Should Higher Ed Re-Design Its Own Re-Design?

Opinion | Digital Learning

Should Higher Ed Re-Design Its Own Re-Design?

By Lisa Baird and Samantha Zucker     Jun 27, 2018

Should Higher Ed Re-Design Its Own Re-Design?

Decades of postsecondary innovation have still left America with 6.1 million job openings—just about the highest level since the data series began in 2000. And yet America’s postsecondary education industry is teeming with student-centered innovation. So why hasn’t higher ed moved the needle on actually filling those jobs?

The real reason? Economic stability means getting hired—and it seems there is no amount of student-centered design that can make a hiring manager do what a hiring manager does not want to do.

The U.S. Department of Education recently commissioned us as consultants for a three-day design deep dive into higher ed and the workforce and white paper. Together we dug deep into why higher education has failed to deliver economic stability to students. Several reasons and causes were shared, but the conversation often came back to the shortcomings of student-centric innovation: User-centered design needs an ultimate user, and in the case of higher ed in America, it isn’t the student. It’s the hiring manager.

Understanding the Hiring Manager

A vast number of people who get hired in the U.S. do so through an ad hoc process run by a hiring manager nestled somewhere deep within a functional area of a company or organization. These hiring managers are just everyday, rank-and-file employees who need to find a new hire for their department or team. They’re not HR professionals. In fact, they often don’t possess formal HR training nor expertise in spotting talent, and to top everything off, they’re usually crunched for time.

This makes filling open positions hard for job seeker and hiring manager alike. If a hiring manager has little expertise in recruiting or spotting talent, it likewise makes it difficult for even qualified job-seekers—like recent graduates—to get noticed.

This got us thinking: What if companies have been forced into the arms of automation because finding people has just become too hard? What if hiring managers are the real users for whom we should design? What if student-centeredness is the problem?

Hiring managers are humans—perhaps the most important humans in the whole labor market value chain because they are the furthest downstream. They are the ultimate “user” of everything that comes before.

This is why postsecondary design and innovation must put an emphasis on today’s hiring managers by focusing on their specific needs, like those we’ve outlined below in each stage of the hiring process. After all, if hiring managers’ needs are met, then students’ needs will also be met. Why? Because when hiring managers are able to more effectively and efficiently fill those 6.1 million job openings, it is students who stand to fill them. That means students getting jobs, which is the ultimate student need.

Based on our own experiences across four careers, myriad industries, and both sides of the interview table, we mapped out the plight of the hiring manager:

Hiring managers do all the hiring legwork, either because the HR department lacks the functional expertise or doesn’t exist at all.

Because time is limited, hiring managers immediately look for ways to whittle down the pile. They’ll use quick, arbitrary hurdles to cut a stack in half—like say, possession of a bachelor degree, or if that doesn’t whittle it down enough, bachelor brand name.

Once it’s cut in half, hiring managers sift through the pile in an attempt to read the tea leaves—trying to glean whether job seekers’ experiences might actually be relevant to the company’s needs. Maybe one young candidate had worked at a call center before; the hiring manager might wonder, “Will that help us any here?”

Hiring managers try to figure out if candidates possess a few desired capabilities on an absolute basis—all the while negotiating inside their own minds about what bandwidth and resources are available to train the new hire if necessary.

The hiring manager starts to worry: “Will they fit in culturally? Once I hire them, I’m stuck with them! Will they be able to work with my previous bad hire? Am I going to regret hiring someone with no connection to the firm? I hope I didn’t do anything that breaks disparate impact laws.” Ultimately, they go with their gut to compensate for the blind uncertainty.

Finally, the hiring manager makes an offer and prays that the candidate accepts. The hiring manager experiences utter terror at the thought that they will have to start all over again. At this point, the hiring manager ceases to see things totally rationally—there could be warning signs around the winning candidate—but they are stifled for fear of going back to zero.

What Needs to Change?

There is a need to shift how “user” in user-centered design is defined. Specifically, higher ed needs to begin to see the hiring manager as the real customer for its innovation and design efforts. The problem is, despite its obvious logic, this change in thinking has been easy to resist. So what can be done to make it irresistible? What does this change look like?

Align incentives. Look for new ways to align education incentives with the demands of the job market. Income share agreements promote risk-sharing between students and educational institutions. Rather than paying up-front tuition, income share agreements ask students to pay back a percentage of their salary to the educational institution after they graduate and land a job.

Of course, the institution never sees a dime unless the student does, which not only keeps the student debt-free, but it also makes institutions care about jobs just as much as students do. How might we get institutions and students pulling for the same thing?

Think downstream. Remember that students are undergoing an intentional process of improving their own marketability. They are intentionally preparing themselves for uptake in the subsequent stage of a longer value chain that does not end with the acquisition of knowledge. Recognize that the job-market uptake students so badly desire is wholly controlled by someone who is not a student, educator, administrator, or policy-maker—and that person has needs. How might we herald the humble hiring manager in higher-ed innovation discourse?

Shift the spotlight. It may be that thousands of former and current students are already well-qualified for countless job openings, thanks to educational experiences that have imparted the necessary knowledge and skills. Imperfect as it is, maybe it’s not the transfer of knowledge that needs the most attention—maybe it’s simply the effective demonstration of it.

To best demonstrate talent to hiring managers, we can start by giving potential job candidates a chance to do the actual work. For example, design ways to convert the high demand for entry-level workers into a high supply of internships, apprenticeships and other provisional learn-to-earn opportunities that ultimately result in more people getting hired.

The higher-ed innovation community has a real opportunity to start delivering on the promise of an educated, self-actualized life for all by making the design and delivery of lifelong economic stability utterly irresistible.

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