 (both 2017 dollars). [3]. However, from 1960 through 2015, the inflation-adjusted average starting salary for a new bachelor’s degree graduate increased only by 5.9% [4]. Student loan debt in the U.S. has now topped $1 trillion. Over 44% of recent college graduates are underemployed — working in jobs that don’t require their degree.

The issue of Skills Gap must be assessed by university, industry and political leaders with a profound appreciation of such a significant increase in access to and costs of higher education combined with stagnant starting salaries for fresh graduates.

Is the Skills Gap a myth or a reality?

A majority of employers – in the USA and around the world – cite the skills gap as a major reason for difficulties in filling vacancies over a long period. Employers also see this issue as a major threat to their business growth. The Manpower Group conducts annual Talent Shortage Survey with major employers around the world. Its 2016-17 survey shows that of the more than 42,000 employers surveyed, 40% are experiencing difficulties filling roles the highest level since 2007. The top 5 hardest skills to find are skilled trades, IT staff, sales representatives, engineers, and technicians. [5].

Skills gap skeptics in academia, social sciences and journalism – argue that the magnitude of the skills gap is overblown. A recent study from MIT Sloan School [6] found that less than a quarter of manufacturing plants had vacancies that had lasted for three months or more. This fact may be contrasted with the manufacturing industry claims at the time that 75% or more faced a persistent inability to hire skilled workers. As unemployment has been steadily declining since the recession peak of 10% in October 2009, these experts counter the argument that the skills gap was to blame for elevated unemployment then and today’s full employment counters the persistence of that view. Skills gap skeptics also contend that employers will always complain about their candidate pools as they adjust the job requirements depending on current labor conditions ensuring a perennial gap. They also point to stagnant salary levels and vastly declining apprenticeship opportunities in the USA as lack of employer responses to persistent vacancies. Typically, when the unemployment is low – as it is now in the USA – wages for in-demand skills should rise; but that is not happening. A New York Times editorial [7] painted a picture of suspicion on corporates, “Corporate executives have valuable perspectives on the economy, but they also have an interest in promoting the notion of a skills gap. They want schools and, by extension, the government to take on more of the costs of training workers that used to be covered by companies as part of on-the-job employee development. They also want more immigration, both low and high skilled, because immigrants may be willing to work for less than their American counterparts.”

However, it is illogical to dismiss a consistent and majority response from widely different employers from different countries around the world with overly simplistic theories – calling Skills Gap as corporate fiction. Jan 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics data [8] shows that 6.3 million jobs remain unfilled in the USA and even the best recruiters are struggling to fill those roles despite millions of people who “are willing and able to work.” This is a rather “disturbing trend” for recruiters. Even in my brief experience in searching for university presidents, provosts, and deans, I faced significant challenges in finding appropriate talent in spite of receiving scores of applicants from interested candidates for each of these positions.

The World Economic Forum’s Talent Mobility Report expresses this frustrating paradox of unemployment / under-employment and talent shortages/skills gap, “Many countries struggle with vast unemployment, underemployment and huge untapped labor pools beyond what can be attributed to the recent global economic slump. Yet, many industries struggle with significant talent shortages and skills gaps that are dampening economic growth.” [9]

Interestingly, there is increasing consensus among experts taking extremely different views on this debate on at least two keys to address the “skills gap” issue: 1) to improve access to apprenticeship opportunities and 2) to enhance learning and development budgets of corporate sector.

Why should the universities care? Universities cannot afford to sit idle on this debate or continue to ignore graduate employability and salaries. Increasingly, universities are being ranked on “Return on Investment” or ROI.

PayScale reports “Best Value Colleges” on 20 year Net ROI (difference between 20-year Median pay for the bachelor’s graduate and 24-year median pay for a high school graduate minus the total four-year cost of higher education). Harvard, a perennial #1 in world and US ranking lists, is ranked 26 in this ROI ranking while Harvey Mudd College takes on #2 rank [10].

Forbes has begun to rank “Best Value Colleges” [11] based on a formula that weighs six factors: Quality (25%) + alumni earnings (20%) + median student debt (20%) + on-time graduation (15%) + drop-out risk (10%) + Pell Grant recipients (10%) / gross tuition and fees. In this ranking, University of Florida is ranked #4 – just pipping Harvard, MIT, and Stanford.

As this idea is spreading across the ocean, an UK consulting company “Expert Market” has begun to rank “Best value universities in the UK” [12] by cross-referencing the university expenses with the average income and opportunities available to students after graduating from each university. Loughborough University is ranked #1 in this list while many of the Russell group universities are missing from the top 25 in UK. Cambridge is ranked #12, Oxford at 52 and University College London at rank 54.

What can the universities do? Aside from the top-ranked universities in the world, most of the private as well as public universities and colleges must pay as much attention or more to graduate employability as they do for increasing their tuition and other fees. Universities and colleges must

  • Closely align their program offerings to the current and emerging demands from employers in their region. They must proactively seek effective and ongoing involvement of their regional employers in their program and course design. Traditional programs must be revamped to fit the era of technology-mediated
  • Increase partnerships with regional employers to increase apprenticeship opportunities for students. German experience clearly teaches the exceptional benefits of apprenticeships in minimizing the skills gap and the gap between expectations of employers and fresh graduates.
  • Revamping of curriculum and assessments may be done in line with meta-skills required for graduate success in the workplace. For example, the universities may switch from recording student achievements by letter grades / GPAs and transition to graduate outcome-based assessment reports and portfolios. When I was a graduate student at Rice University – in the 1980’s – the university used a practice of not reporting graduate GPA in the transcript – as they believed that graduate’s accomplishments must not be summarized or evaluated by a single number. (Rice was pressured to change this policy later as other universities and employers demanded to see a single GPA in the transcripts). Curriculum design and delivery must include many and varied learning opportunities for students to gain soft skills at the required competency levels. Curriculum design tools may include project-based learning, problem-based learning, community projects, applied research, work placement – co-operative experience and the like
  • Actively counsel students with program choices and careers, matching student aptitudes and interests with the selection of majors. Educate the freshman students on career prospects and average salaries of various program majors.
  • Measure, monitor and report graduate success and progression (employment or advanced education immediately upon graduation; career progression and salary details) as feedback to relevant faculty to validate or refine programs and courses.

What the universities cannot do? Employers cannot expect universities to produce graduates who can be productive in a specific corporate setting from day one. Specific industry induction, learning and development and performance feedback are the sole responsibility of companies and universities are not positioned to contribute much to the progress of entry-level graduates in these aspects. Most of the soft skills – teamwork, people skills, communications, problem-solving, critical thinking, innovation and entrepreneurship and the like – may be introduced at the university but are best honed and developed at the workplace.

A partnership model: There is a yawning gap between local industry and businesses and regional universities. It takes consistent and sincere efforts on both sides to develop and sustain strong linkages that would greatly benefit the graduates, the businesses, and the universities – in that order



Senthil 2 copyDr. Nathan is Co-Founder and Managing Partner of the MENA Region for Edu Alliance.  Since the founding of the company in 2014, Senthil has been involved in numerous advisory & consulting projects for higher education institutions, and investment firms . 

He joined the Higher Colleges of Technology in 1993, the largest higher education institution in the UAE with 23,000 UAE National students. He served in a variety of positions and from 2006-2103 was Deputy Vice Chancellor / Vice Provost for Planning & Administration. He has been involved in numerous advisory and consulting roles in education / training & development engagements to a multitude of clients in the United Arab Emirates, Canada, The United States, Africa, and India and speaks on the current issues of higher education in the Middle East.

Dr. Nathan in 2014 received the Distinguished Alumni Award from the National Institute of Technology in India by the former President of India Dr. Abdul Kalam and is a member of the Board of Trustees for Livingston University in Uganda.  In addition to his Ph.D. in engineering from Rice University, Senthil has completed executive education programs from Harvard and MIT.

cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.

Creating Campus International Allies is Essential in Challenging Times

Widener U International

By Kandy Turner, Director of International Student Services and Programs and Study Abroad and Dr. Denise Gifford, Associate Provost for Global Engagement and Dean of Students for Widener University in Pennsylvania.

As the number of U.S. high school students stagnates, universities are looking to international students to fill the seats. However, competition is high, and international students are savvy customers who weigh the options in the U.S. and abroad. More countries are entering the global higher education market and enticing students away from the U.S., and other countries, like those in the Middle East, are cutting back on scholarships abroad and opening more institutions at home. The latest Open Doors report shows that first-time international enrollees are down 3% from 2016 (Open Doors, 2018), and all signs point to this being a trend that will continue. A perceived lack of U.S. professional opportunities post-graduation for International student graduates will likely accelerate the downturn, particularly with tightened immigration regulations looming. Therefore, a focus on retention of every International student is critical.

Institutions have long measured retention rates vis-à -vis Tinto’s Theory of Departure (1975) but only recently have they begun looking at retention rates for international students. Literature on the needs of international students are plentiful, but research on how institutions are meeting those needs are scant. Services for international students historically meant basic immigration advising, orientation, and perhaps some help adjusting to the culture and life in the U.S., and, if they were lucky, the occasional outing. Fortunately, universities are beginning to expand their services to provide more support for academic writing and adjustment to U.S. classroom culture, peer mentoring and other programs to connect new international students with current international or domestic students, help understanding medical insurance, a wide array of social activities, and even support for spouses and families. However, even this is not enough. It is crucial to develop allies among colleagues and students on campus who understand and embrace international students and can help create a broadly welcoming campus climate. The challenge is that current staff and faculty may have limited international experience and limited involvement with international students, and therefore may not be quick to buy-in to the need to provide additional or altered services to this population. For a variety of reasons, many outstanding professors may have had little global exposure, and this lack of experience by faculty may cause them to, unintentionally, not understand the challenges inherent in speaking and studying in a second or third language amidst adapting and residing in a totally new culture. University staff also may have limited International experience and can be less comfortable with International students outside of the necessary but limited professional interaction. Creating a mix of opportunities for campus community members to interact with students from outside our borders is the foundation of creating International campus allies.

International Student Retention is a Campus-Wide Responsibility

At Widener, creating allies for our International students starts with a message that retention is everyone’s job and retention is the goal of every meeting with every student, something the university’s president emphasizes regularly. In student affairs, retention efforts have focused on connecting international students to the university throughout of class activities, time with faculty and staff outside the classroom, and connections with U.S. peers. The Office of International Student Services (ISS) staffed with a Director, an Assistant Director, and part-time secretary hosts over 30 programs a semester. Participation is not limited to international students; in fact, U.S. students are encouraged to attend, mingle and develop friendships with the international students during these programs. In past years, domestic students at Widener missed out on the opportunity to mix with International students in out-of-class activities whereas now every program is planned for a mix of domestic and International students so that each become more culturally adept by interacting with the other.

Student International Allies: E-Mentor Program and Orientation Group Interface

The creation of campus allies is intentional and starts before the students even arrive with an e-mentor program. Current students, international and domestic, are paired with incoming students, a student peer mentor, with whom they communicate regularly over the summer. Those conversations often result in strong friendships that continue into the students’ lives on campus. At the on-campus orientation, the international students join two other pre-orientation programs which draw primarily domestic students. They attend a picnic together and meet the same groups again during Welcome Week for a lunch cruise along the Delaware River. The students from these pre-Orientation programs; Project Lead and 1821 Experience are prepped by their staff leaders, the Office of Civic Engagement and the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs, to engage with the international students. Students in each group are new to the university and merging these diverse groups early seems a natural fit, and everyone benefits. The local students, many of whom have never left the metro area, become more aware of the world, and the international students have a peer to help them navigate the transition. By spending time with the international students, the local students become allies in the effort to internationalize the campus. They tend to spread the word, bring their friends to events, and introduce more U.S. students to the international students. International students are also encouraged to attend events sponsored by Student Life and other departments, and the Office of International Students sends out a weekly e-newsletter with a list of events happening around campus and in the community. Other departments benefit from the free advertising, and the international students are more likely to attend because the ISS office encouraged them to do so.

Campus Staff and Faculty: Allies Created by Anywhere PA

One of the strongest ally building programs ISS offers is a signature, high impact practice program called “Anywhere PA.” Keenly aware that most international students never set foot inside an American home, ISS staff decided to ask some of their colleagues if they would be willing to host a small group of international students in their home and then show them around their community. Staff and faculty on campus who had already shown support for the international community were the first to agree. The results were fantastic. The students relished the glimpse into U.S. daily life—particularly the pets and children of the Widener employee—and enjoyed exploring different sections of Philadelphia and the suburbs. Students participate in whatever the family typically finds enjoyable during evening and weekend hours. Activities have included watching a Phillies game with family members while cheering along with the group and eating traditional game day snack fare. Decorating picture frames with glue guns and décor items from the region was the activity at another home where crafts are a common activity and when finished students posed for a group picture with the host and inserted it in their handmade frame for a permanent memento of the day. All in all, the faculty and staff appreciate hosting the students in their homes and getting to know them. It allows them to be on a personal name basis with a group of International students, but it also makes them better allies. The program has continued to expand. More and more faculty and staff have served as hosts with equally positive results. Now, ISS staff plugs the “Anywhere PA” program at every available opportunity, and there is a waitlist of faculty and staff eager to participate in future years.

Increased Campus Allies Fuel Enhanced International Focus

Broader conversations are beginning across campus, and more stakeholders are coming to the table. This year Widener internally formed an International Taskforce with faculty and administrators across campus to work on projects related to international students and education aboard efforts on campus. Membership is pulled broadly around campus and includes student affairs, enrollment management, admissions, faculty, and graduate programs. The goals of the task force are twofold: to work on projects related to internationalization and to spread the word about international initiatives already happening on campus. Education abroad experiences for students are expanding as U.S. students increasingly expect to have a global or cultural experience as part of their undergraduate education. Widener recently joined the National Student Exchange which offers opportunities for exchange within the U.S. (including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Virgin Islands) and Canada. For a student who is attending university within 50 miles of their Pennsylvania home, a semester experience at a university in Montana or Arizona can be an extraordinarily different cultural experience, albeit still within the US. The ISS Director, who also serves as the study abroad coordinator, is developing an enhanced offering of semester-long study abroad programs, and the Office of Global Engagement, headed by the Dean of Students, is offering more support for faculty to do faculty-led short-term programs, including to a Widener-owned property in Costa Rica. These efforts are crucial to recruitment and retention efforts.

Students retain at institutions where they feel supported and that they matter, and as tuition prices continue to rise, students are expecting more services in exchange for the price tag. At Widener, the retention of every International student is the goal, and this means ensuring the personal touch, supporting each students, listening to them, improving and modifying services and programs to meet their educational and developmental goals, and building allies across campus to ensure we have a welcoming international climate during this challenging time.

Kandy K. TurnerKandy Turner is Director of International Student Services and Programs and Study Abroad at Widener University in Pennsylvania . Kandy has 12 years of experience in International Education. She serves as PDSO/RO, coordinator of the National Student Exchange, and adviser for international students and scholars as well as study abroad students. Kandy is pursuing her doctoral degree in Higher Education Leadership, and her dissertation focuses on international student identity development.



Denise Gifford for article

Dr. Denise Gifford joined Associate Provost for Global Engagement and Dean of Students for Widener University in Pennsylvania in  2010 upon her return from International Student Affairs work in the Middle East.  Previously she served as the first woman Dean of Students at Zayed University dedicated to the higher education of Emirati women located in Dubai & Abu Dhabi. Her Ed.D is in Political Higher Education Policy & Evaluation, University of Kentucky and is a member of the Edu Alliance Advisory Council.



cropped-edu-alliance-logo-square1.jpgEdu Alliance is a higher education consultancy firm with offices in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. The founders and its advisory members have assisted higher education institutions on a variety of projects, and many have held senior positions in higher education in the United States and internationally.

Our specific mission is to assist universities, colleges and educational institutions to develop capacity and enhance their effectiveness.