Closing the skills gap, boosting college completion and accelerating credential attainment: Expanding opportunities

Over the last few years, we’ve written a lot about the importance of a postsecondary credential or some college to securing one of the thousands of great jobs being created in our state. The evidence continues to accumulate.

Today, the Associated Press reports that there are, again and still, more jobs available than there are job seekers to fill them.

The Labor Department said Tuesday that job openings barely increased, rising 3,000 to 6.66 million. That’s more than the 6.56 million people who were searching for work in June. It’s also close to April’s figure of 6.8 million, a record high. Overall hiring slipped to 5.65 million from 5.75 million, and the number of people quitting their jobs declined slightly to 3.4 million from nearly 3.5 million in May.

The figures reflect a robust job market. The unemployed typically outnumber job openings, but that reversed this spring amid strong demand from employers. Businesses are optimistic about the outlook and stepping up hiring in anticipation of solid future growth.

The imbalance should boost wages and lead discouraged workers back into the labor pool. There are indications of both, though slower than some anticipated. And, yes, some firms are reducing expectations of experience and education. But the real challenge facing many employers remains finding workers with the education and training necessary to do the job.

City Journal takes a look at successful approaches to closing the skills gap. Many will be familiar to you. Milton Ezrati writes,

According to the Department of Labor, more than 6.5 million jobs remain unfilled because employers can’t find workers with the necessary skills. Some of this shortfall may reflect the fact that U.S. unemployment rate is historically low, but much of it stems from inadequate worker training. The problem shows up clearly in the widening wage gap for skilled work, which extends beyond the well-documented distinction between the earnings of the college-educated and those with only a high school diploma or less.

He looks at some of the challenges faced in meeting the training and education challenge. 

A viable alternative for the United States: apprentice-like programs structured as partnerships between community colleges, technical schools, and employers. In these arrangements, the school acts on behalf of students to secure apprenticeships, sometimes referred to as “internships,” with local employers. Many corporate participants have roots in foreign countries, where management, especially the Germans and Japanese, are familiar with apprentice programs. But American employers have also participated. The income these “apprentice interns” earn helps defray the cost of tuition and ameliorates individual concerns about foregone income while training. Several nonprofits involved in these efforts have offered support and leverage to expand these programs…

Getting American workers the training they need will require a long-term commitment from many quarters. It will demand experimentation to find out what works with which groups and in which regions, and it will necessitate some trial-and-error.

College completion is another challenge affecting workers. As Frederick M. Hess and RJ Martin write,

Less than half of students at four-year colleges graduate within six years, and not even 40 percent of students at two-year institutions finish within three. For these students, dropping out comes at a cost of thousands — or tens of thousands — sunk into tuition and student loans, with little benefit on the job market, and without much else to show for it other than wasted time and energy. 

They review several efforts to boost completion rates, suggesting encouraging possibilities. We’ll provide the intro and one example, and encourage you to read their article.

If the goal is to maximize the chance that those students able and willing to do the requisite work will earn their degrees, there are a number of promising initiatives worth exploring. Those mentioned here, and a number of others, are sketched out in a new book on college completion, issued jointly by the American Enterprise Institute and Third Way.

For one, colleges can offer more holistic financial and academic support to disadvantaged students. The City University of New York (CUNY) enrolls over 25,000 low-income students whose academic records fall just below regular admissions standards. These students are enrolled through targeted programs called SEEK and ASAP, which assign participating students to counselors who have low caseloads; provide students extensive academic tutoring to help them catch up; and guarantee enough grant aid to cover tuition, fund transportation, and defray the cost of books. The results are promising: A 2015 evaluation found that 40 percent of ASAP participants graduated, compared to only 22 percent of similar students not enrolled in the program. And the benefits of this holistic support extend beyond graduation — alumni of SEEK earn up to $4,000 more per year than similar students.

The James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal offers another perspective on how to boost postsecondary academic achievement. Again, the focus is credential attainment. The examples are from North Carolina.

Credentials are mostly offered by community colleges as an alternative to more expensive and time-consuming bachelor’s or associate’s degree programs. They are tailored to fit a specific skill, industry, or even company…

In general, community colleges work closely with companies and industries in order to ensure the viability and relevance of credentials. Ian Gibbons, the Employer Relations Coordinator at Wake Technical Community College, explained the partnership using IBM as an example in a Martin Center interview. Last year, a joint effort between IBM and Wake Tech made headlines for its focus on “new collar jobs”—in this case, IT jobs in cloud software, data science, and cybersecurity. The project includes new curricula but also incorporates internship opportunities at IBM for Wake Tech students.

There are more examples. The article is also clear on the challenges in designing programs that work, from financial challenges to making sure the training matches employer demand. Yes, in the end,

Outcomes measures from NC Tower show that students who graduate with certificates have high rates of employment in the state and competitive starting salaries…

Even with so many hurdles for students and policymakers, growth in credential programs is a welcome change for individuals and the market. They are affordable, flexible complements to the two- and four-year degrees that dominate the postsecondary landscape. As the economy continues to change, credentials promise to be an important part of meeting workforce needs.