Using data to connect students with jobs

When oil and gas companies are seeking young engineers to work for them, they generally know where to look. A number of Louisiana universities have a proven track record of producing qualified engineering graduates.

When those same companies start looking for young people with both a strong command of language and enough technical know-how to write up grant proposals, the search gets a little trickier.

The question then becomes how to connect employers in search of specialized skills with the young men and women who have them.

University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley thinks she has the answer.

The UL system has teamed up with the SAS software company of Cary, N.C. and MyEdu, of Austin, Texas, to create a massive data trove that should help make students more marketable to prospective employers and help those companies find the desired types of students.

“This partnership allows us to use data to connect the dots,” Woodley said. “It allows us to use data to target-market opportunities to our students they may not have known about.”

When Woodley was interviewing to become the head of the UL system a year ago, she said colleges need to stop being “afraid of data.”

Now, as the leader of the largest network of colleges in the state, including the University of New Orleans and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Woodley envisions putting together a system where all 91,000 students in the system can get a head start on their careers starting as early as their freshman year, largely through the use of data.

The initiative is expected to be up and running around February at all nine schools in the UL system.

It starts with the system’s partnership with MyEdu. With a social media platform similar to LinkedIn, the company has apps allowing students to plan course schedules, build a degree “road map” and keep track of their progress as they move toward graduation.

Students use the system to create digital profiles, with the app keeping track of the skills they pick up in various classes ranging anywhere from public speaking to online marketing.

From there, employers who pay to use the MyEdu service can punch in the skills they are looking for in potential employees and be directed to students who meet their needs.

The UL system’s student board member, Davante Earl-Damon Lewis, said the service acts like a virtual résumé — one that is more dynamic than a traditional paper résumé.

With the information generated as students use the MyEdu service, the job of SAS is to collect the data and figure out the big picture.

SAS senior account executive Wes Avett said his company will identify the gap between the skills employers need and those that students are learning. The data collected can be used to help attract companies looking to relocate, and it could be used to get colleges to adjust their curricula to match what employers are looking for, he said.

Woodley said the partnerships will allow schools to go further than just shepherding students through the credits required to earn a degree. The collaboration will give them a jump-start on a meaningful career, she said.

She likened the approach to a person doing a Google search and being directed toward advertising that reflects the search terms.

Data have already resulted in a collaboration between Nicholls State University in Thibodaux and the maritime industry, which is in search of finance majors and business management students.

This fall, the Nicholls College of Business Administration partnered with the Offshore Marine Service Association to start a maritime management program — an area that is lacking sufficient numbers of trained workers.

Woodley said data will let advisers direct students toward elective courses that will help them land those types of highly specialized jobs.

“We take students who are on a degree path and point them toward real careers. We want to be more deliberate about connecting the dots,” Woodley said. “The idea is to get students to understand, not as seniors, but as freshman, what they need to do to get those jobs.”