Developing Talent For The Digital Economy: The Business-Higher Education Forum Shows The Way

Washington University's partnership with Boeing is a recent example of the kind of business-university collaboration being championed by the Business-Higher Education Forum.

Washington University’s partnership with Boeing is a recent example of the kind of business-university collaboration being championed by the Business-Higher Education Forum.

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The Business-Higher Education Forum (BHEF) is setting the standard for how to craft partnerships between universities and private employers that address the talent needs of the nation’s workforce, particularly those enterprises requiring digital and technological skills.

Nearly 40 years old, the BHEF is a nonprofit membership organization comprised of Fortune 500 executives, major university presidents and other national educational leaders. In addition to its influential national policy voice, BHEF has focused on regional collaborations between its business and academic members that build durable degree programs, curricula and work-based learning in high-demand fields.

The maturation of BHEF’s work, supported in part by a five-year grant from the National Science Foundation, is exemplified in a recent report, Creating Purposeful Partnerships: Business and Higher Education Working Together To Build Regional Talent Ecosystems for the Digital Economy. The report details the BHEF partnership process and how it works to embed crucial skills in existing courses and majors as well as create new majors, minors and curricula that are tightly aligned with the knowledge, skills and abilities (KSA) that employers need. Six ongoing partnerships are highlighted:

  • Northrup Grumman and the University of Maryland (cybersecurity);
  • IBM and the City University of New York (data science and analytics and urban sustainability);
  • NextEra Energy and Miami Dade College (data science and analytics);
  • Raytheon and Northeastern University (IT and cybersecurity);
  • The Water Council and the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (water science);
  • Boing and Washington University (engineering).

As explained in a recent paper by Isabel Cardenas-Navia and Brian Fitzgerald, the CEO of the Business-Higher Education Forum, research by BHEF and Burning Glass Technologies has identified three foundational skill clusters that competent digital professionals should possess:

  • Digital skills – analyzing and managing data, software development, programming and digital security;
  • Business skills –  project management, decision making, business processes, visualization and operations management;
  • Workplace skills – critical thinking, effective communication, cross-cultural awareness and analytic reasoning.

Add to this mix the domain-specific knowledge that is the subject matter of college majors (e.g., physics, economics, psychology), and you have the range of KSA sought by employers who require digital talent. Simply focusing more attention on STEM majors won’t cut it. A broader effort – one that embeds digital content and skills in a range of domains– is what’s needed.

And that is just what a recent BHEF project, with funding from the JP Morgan Chase Foundation, set out to do. Twelve universities in the Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia area are developing credentials that certify the mastery of a basic digital skill set. The content was developed with experts from the partnering companies along with faculty at the universities. Coursework was supplemented by the companies offering internships, job shadowing and mentoring to students enrolled in or completing the curricula. Each institution designed and awarded a credential that reflected the digital competencies acquired along with students’ primary disciplines.

Early results are already in. After one year, ten universities have launched their programs and introduced their digital skills credentials. In a recent conversation with me, Brian Fitzgerald emphasized that the creation of this network accomplished an overarching goal: it demonstrated that when business gets off the sidelines and become directly involved with universities in building skill-based curricula, the institutions can – and will – respond promptly.

American businesses are increasingly taking the lead in developing and “up-skilling” their workforce in critical digital and technological competencies. Whether it’s through increasingly generous employer-provided educational benefits, recently summarized by Forbes education editor Susan Adams, or through specific company-university partnerships like the University of Louisville’s IBM skills academy, the rise of business-directed and employer-supported curricula is one of higher education’s most noteworthy trends.

The BHEF model stands out on this landscape for several reasons. It involves major universities partnering with iconic business; these are big hitters stepping up to the plate. It has been tested, refined and replicated. And most important, it sends the message that American business believes in the value of a college education and college degrees. BHEF is not designing boot camps or promoting other sub-baccalaureate credentials. It is investing in B.A. and B.S. degrees, believing they are of greater long-term value because of the wage premium they have once again been shown to covey and the higher level of transferable knowledge they represent.

[“source=forbes”]