Workforce Development, the Skills Gap, & the Limits of the College Solution

I am starting to turn a corner in my thinking about workforce development and equipping people for many of their life callings. I’m still an academic, and I’m not ready to throw out the idea of at the University. Sectors that old don’t just disappear overnight. They adjust, adapt and pivot; but they do not usually disappear. Yes, individual colleges and universities have to closed their doors, but the idea of the colleges and universities remains alive and well. Nonetheless, conversations about workforce development call for a multifaceted approach that embraces college as one of many important elements.

It would be a mistake to think that institutions of higher education have stuck around in largely unchanged formats, or that they are the sole means of preparing people for work and life. Higher education has experienced massive overhauls over the last thousand years: who is admitted (and who is not), who is taught (and who is not), how progress is determined, how learning is categorized, the concept of disciplines an fields of study, how credentials are earned (and what they mean), what is learned, how it is learned, when it is learned, where the learning takes place, how it is funded, how success is measured, and what (if anything) is measured. These have been in flux for over a millennium. At the same time, we still see many ways in which people prepare for life and work that does not include college or what is sometimes considered the “traditional college experience.”

This is sometimes not understood or it is forgotten.  “The university” or “the college degree” is often discussed as if it is one universal thing. Journalists and academics who often experienced residential 4-hour college programs too often write and think as if that is the typical college experience, when it is far from it. There is less attention for the commuting community college student, the evening student pursuing a degree while working and/or caring for family, the online learner, the student studying at a satellite site for a University that doesn’t have athletic teams or even student clubs and groups. Scan the list of the largest colleges in the United States and the top of the list includes names like the University of Phoenix, Ivy Tech Community College, Ashford University, and American Public (Military) University. That is a bit deceptive, however, because narrowing it to the largest undergraduate institutions results in a completely different list: University of Central Florida, Texas A & M, Ohio State, Penn State, and the University of Texas – Austin. Regardless, there are no universally accepted elements of the perfect college experience.

My point is that there is value in thinking about preparation for work and life more broadly than college and degrees. Following are two ways to do that, especially with workforce development in mind.

Alternatives to College

There is a  growing national conversation in the United States about skill gaps of the present and future. How do we prepare people for the job openings of the future? I commend President Obama’s call to consider free community college as part of the solution. That will help. However,we would be unnecessarily limiting ourselves if we only looked to colleges and universities. I am increasingly confident that we will find far more scalable and sustainable solutions if we expand our awareness of the possibilities. To only focus on colleges and universities to address the skills gap would be like focusing on adding more restaurants to solve a problem with hunger and malnutrition. There are other ways.

  • There are promising education startups.
  • There are efforts where employers are taking the initiative to build their own training programs for certain prospective employees.
  • There are partnerships between companies needing new employees with certain skills and training providers (sometimes colleges and universities, but often just education companies).
  • There are self-study opportunities that lead to assessments where people can demonstrate competence and/or readiness for a given job.
  • There are well-known certifications through professional organizations and companies that open the door to certain employment opportunities.
  • There are alternate credentialing systems (think digital badges) that can be used to document learning regardless of the learning pathway. With the continually growing number of free and open resources for learning online, why not embrace them as ways to help people prepare for various jobs, leveraging open badges or other emerging credentials to signify when someone is ready?

Think About More than Degrees

Even when we think about college and university as a solution, it is important not to get too sidetracked by the idea that a degree is the only valid or useful outcome. Learning takes place even when the final credential is not awarded. How might we recognize and credential that progressive learning so that people can step out and into a job, only to return later for further training and new opportunities? What would it look like to design the college or university experience (or at least some of them) with such built-in options? What about a program where you are credentialed for certain jobs after a semester or year, but you keep studying while working in that job. Now you have employment, but you are working to become prepared for a more advanced position in the near future? This might help solve workforce development and the cost of higher education at the same time. This is not how schools or most government entities related to education think. As it stands, schools would be penalized for such a model because students would be recorded as drop-outs, when they are really just stop-outs, and the stopping out led to employment. This is not a quite change, but it is doable, and I expect to see more higher education institutions re-discovering that they have so much more to offer in terms of preparation for work than courses, credits, and degrees.

How do we address issues related to workforce development and skill gaps? It doesn’t come from just trying to get more college graduates. That can be part of the solution, but I contend that we will make much more progress by 1) increasing access and opportunity to traditional college degrees while also 2) reimagining college in terms of progressive credentialing, and 3) looking beyond college for solutions.