Troy Markowitz, Portfolium

Troy Markowitz is Vice President of Partnerships at Portfolium, a San Diego based company that helps millions of students connect learning to career opportunity, while providing institutions the ability to measure learning for assessment and accreditation management. Troy is also a regular contributor on Forbes and writes about academic excellence and the bridge into the workforce. This interview is the first in our series with thought leaders focused on career preparation and readiness.

Geoff Roberts: I’m here with Troy Markowitz, VP of Partnerships at Portfolium. Troy, why don’t you start by telling our readers a bit about what your team is working on at Portfolium?

Troy Markowitz: Sure, so Portfolium is a student success and career readiness platform that essentially allows students to demonstrate evidence of skills that they’ve acquired during their academic (inside the class and outside of the class) journey that takes place at their university. We also partner with employers that source, search, and match for evidence of skills or competencies that match their job criteria.

What we offer is a three sided marketplace – the sides being students, universities, and employers. Right now there are a little over 12 million students on our network, and 1,500 universities that have launched campus wide. And then we have employers, over 50,000 employers. So one feeds into the other – employers need a way to attract talent and recruit talent more efficiently than just posting a job and waiting, so we have a sourcing tool that they can use. Then universities get data analytics on not just job placement outcomes but also data on which skills match an employer’s needs derived from their specific curriculum and all sorts of other analytics.

Portfolium also is the only tool that uniquely combines the requirements of assessment and accreditation management and connects it to the workforce. Portfolium has a tool for faculty to measure student learning outcomes (SLOs) and pull reporting for accreditation, RTP and prove student learning. In connection, universities can also add extra layers of data to student learning- they can track what skills students acquire and from which component of their education, thus proving students graduate career-ready, while also identifying skill gaps.

Geoff: How did the idea for the business come about. At what point did you look up and say “This is a problem we need to tackle?”

Troy: Sure, so the Founder, Adam, used to be an engineer working in the space shuttle launch program. He was very educated, and had a lot of school work where he acquired skills that were relevant and congruent to the workplace. Most of that got left behind in the learning management system – he couldn’t take it with him, it wasn’t portable, and it wasn’t really giving much credence to the work and projects that did equate to skills that employers would find useful and congruent to the workforce.

He found himself in a place where he was literally bringing a tangible portfolio with him to interviews to say, “Here’s the work that I’ve done, the projects that I’ve done, even outside of school and work – here is evidence of skills that I claim to have,” to help the employer make a better hire. It’s really about not just hiring on potential; employers are not really using GPA as indicator of job performance anymore, and 85 years of research indicates that a work sample can help companies make a better hire. He was getting job offers left to right, so there had to be something to to this approach. A portfolio didn’t have to be just for someone like an artist. If I looked at your resume, or even your Linkedin page, it doesn’t really give me a three dimensional view of your passions and what your true abilities are, maybe your grit, obstacles you’ve overcome to really help us make a unique hiring decision. This is a way for students to stand out and to really give credence to a degree or program.

Portfolium

Geoff: You’ve written quite a bit about the “Skills Gap” that seems to exist – the disconnect between the skills employers are looking for in new graduates and the skills students are actually leaving their college or university with. You feel strongly that it’s not a “Skills Gap” that exists but an “Awareness Gap” – I tend to agree. But why do you think the Awareness Gap exists? What’s the root cause of this gap?

Troy: I think it is true that there is this lens now on the value of a degree – a paradigm shift as tuition increases, as student debt increases to $1.6 trillion. Companies like Ernst & Young and Google have removed degree classification from their hiring practices now. You have the acquisition of Lynda from Linkedin, and many others like it – we’re seeking skills outside the traditional university or academic space. So the root cause has been due to lack of awareness in that students don’t realize, or aren’t cognizant of skills like critical thinking and leadership that they’re acquiring. This curriculum is being measured already for student learning outcomes – it’s just an extra layer of data with their skills that are underlying that is missing. Students should be aware of these underlying skills and therefore be better prepared to articulate them. So when students are seeking employment or attending a career fair and are asked about their leadership or critical thinking skills, the first they say isn’t, “I don’t have any internship or other experience to point to.” They really do and they don’t even know it, a lot of data is left on the table. So it is about awareness.

In the tech industry you might hire a front end developer that doesn’t know Angular.JS because it’s not being taught in a computer science class. We provide that knowledge back to the university so they are aware of the skills gap, so they can then inculcate that into their curriculum to help bridge it. But there are different schools of thought, where schools don’t want to turn into a trade school for instance. San Diego State doesn’t want to become a trade school. The faculty don’t want to become just a lever to be a placement center. There is value to an education, learning and applying. But if students are more cognizant at least of the skills that they’re going to acquire and how they can relate those skills potentially to a career path, it can really help. And to me that’s the low hanging fruit – the awareness piece – the root cause can be a lot of different things.

Freshmen are preparing for jobs that simply don’t exist right now, so how do you prepare them to enter the workforce? I think students don’t know what they want to do, for the most part. I think casting a wider net in terms of potential career paths would help. For instance, I think an engineering major doesn’t know that they can work at Goldman Sachs in their Derivatives Department. That’s an incredibly lucrative career. A lot of engineers or people majoring in engineering don’t even know that. Same thing for liberal studies majors who want to work at tech companies. Schools right now are shifting and highlighting interesting career paths so students don’t need to double major or stay in school longer accumulating more debt. So there’s a lot of shifting happening depending on the type of school, if it’s a community college, if it’s a private school. To me the economy is not forgiving of someone doesn’t have the right skills regardless of the school you attended.

Geoff: To your point, Troy, I was an English major and never thought I would want to work for a software company in my wildest dreams – that sounded like the most boring thing in the world to me. I’ve been doing it for eight years now and I love it.

Troy: That’s great, and I’m sure other English majors would love to hear and know about that too so they don’t feel that they’re locked out to perhaps only go to law school or to go into research or become a writer. There are transferable skills that they’re not aware of that could be applicable. But the onus is not just on the university, there’s been this lens on the university especially in terms of career services when all the data indicates that not that many students are visiting career services. I mean these are people, a demographic that primarily text and don’t even talk on the phone, and you’re relying on them to come in and talk to you face to face? There needs to be a shift in technology to digitally connect in a familiar and organic way. So the onus is not just on the university, it’s also on the employer side where we now merge these two together and find that balance. Employers can’t just recruit at top 50 universities and expect that that’s where they’re going to find the best talent. So we’re also showing these employers like an Accenture, or a Google, that there is hidden talent that exists out there that matches their desired skill sets from majors or schools that they never even thought to recruit from. It’s the employers too changing their methods to help close that skills gap to show that these majors do apply and the skills they require are there.

Geoff: I think that many of the skills employers desire in new grads are to some extent intangibles, or are at least much more difficult to assess. For example, I’d argue that it’s easier for a professor to assess whether a student has a fundamental understanding of algebra than it is to assess the soft skills they learned during their coursework. Do you buy that argument, or is this just an easy excuse to fall back on?

Troy: I think soft skills are hard to measure on a resume – you put a bullet point that says “critical thinking” or “leadership,” but then if I was interviewing you I would ask you, “Tell me about your leadership skills and abilities,” because I can’t really ascertain that or measure it in an easily distilled way from your traditional two dimensional resume. That’s why at Portfolium we make skills visible – the skills don’t necessarily need to be attached to professional work experience. Students are learning how to critically think, they’re involved with teamwork and co-curriculars and experiences that equate to these soft skills that they can therefore showcase.

Then it becomes the argument of what is the competency? You claim to have a skill, say Excel, but are you proficient in it? So that’s in the eye of the beholder and that’s where it’s project based. You can see the competency based on the abilities in the project. But it’s still in the eye of the beholder because I can argue Goldman Sachs might have a different definition of Excel proficiency than JP Morgan Chase. So again it comes down to the work sample.

It’s difficult to make a hire just based on potential. Employers are judged on cost per hire, retention – there’s a lot of KPIs and measurements from the different scopes who are hiring these students. So to go back to your question, it is easier to see if a student has skills in algebra as opposed to the ability to critically think. We’re making it visible to the extent that employers can source candidates without ever having to meet with them, to see their abilities without needing to ask them management consulting type questions like, “how many planes are in the sky right now,” to see their methodology and assess their abilities.

Geoff: You’ve written previously, “Imagine a next-generation course catalog showing majors and courses, alongside the skills they should expect to attain and how those skills correspond to specific industries and jobs.” In your work with so many universities, do you know of any schools today that are already on the path to making this a reality?

Troy: We do work with a lot of progressive universities who are marching towards that. What we’ve seen with students is that instead of just doing work to get by, there is more of a connective learning element. The course might just be one of your general ed classes, but if the student is aware that the skill they’re going to acquire matches the needs of the job market and will be showcased, they actually work harder. They know that they’re acquiring useful skills that will help them inevitably in their job search even if they don’t know exactly what they want to do.

So we do have that and we’re housing that data and making it available to our partners because of the employers’ side of searches, they are searching for competencies all day every day when hiring. Those competencies like critical thinking or leadership are attached to artifacts that are attached to courses that are attached to a major that are attached to a university, if you will. So you can look at that data mapping as creating the academic graph.

Part 2 of our interview with Troy Markowitz will be published on Thursday, August 24, 2017.