Current Award Recipient

Ralph W. Tyler Award


Natural Language Processing of Employer and College Intern Explanations of Leadership Development 

Faculty and Staff Contributors // Clemson University

Carl Ehrett, PhD, Troy Nunamaker, Hudson Smith, PhD

Student Contributors // Clemson University

Daniel Smith, Daphne Cottle, Manu Kolluru, Jeremy Mikale Crosby, Martin Scott Driggers, Mary Alice Schultz


Leadership is a career competency that is crucial for employability. Previous research has demonstrated that employers and students define leadership in different ways. This difference may constitute a competency gap that is detrimental to student success. The purpose of this study was to understand the analysis of the language that employers and students use to describe leadership is a useful approach for understanding this difference in perspective. However, this approach is limited by the quantity of text that researchers can feasibly directly analyze. Artificial intelligence and machine learning can be employed to address this limitation. This study demonstrates how a machine learning (ML) framework can be applied to extend researchers’ analysis of a small subset of a large supply of text data to the entire data set. 

The study shows that the result is near human-level performance in labeling text data at a scale well beyond what researchers can achieve unaided. This study revealed discrepancies in how mentors and students describe the competency, leadership. The more academicians, employers, policymakers, and recent college graduates can understand the similarities and differences in how we define career readiness, the quicker we can adjust, meet the workforce’s current and future needs, and move towards closing the competency gaps. 

Employability has been part of the college graduate fabric and language surrounding degrees-earned for centuries (Peck, 2017). Throughout the twentieth century, the terms soft skills and transferable skills were similarly used by educators and employers when describing college graduates’ employability. The expression career competencies moved to the forefront of the career readiness discussion in the twenty-first century (Human Resources-UNL, 2017, p. 1), but the specific characteristics of both categorizations did not change during that transition. Leadership, communication, critical thinking, teamwork, professional ethics, technical savviness, intercultural fluency, and career management (NACE, 2016) have been competency or soft skill characteristics sought by employers, taught by educators, and leveraged by students (Farrar, 1980). Centuries after Aristotle first complained of Socrates’s career competence a millennium ago, there still appears to be a gap in perceived college graduate performance by employers and students (Peck, 2017).  

Nunamaker, Cawthon, and James’ (2020) qualitative study explored the language employers and students used to describe leadership and proposed that both groups define leadership differently. Ultimately, a better understanding of the narrative employers and students use to describe career readiness could offer educators and others a wholly new and unique set of tactics to address those competency gaps that have plagued the workforce for centuries. This study specifically looks at the competency, leadership. 

Published in Experience Magazine™ | Practice + Theory + Podcast