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Understanding Essential Skills for Career Readines...

S3 | E10 | Suzanne Helbig, University of California Irvine
  • Dr. Jacob Bonne
    Dec 8, 2023 2:38:59 PM . 2 min read

Is Higher Ed Responsible for the Skills Gap?

Carlo Martinez, CEO Steppingblocks

Season 1  |  Episode 8  |  Carlo Martinez, Steppingblocks

The nature of work is changing. What is the impact, and who is responsible for the skills gap: students, educators or employers? Steppingblocks believes it is all three. Join us for a conversation with our founder and CEO, Carlo Martinez, as we talk about the skills gap and how higher ed is being held more accountable than ever based on the availability of data-driven evidence to understand shifts in demand.

Listen to this episode on Spotify!


[0:06] ERIN KING

So more people than ever are questioning the value of higher education. We're here to explore why they're right, why they're wrong, and which institutions are rising to the challenge. In Season 1, we're investigating the new normal created by the COVID-19 pandemic and all of the ongoing challenges in higher education. Today we're here to discuss the skills gap with our CEO and founder, Carlo Martinez. Dr. Bonne, can you provide us with an overview of this topic? What do we mean by skills gap?


Absolutely. Thanks, Erin. Really, trends and conversations around the skills gap have been happening on college campuses and throughout companies across the country for a decade or more. There's an article recently from the Brookings Institute in 2019 that highlighted the nature of work is rapidly changing due to emerging technologies, disruptive forces such as artificial intelligence, the gig economy and automation. The exact effect of these and other changes remain unknown, but one thing seems certain: The skills that employers value and rely on are changing.

In turn, the skills gap has developed...employers struggle to hire appropriately trained workers. So again, throughout my career in higher education, this was a common conversation. How do we put the correct skills in the hands of students, so that they can be successful in their first professional positions and beyond?

And really, these issues have only been exacerbated by COVID-19, and it's likely that we'll feel the impact of these changes for years to come. I really see the responsibility for skills development on all three parties. The student can work to leverage their co-curricular experiences, high impact practices, et cetera, through internships to ensure that they're successful. Employers can strengthen their own onboarding processes to ensure critical skills can be trained on the job when needed. But finally, it's up to institutions to work collaboratively with employers and students to ensure skills are being developed in ways that maximize the success of the student and their future employers.

So with that, I want to turn it over to Steppingblocks CEO, Carlo Martinez, to share a bit about his perspective on the skills gap. Carlo, what do you think?

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Well, so I think what's been interesting is that when you talk about skills gap, it sort of means different things to different people, right? If you went and Googled "what is the skill gap?" It's basically the gap between the skills that you have at your job to be able to perform that well, right? And so if you take that to a macro level and say, ok, what is the supply? What skills are out there in the workforce, and what do employers want? And what's in the middle is what we don't have, where we have a gap. We either have them or don't have them or we need more of. And how is that being filled right now?

With technology moving, a lot of bootcamps have stepped in and accelerated the process of training people better with the right skills, so they can accommodate faster. Higher education has been challenged with developing curriculum that actually captures that skills gap and have been partnering with these bootcamps and people that generate this content that can help people...cover those gaps a lot faster. It's a combination of experiences, the combination of the transforming technology.

So for us what has been super interesting, because we work, like you said, it's the three: the employers, you work with the educators, you work with the students. And how do we help close that gap? And what we've been able to identify is that you really need to understand the workforce, understand people's skills at that level, understand the supply, understand what employers are looking for as the demand, the people that are hired there...and it's really a data-driven exercise that everybody has to play into and understand deeply in order to be able to succeed and really play in the game.

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[3:57] BONNE

Yeah, a word you said again and again there throughout that Carlo is "understand."

And I think it's really interesting to think about the scale at which we're talking about trying to develop that understanding, or really the multiple scales. As you said, it's individual students understanding their skills and what they need to be successful.

It's also about employers understanding at that macro level, the skills they need for all of their staff and all of the various positions, and thus even the institutions at those individual and macro scales to understand how they can best prepare their students to succeed.

So really interesting to think about that understanding and multiple lenses and from multiple perspectives.


...One thing, for example, I think is, anecdotally (recently, actually, we experienced this at Steppingblocks, and it even came up through conversations and interviews with other educators) was that one of the biggest skills gaps that we found, even after COVID, is communication, right? And actually before...when I was in more of a technical background, it didn't seem to be as important as it is now.

And right now when we hire people in the development teams, we actually have them take some written tests to see how they communicate, how they chat, how they were to communicate like this, through Zoom. Can they deliver a message? Which you never think is a skill that you look for in a data scientist or a web developer or things like that, right? Even in a conversation we had with Dr. Priestley at Kennesaw State, it's one of the biggest gaps that they have in data science, and as they hire the individuals that are highly mathematical, highly educated in the field of data science and algorithms, but a lot of times that's a challenge, right? And understanding that shift and incorporating something like that into a curriculum is super critical, right?

Cybersecurity has massive workforce skills gaps...I think it's like 83 percent men. It's a field that's really ruled by men right now, and it's evolving so rapidly. IBM is doing massive investments in infrastructure in that space, and it's just something that is being challenged right now.

It's just anecdotal things that are happening right now. You can really spend hours and hours talking about this. But really, the idea is to implement things and understand the data, understand the landscape, so you can make a real change.

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[6:39] KING

Yeah, I was just going to say, I just wanted to comment that part of the problem is that employers and institutions aren't talking to each other. And I think Dr. Priestley touched on this from Kennesaw State in your conversation.

So how can institutions improve that? How can employers and institutions collaborate better so that they both know what the other needs and what institutions are supplying in terms of skills?


Yeah, and actually referring back to that conversation with Dr. Priestley, she gave a good answer, right?

She was engaging directly in building the programs, directly engaging with those employers, so they, the university, didn't just come up with the program; but they partnered with Equifax, Truist, Home Depot, some of the biggest employers in Atlanta, to identify what are the challenges, and work with them to identify what are the skills that this individual needs to have for you to hire them? What are the workforce and what are the industry needs that we need to train our students into? And by the time they graduated, they were fully trained and they went to work for these companies.

I think that's a really smart way of doing it where you're building your curriculum around the needs of the workforce and adjusting dynamically. So that's just a little nugget from my conversation with Dr. Priestley, but I think if that's what you're doing, you will definitely succeed and not just in the in the technical field, but really across the board.

I can imagine, Jacob, you're there in Orlando. The hospitality industry is transforming 100 percent, so how do people adjust? Think FIU and UCF, they all have big hospitality programs. How do they adjust outside of the traditional curriculum, right?

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[7:04] DR. BONNE

Yeah, I think a key piece of that, too, is triangulation, thinking about pulling data from multiple sources in order to truly understand and have a good idea of what's happening.

So yeah, as you said, building that program collaboratively with employers has been really successful for data science at Kennesaw State. So that sort of one-on-one communication directly with employers. I think looking at the skills gap data that we have and thinking about that is really important.

Another great sort of piece to add to this conversation are the employers who are needing soft skills. Very much like you mentioned, Carlo, that communication piece. There's some great research and surveys that've been put together by groups like NACE, really exploring what are the soft skills that even technical positions are requiring.

I think a really interesting piece is how those soft skills are changing as a result of the pandemic and shifts in conversation. We can't physically walk to each other's office and stick our head in for five minutes, and so intentionality around communication has become, I think, a lot more important and central to many of those positions.

[9:33] KING

How can students articulate and communicate their skills? We keep saying the word "communication," but students are part of this ecosystem too. How do they learn the skills that employers want, and how do they learn to speak about those skills, too, in an interview, for instance.


From what we've learned, traditionally they would go to their career center and meet with someone there that would help them understand what it is that they need to get a job. But now we know that only about 10 to 12 percent of students actually do visit a career center. I actually amped the number a little bit, because they're actually trying to do that more so now.

The challenge and the benefit, as well, is that data about this is more available through tools like Steppingblocks, and things that are out there that will actually show the students, what are the skills that an employer actually needs to get the job? You can see all those career paths. LinkedIn is a great way where they can model themselves after someone that they know to be already in that position.

But you know, one of the things that I say is data-driven success, right? I think right now our goal is to change the mindset of individuals, not just guess, and keep anecdotal stories on what they think the workforce is going to look like, but they can actually, strategically, target the skills and the things that they'll need to learn to move on to the next opportunities ahead of time. They can build a strategy to be successful ahead of time.

So Jacob, from your perspective in the university, what are they doing to empower students now with more of a data-driven approach to get skills?

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[11:26] BONNE

Yeah, I think once you have that data in hand. My first advice to students is never assume. You can't get credit for what's not on your resume (or not out there, what you've not developed.) And so really thinking about encouraging students to one, maximize their college experience (taking great internship opportunities or getting involved in co-curriculars), but then making sure that those pieces make it to the resume, whether that's via transferable skills, where again, some of the more tangible skills, especially in the tech world, that folks are looking for.

If you've used some of those programing languages in class, they should appear on your resume as such. And really, it's not assuming that folks, employers, just know what you're doing without any additional context. And so that's certainly a big piece, I think as well, looking for the gaps and trying to identify that, whether it be again through the data and tools like Steppingblocks or through conversations, as you said with others in the field, folks you aspire to be like, talking to them and seeing what skills they lacked in their first professional positions and then trying to identify pathways to accumulate those skills even before they're needed.

So lots of different ways. It does require some proactivity on behalf of the student, and that's where I think institutions can really help you draw that path for students, whether that's things like the career development courses that we are hearing a lot of our partner institutions (Georgia State, UMGC) have really done great work to pioneer that and encourage students to bridge that college to career. But there's lots of important pieces to the conversation that, yes, do require some initiative on behalf of the student, but students also don't know what they don't know.

And so it's helpful for us to really position ourselves as higher education to make sure that students are aware of the things that they should know.

[13:25] MARTINEZ

So, Erin, I'm going to ask you a question here, because you've been a student of marketing for quite some time, right? And you went to Georgia State and you are now a Marketing Manager at Steppingblocks.

Talk about your skills. Did you learn the skills that you use at Steppingblocks from your university, or how did you cover that gap? Because the skills that you have, we didn't have them right when you joined. And I'd like for you to share how that happened, because that actually is kind of a transition from closing the gap for an employer.

[14:03] KING

Yeah. Well, I feel like we hear this all the time, but if I had Steppingblocks in college, I probably could have gotten to this point a lot faster.

I went to school for art history, because it was something that I had an interest in. So I went to school for art history, and then I got a job doing nothing related to that when I got out of school. So everything in a traditional sense, a marketing sense, I did not learn at school. But I got my first job, and then I started volunteering for a nonprofit organization, and I was writing. So I was writing and doing interviews. Those skills (the writing skills and interviewing skills, speaking to people) that landed me a job in the advertising department at a newspaper. And so from there, I developed my writing skills and presentation skills and speaking skills into advertising and marketing skills.

So you see the clear path, but it took a lot longer to get there than if I had learned those skills from the beginning and gotten a job in marketing straight from school. So I would say since I've been here, I've been able to develop even more skills. You're talking about the skills that Steppingblocks has now, I didn't have when I got here. So it's continuing education, knowing what's out there, knowing that things are constantly changing and really staying in tune to the industry that you're interested in, in terms of skills, is really critical for students, especially when you're in school and just throughout your career.

[15:34] MARTINEZ

So it's a great point, right? Because actually, since you're a Georgia State graduate, and we know Georgia has that college to career initiative right now where they understand that career paths need to be flexible, right? You went for art history, but now you do something else. I went for finance, now I'm working in do move through your journey in so many different ways, and through those journeys you have gaps that you cover, but you evolve as a person.

I think one of the things that educators can do right now is get ahead of the curve and say: How can you make a student that's skilled but is also flexible? How can you learn these communication skills? But I can also learn things that are transferable, highly transferable and needed if I understand the general gap, like you must have these skill sets in order to move around and be able to foresee where we are able to help.

Because while at Georgia State, yes, I struggled at the beginning of my career, because I could not get a job in finance, but years later, I did learn a lot of the skills that I used in finance and I use right now from a leadership perspective, organizational perspective.

But immediately I needed to get something to get a job, and I think you invest four years of your education. You do need some skills that are going to help you find that job. And if you don't have that, then you almost blame your school for not being able to give you that but they can cover that...they can help you develop that. And I think universities now are held accountable to help students, because there are so many different options.

So anyway, I think your journey is fascinating, because you went for writing, and now you're doing all kinds of automation, a lot of different techniques that we didn't even know about when we started this. It wasn't in your resume at that point in time, and now it's some of the highlights that you have, which has been a great journey.

[17:31] BONNE

Carlo, something you said in there that I do think is important, perhaps as the role of career services and even alumni engagement on campuses has changed, is how can universities help support those recent graduates who are thinking about perhaps an early career change or just finding ways to apply what they've learned after four years on campus?

And I don't know that we've always in higher ed thought that way, right? That perhaps our responsibility stopped the day the student crosses the stage, but certainly in the modern world we live in, universities are being held accountable for those metrics; but also, I think have a bit of a moral imperative to continue to provide support and ensure that students are successful with what they've learned.

Sometimes that's a quick meeting with a career coach or, again, just more hands on resources and tools to ensure that they can get where they need to go and want to go, especially if they've picked up some of those transferable skills along the way and plan to do an early career pivot. As we know, our Millennial and Gen Z students are more likely to do, hop careers a couple of times (we know from research). So lots of interesting pieces there and probably an important part of the conversation for higher ed to think about as we continue to move forward.

[18:50] MARTINEZ

I think one thing you said there, Jacob, I think one thing that's exciting to me is that universities are opening up a lot more to graduation outcomes transparency, which is a huge deal for us.

It's important that universities are transparent about reporting. How well did they do? And they are open to sharing the outcomes of their graduates, and they're able to identify whether it did well or not; and what are some of the areas that they could do a little bit better, where they're doing really well? Are they building great relationships with employers and opportunities for their alumni?

And when you said building, what can universities do to help these recent graduates? If they're able to get access to the information where they can help them identify: what are the top employers in mind, what are the local top employers that are hiring? And if I can prepare my students to be hired by those employers, or at least have the opportunity, that's a huge win, right? It's a data-driven win that the employer is going to have, and it really is just a data problem that they can solve.

If they really start understanding those opportunities directly, which we're seeing, some universities don't like that. Some universities when you show them the real truth of the outcomes, they're not very happy to see that, and some of them don't really want to display them because it's like, "Well, I charge too much money and my costs are not great." So it challenges how transparent they can be about it, but at the same time, if they can see it, digest it and see how they can be better, that should definitely help them.

I think the world is now holding higher ed a lot more accountable where it is expected. We're seeing a lot more universities publishing outcomes reports and publishing what's happening with their graduates right after they graduate and where they are right now.

So I think the more transparency in graduation outcomes...the better the trust, the more trust that people will have with the institutions, and that's the way that they will eventually [progress].

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