What Employers Need
Shortly after moving to Toronto to launch Northeastern University’s newest campus, I set out to have conversations with a range of companies and employers. Northeastern’s deep commitment to experiential learning demands a commitment and understanding of current employer needs. And the only way to understand the employer community is to get to know them. Our signature co-op program ensures that our students, and by extension their faculty, are very tuned into the current and emerging needs of the market. So, I got out of my office and started visiting managers, CEOs, tech start-ups, entrepreneurs, trade association representatives and, yes, other academics. My goal was to study my new city and to gain a deep understanding of what employers are looking for in college graduates.
Since we launched our regional campus strategy, we’ve met and talked to hundreds of companies in the U.S., Canada, Asia and Europe. Regardless of location, employers sing a common refrain: university graduates entering the job market do not possess the skill set needed by employers. This statement is always a bit demoralizing to someone who has spent his career working with educators and faculty who care deeply about their students’ learning. But, there is no denying there is a gap between what our university students are in fact learning within their academic programs and what employers are looking for. This seems to be partially related to the historic divide between the ivory tower and the corporate tower. But leaving the analysis there misses a critical point because it sets up both groups for an “us vs. them” discussion. Also at play here is the rapid pace of technological change and how it affects the employer community. Companies are struggling to keep up with their talent and training needs. And the competition for talent is leaving many officials in the corporate office breathless.
The financial sector in Toronto is a perfect case in point. Historically, the Canadian “Big Five” (banks) hired highly trained MBAs from Canada’s finest business schools; they still do. In some cases, they partnered strategically with B-schools to develop tailor-made credentials for their specific talent needs. Today, banks have realized they are as much large data companies as they are banks. Managing, understanding, securing and sorting data is as much a concern as the bank’s investment strategy. This realization has left them scurrying to find employees to fill jobs that go far beyond the business school curriculum. They’re looking for computer scientists, project managers, big data specialists, and people who can communicate that data to all the various markets the bank serves. This is not your traditional B-School solution!
A similar story can be told across Canada’s economy. The talent demands are the biggest barrier to growth and the pace of change is also leaving critical shortages across many sectors. This is a huge frustration for policy-makers since Canada’s unemployment rate in some areas is as high as 7%. This isn’t as much a staffing shortage as a skills shortage.
My academic discipline is education, not finance, engineering, computer science or biotech. It is clear, however, that the information and technical revolution underway in education is also sweeping other industry sectors and challenging core business models. For many, this is exciting, but it can also be nerve-wracking. So, what does industry need?
After several months and dozens of meetings with trade groups and employers, the answer is pretty clear. Employers need highly trained graduates in traditional fields but they also need enterprise-wide solutions in such fields as analytics, big data, project management, communication and cyber-security to support the growth and expansion of their business. These particular areas are driven by the increased sophistication of the technology that is applied to our day-to-day work, regardless of the sector.
Northeastern University – Toronto is attempting to build a graduate and educational strategy that responds to these emerging needs. Canada is a world leader in undergraduate attainment rates, which is one of the reasons we wanted to be here. With such a strong foundation, we seek to deliver work-ready graduates who can help Canadian businesses grow. We will not only continue to listen, but we will ensure that our students apply their learning through work-based learning initiatives such as co-op and our growing XN network.
Our goal is a simple one. We want our graduates to enter their new careers and be effective on day one. That’s what employers need.