The Challenge: Integrating Employers and Educators Expectations in a Changing Economy

In many industries the nature of work is changing due to technological advances, and rapidly evolving supply chains and customer needs. Unsurprisingly, employer expectations and needs for workers' skills and proficiencies are changing as well. But many question whether or not adequate numbers of students with the skill sets to succeed in the 21st century economy will be available in the coming years. Thus, considerable attention is being paid to both 4- and 2-year colleges and universities as a primary venue for workforce development, with a particular focus on improving the alignment between employer expectations and the curriculum in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines.  That said, educators also have expectations and goals for their students that may or may not be consistent with the needs and motivations of employers.  Exploring the similarities and differences in how employers and educators view the purpose and content of education is thus a critical national issue.

What is the Nature of the Alignment between Employer Expectations and the Postsecondary Curriculum?

Given that the idea of poor alignment between employer expectations and worker proficiencies (i.e., the “skills gap”) is informing public policy, with increased emphasis on vocational training, differential tuition for fields perceived as “job-ready,” and critiques of the value of a liberal arts education, it is important to develop a rigorous understanding of the nature of the alignment (or mis-alignment) between the education sector and the workplace. While a significant amount of research exists using large data-sets to explore these, little empirical work exists that is based on the actual experiences and perspectives of business owners and educators. Given that these issues unfold in different ways depending on the context, we suggest that obtaining insights “from the field” is critically important in order to align policy with the real needs and experiences of employers, educators, and students.

Education and Industry: Cultivating Diverse Skills Sets for Student Success

With support from the National Science Foundation and the Center for Education and Work at UW-Madison, we address these issues in two industries that are widely considered central to the future economic growth of the nation: advanced manufacturing and biotechnology. Through interviews with over 200 employers and educators, and site visits to 60 companies and 21 postsecondary institutions throughout the state of Wisconsin, we aim to shed light on the state of the alignment (or misalignment) between the educational sector and industry. Another goal of the study is to provide recommendations regarding the curriculum that balances the needs of employers and educators, as well as recent evidence from the learning sciences regarding how to best cultivate diverse skills sets that facilitate student success.

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Exploring the STEM Skills Gap is housed at the Wisconsin Center for Education Research at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Copyright ©2013, The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System