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Higher Education

Bridging the Skills Gap: Higher Education's Opportunity

Three opportunities higher education institutions should consider to help solve the country’s skills gap and bolster economic growth.

Around the world, employers, educators, policymakers, training organizations and others have recognized the critical importance of tackling the skills gap. According to a recent study by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, there will be 165 million jobs in the economy by 2020, and 65 percent of those positions will require some form of postsecondary education.

Of the 55 million jobs that will need to be filled between 2010 and 2020, due to both new job creation and baby boomers leaving the workforce, there will be 5 million jobs requiring postsecondary credentials that will go unfilled at the current rate degrees are being granted. With both global and domestic economic trends continuing to redefine the trajectory of US labor demand, students are graduating with high levels of debt and struggling to find work, as their skill sets fail to match employer needs. This brings into question the value of the degree. A recent Gallup-Lumina report found only 43 percent of Americans believe college graduates are prepared for success in the workforce, which matches the perception of employers, with only 33 percent of business leaders agreeing that educational institutions are graduating students with the skills and competencies their businesses need. Media stories, the rising cost of a degree and the growing oversight by the federal government are putting pressure on educational institutions to prove their value.  

However, the above statistics also prove that having a degree or certificate will only become more important in the future for the individual and the economy overall. How will institutions respond to meet this need, and what role should they play in doing so? These are questions that all institutions providing postsecondary education are grappling with—from trade, vocational schools and community colleges, to four-year liberal arts colleges and large universities. Whichever path each institution takes, it’s imperative that they’re all part of the solution to provide our country with a growing economy, thriving society and healthy communities.

According to a 2013 ManpowerGroup Survey, the top 10 hardest positions to fill demand a mixture of technical and transferable soft skills. Skilled trades positions present the largest gaps, but engineering, finance and management/executive positions—all typically requiring at least a four-year degree—are also in high demand.

Top 10 Jobs Employers Are Having Difficulty Filling

  1. Skilled Trades
  2. Sales Representatives
  3. Drivers
  4. IT Staff
  5. Accounting anFd Finance Staff
  6. Engineers
  7. Technicians
  8. Management/Executive (Management/Corporate)
  9. Mechanics
  10. Teachers

Identifying ways to help graduates succeed in their future careers will vary depending on a number of factors, including industry, region and job role. But one thing is certain—a mix of both hard and soft skills will be required for most positions as technology becomes a more integral part of routine tasks.

To help the country solve for the skills gap and allow for higher education institutions to thrive in the economy of the future, consider the following:

  • Increasing access and completion. Ultimately, it’s a numbers game and the one key way to close the skills gap is simply to increase the number of individuals attending school and successfully completing certificates and degrees. Improving affordability is critical to increasing access, as fewer high school graduates enroll due to cost, producing an inequality of opportunity that threatens the country's ability to compete. As graduation rates lag behind those of other developed countries, the income gap is widening—confirming that postsecondary education is more important than ever, not just for upward mobility, but simply to get a job. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are 19 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 who have not completed degrees, nearly as many as there are in college today. Institutions can focus on getting those who started to finish by setting schedules with working students in mind and leveraging technology to create a flexible educational experience. 
  • Evolving with career opportunities. While all colleges and universities strive to provide their students with high-quality education and enrichment opportunities, the types of careers their graduates pursue can vary depending on a school’s mission. Despite commonly held beliefs, demand for a traditional liberal arts core curriculum is increasing, as many employers consider it fundamental to developing the critical and strategic thinking skills that they’re lacking in many open middle management roles. For community colleges and schools with focused vocational programs, mid-skills labor training—which experts estimate will comprise 47 percent of all job openings by 2020—represents a major educational opportunity, according to the Harvard Business Review.
  • Partnering with local corporations and employers. Understanding the labor demands for the regions in which your graduates will be working is critical to filling the skills gap. Identifying regional trends in job placement among graduates will help institutions better understand which markets to tailor program offerings to, and possibly open the door to corporate partnerships for job training opportunities as well. Boeing, for instance, recently partnered with a community college in Washington to actively train and recruit new employees to fill its declining staff as a result of the baby boomer retirement wave, according to the Harvard Business Review. Additionally, changes in the global economic landscape have led many manufacturers to begin “reshoring” and bringing outsourced manufacturing jobs back to the US. As plants continue to rebuild—predominantly in the northeast, midwest and southern United States—advanced manufacturing is likely to continue its upward trajectory as our nation’s demand for innovative technology continues to grow and will require retraining of workers, something postsecondary institutions are well equipped to do.

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