A simple solution to a complex problem?

Last year, I taught an entrepreneur course in China. The last assignment was a problem solving project where the whole class must work together to solve a problem of an online company. However at the last minute, I changed my mind. There was another problem that I have thought about for a few months, and I wanted to challenge the students to solve:

The problem: “Today the number of unemployed college graduates in China is increasing but at the same time, thousands of jobs are not filled because the demand and the supply are not balanced. Why do companies that want to hire cannot depend on universities to provide them with qualified workers? It is easy to say that companies and universities should work together but in reality, companies are too busy to work with universities. Even if they work with universities, it does not means academic people would listen to them. Universities also have good excuse that they do NOT know what companies need so they cannot provide the trainings. How do we solve this problem?”

I did not think students would be able to solve it given that they only have two weeks left in the course. I gave them a choice of solving this problem or went back to the on line problem that I have already given to them. They surprised me by selected this problem and came up with a solution:

The proposed solution: “University should use Business Intelligence technology to collect requirements from the industry to add and update their training programs so their graduates can get jobs based on industry’s needs. At the same time, university should use the information collected to eliminate programs that train students with skills that the industry does not want.”

The technology solution: “Develop a Business Intelligent application that search companies’ job listing on their websites to match university trainings with companies needs.” In just two weeks, the students was able to build a small search application that accessed fifty companies’ job listing websites, collected all information about their needs, analyzed them, and created a report on the skills need. With this report, university can review and update their training program to meet the industry’s needs, and help graduates to get good jobs.

It was a simple idea but I wondered how many people have thought about this solution? For many years, academic people kept saying that they did not know what the industry needs but with information technology it is not too difficult to obtain industry’s requirements. Of course the students’ software was simple, not robust enough to be commercialized. But if they had more time to improve it, they could start their own company selling this software product to universities. That was what I thought.

I explained this solution to the university provost and praised the students for doing such an innovating work. After listened to me, he laughed: “Do you think I care about the industry needs? Our goal is to educate students, not provide workers for the industry. This is NOT a vocational school; we are providing students with general knowledge so they have a broader view of everything. We know what is best for students which may or may not in alignment with the industry’s needs. As the demand for this type of education is high, universities do not have problem of filling all their classes so why should they change what they have been doing successfully for many years? Our university is doing well with current training programs and there is no need to change. Our professors are well known in their fields and they do not need to learn anything new? We are content with what we have so there is no hurry to do anything.”

In the industry, if you do not change fast you will be eliminated. That is why when the economy changes, many companies filed for bankruptcy. However in academics, no one lose their jobs as long as there are students. Today most universities are full of students and it is difficult to change the view of people who live in “sheltered academic world”. Therefore, from the entrepreneurship principle, university is NOT a viable customer because it does NOT need this information.

I told the students that their customer is NOT the university but students and parents who need this information to plan for their futures. By having all updated industry’s job market data in a website that students and parents can access, they should be able to make informed decision on what fields to study and which universities have those trainings. In other word, universities whose trainings are not in alignment with the job market will have to answer to their customers: The students and their parents. To stay in business, they will have to make sure that their graduates will be able to get good job for their education investment. In this market driven economy, schools that have bad record of high number of unemployed graduates will have to either update their training programs or shut down.

Before I left China, I had dinner with the faculty and the topic about the ranking of world class university was discussed. I explained that the ranking system of the U.S. News and World Reports consists of several categories, besides the excellent training programs and research as well as other reputations, there is one key factor that ranked very high: The percentage of graduates having jobs in their field of study. Most top universities in the U.S. do track employment of their graduates as well as their salaries and used them for their academic improvement. This factor distinguishes top universities from average universities. It explains why top universities have high number of applicants when average universities have difficulty to recruit students. Top universities often update or improve their trainings every few years to make sure that they are based on market information where there is high demand for their graduates.


  • Blogs of Prof. John Vu, Carnegie Mellon University