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Using Skill-Based Insights to Build Agile Programs

How skills data helps colleges and universities serve learners in a dynamic market

October 5, 2021 by Remie Verougstraete

In a recent ebook, we laid out the case for Agile Program Management: an approach to developing and maintaining programs that is adaptive to market shifts and responsive to emerging opportunities.

Even before the pandemic, the need for this agility was increasingly clear. Over the past year and a half, it has become painfully obvious. As the uneven economic recovery staggers forward, working adults and currently enrolled students alike are expressing a renewed concern for career outcomes. Perhaps not surprisingly, this has been accompanied by strong interest in short-term, work-aligned, skill-based education offerings that help learners upskill and re-skill quickly.

For colleges and universities, responding to these needs requires not only an agile approach to program decisions, but also the data infrastructure to support it. Just like diesel engines need diesel fuel to run, so agile program management calls for precise, real-time data that can help institutions track how their programs align with an evolving economy.

Skill-Based Market Insights: Fuel for the Agile Engine

One positive byproduct of an increasingly online economy is our ability to collect and analyze rich data about the labor market. At the heart of this revolution in labor market insight is our ability to parse out the specific skills required to do various jobs, and connect them to what is taught in courses and programs. For higher education decision makers, these skill-level insights enable agility by providing real-time, precise, visibility into how curriculum aligns (or doesn’t) with the market.

Let’s break down each of those benefits, and how they contribute to agile program management:

1) Real-time

First of all, consider the source: In general, skills data comes from employer job postings. These postings are updated on an ongoing basis to reflect the changing needs and priorities of employers. As a result, any data that comes from them will offer more real-time insight than what’s available from more traditional, standardized government sources (BLS, BEA, etc.).

As we wrote in APM, “because job postings are constantly being updated by employers to reflect their current needs, they provide an excellent tool for agile program managers to get real-time insight into the evolving opportunities in their region.”

But there’s another factor that makes skill-level data especially effective as a real-time data source: The fact that emerging trends tend to show up in the skills required to do existing jobs before they manifest as entirely new job roles. Because of this, skills can act as an “early warning system,” providing a preview of larger labor market shifts to come. 

A classic example would be the rising demand for Amazon Web Services (AWS) proficiency. As you can see in the below chart, the importance of AWS became far more obvious, far earlier as a skill requirement within job descriptions than as a new kind of job title:

2) Precise

Sitting atop the market research pyramid, skills offer the most precise, high-fidelity picture possible of the labor market in a given region. This precision arises from the fact that skills are the language people use to describe the work they actually do (or need done, in the case of employers). By contrast, standard occupation codes (SOCs) and even job titles often require further explanation and, in some cases, mean different things to different people and employers.

To see why this precision matters for higher education leaders, ask yourself the following question: Which of the following is more helpful for making curriculum decisions or advising students? 

A) Knowing that a major employer in the region is hiring “Business Analysts”? Or;

B) Knowing that a major employer is looking for graduates who can use Microsoft Excel, SQL, and Tableau to analyze and visualize data pertaining to business operations, along with JIRA and Agile Methodology to manage their workflow?

(We’ll give you a hint: it’s not A.)

It’s important to note that the precision of skill-level insight is not only useful for assessing market trends. It can also help illuminate the work-relevance and value of an institution’s academic offerings. Identifying the specific skills (both hard skills and human skills) taught in programs and courses can equip faculty and students alike with a richer understanding of how course content connects to the dynamic world of work. As we’ll see in a moment, understanding that connection is essential for informing agile program decisions.

3) Alignment (or lack thereof) between curriculum and the marketplace

While the previous two sections covered the key attributes of skills data (real-time and precise), this final point is about the key application of that data. Because, while skill-level market insight is essential, it’s connecting that insight back to existing courses and curriculum that really unlocks the door to agile program responses.

The key here is to use skills as a common language between higher education and the world of work. In practical terms, this means skillifying curriculum to enable an apples-to-apples comparison of what is taught in academic programs to what is sought by employers (and job seekers). As we wrote in Agile Program Management, “This use of skills data as a common language opens up new vistas of insight into how programs and even individual courses can be fine-tuned to align with opportunities in the labor market.”

Here are just a few examples of how this “fine-tuning” might work:

  • Unbundling or repackaging existing courses into targeted certificates or stackable credentials based on how the skills taught in those courses align with learner needs and workforce opportunities.
  • Partnering with faculty to revamp or expand curriculum by including additional in-demand skills related to the ones they already teach.
  • Improving marketing and search engine optimization efforts by using skill-level insight to better describe what you already teach in language that resonates with prospective learners and employers.

Responding to Skill Gaps with Agile Programs

Informed by the right data, institutions can make timely, precise adjustments that have an outsized impact on the effectiveness and marketability of their programs. As we’ve seen, the “right data” must provide real-time, precise insight into how academic programs relate to the broader market. And skill-based insights fit the bill.

To quote Agile Program Management one more time:

“We often talk of skill gaps in terms of people. In this context, the ‘gap’ refers to the disconnect between the skills a certain population has and the skills employers in their region are asking for. But skill gaps can also exist between an institution’s programs and the skills needed by employers, and therefore learners, in their region. Tracking and filling these gaps over time is one of the most effective ways to optimize curriculum and keep course material fresh.”

Next Steps

If you’re ready to start making agile program decisions informed by skills data, then it’s time to check out Skillabi. It’s a powerful, user-friendly platform we developed to help you track and improve curriculum-to-market alignment, at the skill level.

Want to learn more about the “why” behind using skills data to connect higher education and the world of work? Download Skills Required or check out our other resources for higher ed leaders.

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