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Tackling the Skills Mismatch Through SME-Inclusive University-Business Cooperation

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The European economy is on an upward trajectory. Reflecting various macro-economic forecasts over recent months, the recently published EUROCHAMBRES Economic Survey (EES) of over 50.000 businesses in 23 countries reveals a broadly positive outlook for the year ahead. Investment levels, domestic and export sales are all set to grow.

Linked to this, businesses expect to create more jobs next year. But, the new EES also highlights a growing concern among businesses that they will not be able to identify people with the skills that correspond to their requirements. Indeed, lack of skilled workers was identified as the second greatest challenge for 2018, its highest ranking to date.

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Source: EUROCHAMBRES Economic Survey 2018

University-business cooperation has many facets and universities cannot alone solve the skills mismatch problem. Nonetheless, the supply and demand for skills must, Chambers believe, be at the heart of the collaboration. This is a message that EUROCHAMBRES has conveyed to policy-makers consistently over recent years. Linked to this, we argue that employability should be a significant criterion for the assessment of the quality and effectiveness of universities, notably in exercises such as the U-Multirank ranking of universities and colleges. The relevance of skills in the way that academia and the private sector collaborate is also highlighted in the findings of the ‘State of University-Business Cooperation’ project. Indeed, the rising importance of talent is one of the key messages that we draw from the report.

Does more graduates mean a more skilled workforce?

More and more children are going to university. This is in many ways a positive trend, but it will only prove sustainable if the vast majority of the students that leave university are equipped to find work and contribute to the economy. Universities understandably recoil at the notion that their purpose is principally to prepare young people for the job market. Going to university is of course about much more than this for students, and universities’ socio-economic contribution is certainly considerably wider. Nonetheless, there needs to be a correlation, even if it is not a linear or simple one. Both employability and employment creation can be and need to be by-products of effective university-business cooperation across a range of activities and in a multitude of forms.

Involving SMEs in university-business cooperation

A key element in this equation for Chambers is how to involve more small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in university-business cooperation. Smaller businesses are often unintentionally excluded from such relationships. They don’t have structures in place to build contacts with stakeholders from education in the same way that a multinational does, nor do they typically have the resources. They are less likely to have a long-term strategy in place that could provide the basis for cooperation with a university, as smaller businesses are often obliged to react to short-term developments and think more in terms of days, weeks and months, rather than years.

At the same time, SMEs are collectively responsible for more than half of EU value added and around two-thirds of job creation. They are also of course a constant source of innovation and creativity. So, they are overlooked at the EU’s peril. We must therefore find ways to facilitate their interaction and cooperation with universities, something with which intermediary organisations such as Chambers can help.

SMEs and businesses more generally cannot assume that the education system will deliver ready-to-recruit graduates on a plate. They must give as well as get. But this requires mechanisms and structures that encourage university-business cooperation, not just for major companies, but also for SMEs. Chambers and similar intermediaries can play a key role in facilitating this cooperation and in many cases do, yet there is considerable scope to enhance these links. The findings of the ‘State of University-Business Cooperation’ back this up and we hope they will serve as a basis for improvement.