Partnering for employability: Universities must work with industry to bridge the skills gap

A student in front of London's Tower Bridge

Rapid technological advancements and evolving industry landscapes mean that expectations on graduates have never been higher. Employers are witnessing a paradigm shift in the skills they value.  

According to a report from McKinsey, 87% of companies expect to experience or already have a skills gap, meaning there is a disparity between the skills they need and the capabilities they find in those they hire. 

Finding innovative ways to drive employability and bridge the skills gap requires stronger partnerships between universities and employers, according to higher education experts.

A trendy conversation or reason for concern?

At QS Reimagine Education Conference 2023 in Abu Dhabi, world-leading education innovators were invited to share their insights on new strategies for aligning education with industry needs, providing practical experience, and upskilling the workforce.  

Speaking on the panel, Nadia El-Gowely, executive director at Al-Fanar Media, said: “The skills gap is very much alive in the minds of students, universities, employers, and policymakers. It might sound like a trendy conversation, but for good reason – for globalisation, automation and technological advancements taking place at dizzying speeds. The question is how do we seize the opportunity?” 

Panellists were unified in their belief that industry partnerships are crucial to addressing the skills gap and shared the following advice for universities:

Partnerships must be built on trust and communication 

Dr Hesham Waigh Gomma, Director of Institutional Research and Planning at Khalifa University, feels that we have an opportunity to partner with employers to skill and reskill employees and prepare students for the future.  

He said: “I think the key to developing strong partnerships is by building trust over time, through clear communication and agreeing on goals together.” 

Sally Jeffrey, Global Education & Skills Network at PwC, agrees. “Partnerships have to be built on trust. They have to start with something that both parties are going to appreciate and can reasonably do, and then build gradually from there,” she said. “The best partnerships are the ones that start cautiously and build once trust is established.”

Universities should be realistic with employers’ time 

Employers are busy. Regardless of the size and scale of the company, employers are facing a range of challenges when it comes to recruitment. Jeffrey added: “Employers don’t always have the time to look into partnerships with educators, so they come to facilitators like PwC who can help them to transform their company and the sector. 

“What we see time and time again is university and employer partnerships that try to achieve too much too fast. Universities get excited and try to achieve it all at once and the partnership dies out, but they have to be realistic and start slow.” 

Students’ needs should remain front of mind 

For Gordon Scott, Managing Director of Successful Graduate Pty Ltd, engaging industry is critical to the process of helping the education providers to ensure graduates are appropriately prepared for the workforce, but “we must not forget what students are looking for as part of this process, too.”  

“As part of their educational contract with an institution, students are looking for strong employability, but they’re also looking for entrepreneurship skills. They’re looking for purpose. They’re looking for the ability to carry their concerns about the world into their careers and we have to consider their expectations when building partnerships with employers, to enable their future successes.” 

Nadia El-Gowely is Executive Director at Al-Fanar Media and a former journalist. El-Gowely believes that the key is to engage students and “make them an active partner to debate and discuss how things are done on their programmes and what that might mean for their futures when they graduate. 

“Help them to build a curriculum that pertains to the job market they’re going into,” she said.  

Build partnerships of various shapes and sizes 

Dr Shadi Hijazi, Principal Consultant at QS, spoke about the benefits of building partnerships of varying types. He said: “While there’s a lot of benefit in trying to engage with big employers, there’s equally good reason to engage with smaller employers.” 

While it may take more effort and planning to engage smaller businesses who don’t already have partnership processes in place, Hijazi believes “it’s worth it in the long term.” 

“What are you as a university going to offer smaller or more niche employers? Some may look for social engagement or social corporate responsibility. Some may have a specific challenge they need solving. So, it’s important to prepare.”  

Be clear about your offer 

To build stronger partnerships and drive employability to bridge the skills gap, universities should know what they offer. That’s according to panel chair and Professor of Management and Analytics at Columbia University, Dr Paul Thurman.  

He said: “We should know thyself first. It’s crucial that universities know what we offer and that we come to the market understanding our strengths and capacities, making sure that these partnerships don’t only happen on paper but have tangible, measurable outputs.”  

El-Gowely added: “The issue of the skills gap is not going to disappear overnight. It’s a matter of time, but I have full faith and confidence that if we’re more open to collaboration and to partnerships, things will change for the better.” 

Find out what employers are looking for from business school graduates in our in-depth analysis of the skills gap from the perspective of 16,000 employers.

Sign up for industry insights

Receive the latest insights, expertise and commentary on the topics which matter most in higher education, straight to your inbox.

Sign up