Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta, Richmond, Dallas, and St. Louis
"The nexus of power lies with employers."
So wrote William Rodgers in a presentation for Aligning Workforce Development and Employment Strategies for Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a conference held at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta in January. The chief economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, Rodgers presented findings that illuminate challenges and opportunities facing HBCUs as they prepare students to enter a fluid, competitive labor force.
A few conditions Rodgers highlighted:
Further setting context for the conference, Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin described the nation's job market as among the most difficult since the 1930s. It is particularly tough for African-Americans, even with college degrees. As of January 2013, unemployment among college graduates was 3.8 percent, Raskin said in a keynote address, but was 5.9 percent for African-American graduates.
Raskin pointed out another challenge for recent graduates. Jobs polarization—the phenomenon of new job creation concentrated among high- and low-skill occupations while middle-skill jobs disappear—effectively raises skill demands for some entry level jobs for college graduates. As a result, Raskin suggested, education should be more focused on the characteristics valued in high-skilled jobs, such as abstract reasoning, problem solving, intuition, and persuasion. A tension between such a broad-based schooling and a more narrow focus on job training appears to be a primary challenge facing today's HBCUs, according to some conference attendees.
"Connecting students and graduates to jobs in a very challenging labor market is a critical issue for HBCUs and other institutions of higher learning, but also for anyone seeking solutions to the serious economic challenges our country faces," Raskin said.
Some three dozen HBCU leaders gathered
Nearly three dozen HBCU presidents, along with corporate hiring managers, economists, Federal Reserve officials, and other workforce development experts, gathered for the two-day conference on January 16–17. The event was part of a broad-based Federal Reserve System initiative aimed at improving workforce readiness, which complements the Fed's dual mandate of striving to contain inflation and maximize employment. The conference was a collaborative effort by the Federal Reserve Banks of Atlanta, Dallas, Richmond, and St. Louis.
HBCU presidents shared best practices and discussed responses to challenges that intensified during the Great Recession and the subsequent balky recovery. Academic leaders cannot afford to remain aloof from these concerns, said Wayne Riley, president of Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, a conference attendee and a member of the board of directors of the Atlanta Fed's Nashville Branch.
"They understand real-world challenges their graduates face as they begin their professional careers. It's very different from when all of us started our careers," Riley said. "Folks left [the conference] saying we've made some initial forays, and we're going back and we're going to turbocharge this stuff."
One area in which turbocharging could happen is in the instruction of "soft skills." The need to focus on such skills—writing, public speaking, dealing with conflict, business networking, cultural literacy, creative thinking—was a theme that pervaded the conference, from Raskin's remarks to conference discussion to postconference interviews with attendees.
Balancing broad education with workforce preparation
To be sure, no one portrayed soft skills as a panacea. Closing the pay gap among white and black college graduates, and remedying other issues related to workforce readiness, will require a range of efforts. And what works for one school might not work for all schools. The causes of and solutions to these matters are many and complex. For instance, a large percentage of HBCU students are the first in their family to attend college. And research has found that African-American professionals gravitate toward jobs in the public sector and in human resources, fields in which compensation tends to plateau at lower levels than in finance, engineering, and some other disciplines.
Accordingly, the conference addressed various issues and approaches to workforce readiness. Aligning curricula with the needs of contemporary employers was a prominent topic, for example. Presidents discussed programs that bring executives to campus for special lectures or even to serve as adjunct faculty.
In general, universities need to react more quickly to labor market demands, said Carlton Brown, president of Clark Atlanta University. At the same time, he cautioned, employers' appetite for particular graduates, say, electrical engineers or MBAs, tends to change every few years. Therefore, four-year universities must avoid focusing too narrowly on training students strictly for specific occupations.
"What our job is, I think, is to figure out how to build that closer, tighter relationship to the various industrial sectors, and at the same time continue to....produce broadly educated people who are flexible, who are not prepared for just one job, but who are prepared to lead, and to be entrepreneurs," Brown explained.
Creativity, Brown observed, is among America's comparative advantages in the global economy. Four-year colleges and universities risk undermining that advantage if they churn out technocrats expert at just one skill, in his view.
Rather, the ideal is a balance: a broad education blended with practical job preparation. Internships that augment classroom work are a popular tool for helping achieve that balance. In fact, many companies, representatives at the conference noted, view student internships as extended job interviews. Half of the recent graduates hired by Bank of America, for instance, were interns, said a Bank of America representative at the conference. A large insurance company takes nine summer interns from Clark Atlanta each year. Virtually all the interns land full-time job offers, Brown said.
Those sorts of opportunities are why Kentucky State University aims to strengthen its internship program. But that is only a part of what the liberal arts school is doing to sharpen its focus on educating students while also preparing them for jobs, said Kentucky State President Mary Evans Sias. She is working with faculty, alumni businesspeople, and members of external school advisory boards to analyze which occupations liberal arts graduates are suited to pursue. Kentucky State is also bringing more businesspeople to campus to advise students on what it takes to thrive in corporate America.
"No matter what we tell them, hearing it from a third party in business is better," Sias said.
Rethinking career placement services
Rethinking workforce readiness entails other changes as well. Kentucky State is tracking increasingly detailed metrics from its career placement office. When the office holds a career fair, Sias said she no longer simply wants to know how many students and prospective employers attended. She also asks how many students and graduates actually found jobs, what kinds of jobs, why they were hired, and at what type of companies.
The January workforce development conference reinforced her commitment to those efforts, Sias said. The event also helped her "become a futurist as well. It made me think about, 'What do I need to do to better prepare my students for the world of work?' "
Part of the answer lies in the soft skills. Employers said they are not seeking graduates who can simply perform the necessary job skills. It's a given that whomever they hire can master those. Rather, what distinguishes the successful young applicant is his or her command of the soft skills.
This can be especially challenging for HBCUs because of the background of their student bodies. At Kentucky State, for example, 61 percent of students are the first generation in their families to attend college. Those students are not steeped in a culture of higher education, and have not grown up with expectations of working in a corporate setting, Sias said. Indeed, she noted that many Kentucky State students who have enough academic credits to graduate are staying in school because they are apprehensive about plunging into the labor force.
Sias said she has made a commitment to personally contact each of those students to help them focus on finding a job. In addition, the school is launching a leadership development program to help students master job interviewing, public speaking, networking, and other soft skills needed to succeed in a work setting.
Policy as important as practice
Officials at Morehouse College have long emphasized the importance of soft skills, according to Keith Hollingsworth, chair of the Morehouse College Department of Business Administration. The Atlanta college's business students, for instance, take a required course in leadership development that includes outings to network with corporate executives. At these events, students are required to gather a minimum number of business cards.
At Meharry Medical College, fourth-year students take required classes in health policy. Riley, the college's president, lectures as part of these courses. A well-rounded physician, he said, is no longer one who is merely competent at treating patients.
"If the president and Congress are debating raising the eligibility standards of Medicare, students have to understand what that means to them, to our communities, to the solvency of the Medicare trust fund," Riley said.
Health care company formalizes the importance of soft skills
At UnitedHealthcare, the soft skills are not merely discussed. A large provider of health benefits programs, UnitedHealthcare has institutionalized the importance of soft skills. The company calls them "values based competencies." UnitedHealth's "values-based competencies framework" lists numerous skills on which the company's professionals are actually graded. The values underlying those skills include integrity, compassion, relationships, and innovation.
"That's the reality," said Rhonda Medows, chief medical officer and executive vice president in charge of hiring for UnitedHealthcare. "It's how we get paid."
The company devised the program carefully. UnitedHealthcare's values-based competencies framework resulted from a systematic study of why people succeed at the company, said Medows, a participant at the HBCU conference. United screens job applicants to fit the soft skills framework. So in job interviews, the company eschews questions about routine jobs skills, whether in medicine, finance, or another field. That information is in the résumé.
Rather, Medows said, she concentrates on applicants' "raw potential." UnitedHealthcare hiring managers are interested in whether applicants speak grammatically and ask questions well. Do they think creatively and solve problems without a supervisor instructing them at every step?
HBCUs a diverse lot
To be sure, not all HBCUs have the resources to offer extensive programs on leadership and other soft skills, nor to build partnerships with large corporations. In fact, when considering how HBCUs might better prepare students, it is important to realize that the schools are not all alike. Just as Ivy League universities differ from commuter schools, so too do HBCUs vary in size, resources, academic programs, and the backgrounds of their student bodies, conference attendees pointed out.
Differences aside, however, inviting corporations and other employers onto campus or to help shape curricula, does not necessarily require deep pockets. It mostly requires asking, Hollingsworth said.
There really is no choice. As employers hold power in the hiring of graduates, HCBUs and all universities and technical schools must continue to seek ways to forge closer ties to those employers.