Companies want secret formulas for identifying talented job candidates—and weeding out duds. So they’re increasingly hunting for patterns in candidate behavior and educational backgrounds, as part of a trend that is sometimes called “talent strategy.”
At a conference on the future of credentials held this week in Washington, for instance, Karyn Marciniak, vice president for people analytics at Two Sigma, was asked what she’s noticed in her quest to apply big data to HR. For one thing, bad grammar is a proven red flag. But she’s also noticed more unexpected patterns. It turns out that which Web browser a candidate uses to apply correlates to later success for some coding jobs (apparently those who stick with their computer’s default software perform less well on the job than those who download a different browser or add plugins).
While use of such “metadata” about job applicants is intriguing (or maybe a little creepy), it is also a sign of dissatisfaction by employers with the way colleges communicate the skills their graduates hold.
“The language issue is frustrating,” said Marciniak, in an interview. “Students come out of college with a lot of skills, but they don’t have the language to talk about them in ways that hiring managers can hear,” she added. Students may have led group projects in classes, for instance, but they may not be able to explain how that experience makes them a good fit for a project-management role at a company.
A new research center at Northeastern University hopes to help close the gap, by fostering better dialogue between colleges and employers, and helping colleges understand both what employers want and what colleges are already doing. It’s called the Center for the Future of Higher Education and Talent Strategy, and it’s led by Sean Gallagher, who wrote the book on The Future of University Credentials.
“We don’t have a lot of forums and mechanisms to bring the two sides together,” said Gallagher, in an interview this week. “Rather than pointing fingers across the chasm of employers and colleges, we want to create real evidence and information and experiences that bring together employers and higher education.”
The center is in a “soft launch” at the moment, and it is still deciding which specific projects to tackle first. But Northeastern has long been active in working with employers, and runs a high-profile co-op program for students that has been going for a century. The university was also chosen as one of six experimental sites for the Department of Education’s Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships, or EQUIP, for a project that will create a Bachelor of Science in Advanced Manufacturing in partnership with General Electric.
In an interview this week, Ted Mitchell, who just finished his term as Under Secretary of Education for the Obama Administration and was a champion of the EQUIP program, also highlighted the need for more conversations between industry and higher education.
“Right now we’re in an awkward spot where there appears to be a mismatch between what employers say they want and what they believe colleges and universities are producing,” he said. “I think the vocabulary is too broad, and my hope would be that the center could help drill down a little bit and understand what employers really mean when they say things like ‘critical thinking skills.’” Such dialogue, over time, could help develop “a really crisp definition of critical thinking skills that might lead to the ability to document and assess those skills in a very specific way.”
Many professors worry about getting too cosy with industry, and believe that academic degrees should be designed to prepare citizens, not tailor curriculum for specific jobs, which might change anyway.
“Certainly within higher education there is a worry about teaching to the test and losing track of some of the broader values of inquiry that we treasure and rightly so in higher ed,” said Mitchell. “I don’t think it’s an either/or. I think we can still be attuned to the needs of employers and the needs of the marketplace without directing everything we do to that end.”
Gallagher said the center hopes to be the “academic voice in this ecosystem.” And he added there is a need to do research into how employers actually value various degrees and transcripts.
“It’s just stunning how little research that we have on how employers use and perceive degrees,” he said. “And we don’t understand as much as you would think about how employers make decisions around credentials.”
Meanwhile, while employers haven’t spent much time in the past thinking about how they recruit and train employees, there is a growing interest in talent strategy.
“In a tight job market, and in a service and knowledge driven economy—even more than ten years ago—people, and your actual talent and human capital and how you develop and grow it, is really a critical issue and competitive advantage,” he said. That means “companies are realizing they need to think about their human capital in a different way.”