Closing the Skills Gap

MIT J-WEL

Education researchers and leaders hack transformative ideas at J-WEL Week    

In a small conference room, three women sit down to tackle a global problem: the growing gap between the skills that employers say they need and the skills that job candidates actually possess. 

The scenario is simulated, part of a hackathon held during the fall convening of MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel World Education Lab (J-WEL), but the problem the women are confronting is real, and one that many of the organization’s members are tackling through research and educational reform. 

The global skills gap manifests in many ways, from a shortage of workers with specific technical skills, to a lack of candidates with the “soft skills” — what J-WEL refers to as “human skills” — employers are demanding, such as creativity and persistence. The root of the problem, however, is universal: “Workers don’t know what skills they need, educators don’t know what skills to educate for, and employers don’t know what skills workers have,” as Bill Bonvillian, director of a research project on workforce education at MIT Open Learning, put it in one presentation during the event.

The three women in the conference room — a dean of faculty at a business school, the head of a team overseeing the online learning platform for a tech giant, and a woman helping to create a data analytics program in Peru — have decided to focus on the third prong of the problem.

“A lot of schools say they’re teaching skills and competencies,” says Mona Dhillon, global dean of faculty and programs at Hult International Business School. “How can we validate the skills of students and ensure that they’re what employers want?”  

Their team will be called “The Right Stuff,” the women decide, and their motto will be “Walking the Walk.”

J-WEL, which was created three years ago, is organized into three distinct collaboratives – pK-12, Higher Education, and Workforce Learning. October’s hackathon, in which participants designed solutions to the school-work disconnect, took place on the Workforce Learning track.

But closing the skills gap will require effort across the continuum, from kindergarten through the workforce; the work can’t be confined to a single track. Through J-WEL, members of the pK-12 collaborative are bringing STEAM camps to students in China and Greece, while members of the Higher Education collaborative are training workers across Latin America in the growing field of data science.  

At MIT, a team of researchers led by Glenda Stump, an education research scientist, has built and tested a framework of 40 “future-ready skills” that they believe are key to success in the ever-evolving economy. Their next step is to develop a tool that workers could use to assess their own skills and to cultivate new ones. 

Walking the Walk

Back at the hackathon, the three women are debating who will be their “persona” – the end user of the product they will design. Should it be the prospective student who wants to know which educational program will provide the skills they will need for the job they want? Or the employer who needs to be sure that the candidates they are interviewing have the “future-ready” skills they claim in their cover letters?

They settle on the latter. Their persona will be Eve, a Houston-based recruiter in her mid-30s who works for a global corporation. Rachel Mohammed, manager of learning platform and cognitive sciences at IBM, takes a black marker from the table and sketches a curly haired woman sitting behind a desk. After brainstorming some potential solutions, the team hones in on their fix: a program that would record candidates interacting with would-be employees and supervisors, then analyze their performances for target behaviors. 

Then they turn to prototyping. Dhillon folds green construction paper to fashion walls for their model interview room, while Luz Fernandez Gandarias, director of innovation and education for The Institute for Advanced Analytics and Data Science, in Peru, constructs a frame using popsicle sticks mounted in putty. Dhillon molds workers from yellow, green and purple Play-Doh. The figures look like wooden peg dolls. 

The team’s product is still very much in development but, if it succeeds, each of the women could benefit — Mohammed, as an employer seeking to identify gaps in workers’ skillsets, and Dhillon and Gandarias as educators looking to assess students’ skill development.

Team presenting at hackathon
A team creates a model of a scene in the workplace, recording candidates interacting with would-be employees and supervisors.

Hult, which joined J-WEL as a member of J-WEL’s Workforce Learning Collaborative earlier this year, recently asked employment analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies for a list of the skills needed in the top 10 careers that its graduates aspire to. It compared that list to the skills professors said they were teaching to identify holes in the curriculum and created a “Career Mapper” tool to help current and prospective students isolate their own personal “skills gaps” and find courses that could close them. 

Hult is now overhauling its curriculum and assessments in an effort to ensure that its graduates leave with the skills Burning Glass says they’ll need, and faculty say they’re teaching.  

“People can say they’re doing anything out there, but if we can’t validate it in a format employers understand, we’re not walking the walk,” Dhillon says. She hopes to find partners through J-WEL that will evaluate the revised curriculum. 

Gandarias, meanwhile, is helping to build a program in advanced data science around MIT MicroMasters in statistics and data science. The program is financed by one of Peru’s family-run conglomerates, but “all companies would benefit” – and not just in Peru, says Gandarias, noting, “There is a huge shortage of talent in data science and advanced analytics worldwide.”

Sparking a Global Renaissance

Similar work is underway in Uruguay, where J-WEL charter members Plan Ceibal and La Universidad Tecnológica del Uruguay (UTEC), together with Agencia Nacional de Investigación e Innovación (the National Research and Innovation Agency), aim to turn the country into a global hub for data science.  This year, the alliance, known as CoLAB, started a degree program that blends MITs online courses with weekly video conference sessions with MIT and UTEC faculty and on-site workshops.

Faculty and staff from J-WEL and MIT’s International Science and Technology Initiatives (MISTI) will travel to Uruguay to teach students and train faculty there, and 12 faculty members from colleges across the country attended the fall J-WEL Week to learn from MIT faculty and their peers.

“Together with the J-WEL team, we are redesigning today’s education to adapt it to what we believe tomorrow’s education will be,” says Virginia Robano, director of CoLAB and the program in data science.

Elsewhere in Latin America, J-WEL member Universidad de Los Andes (Uniandes), in Colombia, is in the midst of a comprehensive curricular reform that was motivated by employer dissatisfaction. Silvia Caro, associate dean for academic affairs in the School of Engineering, said that employers kept telling her school that its graduates were strong in technical skills, but weak in problem-solving, communication skills and teamwork.

“They were not good at identifying problems, and if you’re not good at that, how are you going to find solutions?” she asks. 

Now, “instead of delivering students to the workforce and crossing our fingers and hoping they do well,” the engineering school is inviting companies to come into the classroom and present real-world problems for students to solve. 

“They need to face reality sooner,” says Caro.

Faculty from Uniandes have attended J-WEL’s summer curriculum and course design workshop and organized an in-house workshop with J-WEL staff in November. 

And in Spain, faculty at Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, an online university with more than 70,000 students, have identified 13 skills that employers and alumni say are critical to labor market success. They are now working to embed the skills across all programs, starting with global citizenship.

The challenge, says Àngels Fitó Bertran, the college’s vice president for competitiveness and employability, is that universities in Spain are “hyper-regulated,” and can’t change the curricula at will. So “you have to work it into the course, how you teach.” In her finance courses, that has meant giving students new ethical dilemmas to solve.

Through J-WEL, members like Robano, Caro, and Bertran collaborate to find common solutions to shared challenges. Of course, no single solution will work in every context – as Professor Sanjay Sarma, MIT’s vice president for open learning, noted in remarks at the start of the conference, it can be “hard to take a solution from one place and transplant it to another”; would-be innovators must “recognize and respect the locality of the problem.”

Still, it’s clear that communication and collaboration across countries will be critical to achieving J-WEL’s ambitious goal of “sparking a global renaissance in education.” 

Scaling Up

Such collaboration is on display at the hackathon, where Team “The Right Stuff” is presenting their diorama to the members of two other teams. Technically, this is a competition, but there will be no winner declared, and the questioning that follows their presentation is polite and curious. 
Héctor Gardó Huerta, a visiting researcher at MIT who is facilitating the hackathon, wonders how the women will address candidates’ privacy concerns. Heather Whiteman, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, business school and former head of people strategy, analytics, digital learning & HR operations at General Electric Digital, wants to know how a company could justify the expense of taking multiple people off their regular jobs for the sake of an interview. 

“Can you show you can offset the costs?” she asks. 

Susan Young, assistant director of Workforce Learning at J-WEL, suggests they market the product by telling companies they could use the interview as a “baseline” for future employee evaluations. 

And Stump advises them to add a de-briefing at the end, “to give candidates the opportunity to reflect on their behavior and what they might change.”

The team heads back into prototyping, where they transform the interview into a virtual experience, so no existing employees will be pulled from their work. They decide to have candidates sign a form notifying them that the results of the interview will not be shared outside the company, and that any data will be anonymized for research purposes. And they agree to brief candidates on their performance after the interview. To the diorama, Gandarias adds a Lego table and places a green post-it debriefing book on top.

The next morning, the teams present their revised solutions. Dhillon, playing candidate “Adam,” shows up for an interview with Mohammed, who is playing recruiter “Eve.” Eve hands Adam the virtual reality glasses, and he is taken through two scenarios – a status check with virtual subordinates, and a status update to virtual supervisors. He performs well.

Two days later, Eve calls Adam in for the debriefing. She hands him the report and tells him that despite one minor issue with his body language, the company was “happy to take this to the next level.”

“Thanks for this report,” Adam says. “It’s a really unique way of interviewing candidates.”
The feedback this time is almost entirely positive. Huerta says he’d have liked “a little more tension” in the role play, but another participant says it could be a good way of gauging candidate fit – how they mesh with the culture. Bertran calls their solution smart – and scalable. 

“I think it’s a good idea,” she tells them. 

Maybe solving the global skills gap will not be mission impossible, after all. As Bonvillian will put it later in the day: “The models are out there, the tools are out there. We’ve just got to scale them up.”

    
 

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