The U.S. workforce is under siege. The current economic recovery is slow, and reversing the current unemployment situation is taking far longer than most experts predicted. In the meantime, every place you look, someone is trashing American workers and their lack of skills. According to the National Commission on Adult Literacy, about half of our nation’s workforce—that’s almost 90 million workers—lacks the skills needed for the kind of job that pays a family-sustaining wage. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that unless we can solve this problem, the U.S. economy will stall out and we’ll see our nation’s global competitiveness shrink.
The Apollo Research Institute’s recent study “The Great Divide” zeros in on the job sectors that are predicted to boom in the next six years: professional, scientific, and technical services. And it should come as no surprise that these are the fields where employers are struggling to find qualified workers. However, along with delivering some grim news, the report also makes some recommendations that, if implemented, could go a long way toward beefing up the U.S. workforce—and put a lot more people back to work.
1. Address the realities of working adults. There aren’t enough traditional (i.e., students who enroll in college right after high school) undergraduates in the pipeline to meet the need for skilled workers. Education and training opportunities need to be greatly expanded for both employed and unemployed workers, so they can learn the skills to make and keep them competitive in the workforce. And because these workers are dealing with the demands of work and family obligations, these training programs must be flexible. Distance learning and online degree and certification programs are a perfect solution, allowing these non-traditional students to integrate classwork with their busy schedules.
2. Communication between employers and educators is essential. Employers know what kind of skills their workers need, so having an open forum between business and industrial leaders and educators only makes sense. More colleges and universities are signing on to public-private partnerships with employers, and it’s a win/win on all sides. Employers get a steady stream of skilled workers, colleges can boast of high job placement for their graduates, and graduates go from the lecture hall to a job.
In addition, colleges and universities should consider broadening the scope of their career-development offices by providing career coaches. Because these pros are familiar with business and industry staffing needs, they not only can advise students about current degree programs, they can be a terrific source of information for college administrators about the emerging needs in various employment sectors.
3. Create industry-specific credentialing programs. Not everyone has the time or budget flexibility to enroll in a full college schedule, however credential and certification programs are rapidly gaining acceptance in the workplace. Industry-specific certification programs produce a steady stream of well-trained workers, plus on-the-job training and recruitment costs are greatly reduced, something that benefits employers in a tight, bottom-line oriented economy.
4. Develop strategies for improving graduation rates. Of the 8 million students currently enrolled in a post-secondary education program, less than half will graduate. Ouch! Clearly, there is a need for more and better student support—especially with non-traditional students. As the report notes, "support from spouses, significant others, faculty members, and staff from an institution's academic department had the best chance of positively influencing adult learners to continue classes." One recommendation that has gained support from both students and educators is to create a kind of early warning system that targets struggling students and gives them tools to help get them on track.
Putting U.S. workers back to work in well-paying jobs with solid futures is a national priority. As this report suggests, closer cooperation and communication between the business sector and the academic/training community is a great first step toward bridging the workforce skills gap.