We Need Alternatives to College for the Workforce of the Future

“By 2025, two-thirds of all jobs in the US will require education beyond high school.”

We need the alternative energy equivalent of skilled workforce development. I just read Bill Gates’s blog post entitled, Help Wanted: 11 Million College Grads. I commend him for much of his work in the education sector. Focusing upon the forthcoming workforce gap while also striving to bridge the growing economic gaps in the United States is an admirable task for his foundation. As such, I would like to comment on a few excerpts from his post. There is much good there. Yes, education is a key to this challenge, and higher education can help. However, I would like to suggest that this calls for larger, more creative, more unconventional educational strategy.

“As the class of 2015 prepares to join the workforce, what many people may not realize is that America is facing a shortage of college graduates. “

Gates goes on to point out a study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. This study highlights a “shortfall of 11 million skilled workers over the next ten years.” As it stands, they are referring to jobs that require a 2-year degree, 4-year degree, or some sort of post-graduate certificate; which is why so many of us turn to higher education institutions as the potential solution. There are plenty of higher education innovations that people look to as partial solutions: more robust support systems for at-risk students (so that we can graduate more of the people who currently dropout), accelerated evening programs, online programs, competency-based programs, and more. Some of these are already helping people access skilled jobs and/or become successful earning their desired degrees. Yet, we are making an assumption here that could prevent us from a powerful longterm solution.

We are talking about a shortage of people for 11 million skilled jobs over the next decade, but that doesn’t means that people must obtain those skills through a college or University. That is how the system is set up in many cases today, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We need to consider alternate pathways to skilled employment alongside the college and University tracks that dominate many professions. I equate this to debates about energy sources. We want to leverage traditional energy sources, but we also strive for a future where alternative and cleaner energy sources are more commonplace. Could the same thing be true for using traditional colleges and Universities to address this skills gap? Yes, refine and improve this legacy solution, but build and support a set of alternative models alongside it. The US Department of Education and regional accreditation agencies have established too many rigid policies and rules for us to lean on higher education institutions exclusively.

Many colleges and Universities continue to hold to longstanding practices and traditions that make them less than fertile ground for incubating new workforce pathways. There are plenty of higher education institutions that are going this route and doing excellent work, but it isn’t in the mission or vision for many others. Many colleges are not workforce development centers. They are institutions of higher education with a much broader vision that includes everything from research to education in the liberal arts and providing intellectually and socially stimulating learning communities. These are all valuable. Such higher education institutions do and will continue to play an important role in society, but why must we try to solve critical workforce issues within the restraints of such higher education institutions? Innovative solutions sometimes call for entirely new models, frameworks, structures and institutions; ones that don’t challenge the existing higher education system as much as create alternate routes toward skilled employment.

Some argue that this will create a two-track system, one for the wealthy and élite, and another for the rest. In response to this, I simply point out that we already have a multi-faceted and tiered system. Regardless of the competence of the graduate, people already place different value on a degrees from a community college versus a private liberal arts college, an élite school versus a state University. At the same time, there are plenty of employers who, I contend, could ultimately care less how you became skilled and competent. They just want to know that you can do the job well, help the company reach its goals, get along and play well with colleagues, etc.

When we look at studies about workforce development and the perceived need for more college graduates, they are sometimes based on the skill and degree requirements listed on job postings and anticipated future job postings. Plenty of employers list the requirement of a degree or formal credential on a job posting because it is a an easy way to sort applicants. Yet, consider how many able people are potentially excluded by using this method. Even in the University setting, I’ve seen multiple instances where we posted a job with the minimum requirement of a master’s degree, but we saw highly competent applicants with only a bachelor’s degree who potentially could have done the job just as well or better.

One of my concerns is that we already have a one-track system called college, and if that track doesn’t work for you, then you are excluded from many “skilled jobs.” Why not create more pathways toward developing these skills, some within colleges and Universities & others outside of that system? When it comes to tackling such a large challenge in society, it is better to diversify, to build a larger ecosystem of routes toward various skilled jobs. This ecosystem can include many innovations in higher education, but if we explore options/solutions outside of that system, we are free from regulations, we have the opportunity to more readily build robust funding models and creative solutions. We can build video games that build skills in demand. Once you reach a certain level in the game, access to new job prospects are opened to you. We can build free online tutorials and resources that lead to robust and multi-faceted exams that verify competency for a given skilled job. If you can pass the exam, you are eligible to apply for the job. Companies can build schools within their organizations that hire people with certain basic skills and dedicate 2 hours a day of training to further equip them for more skilled work. The options are limitless once we allow ourselves to think outside of the higher education box. In time, it is very possible that these alternatives could lead to employment that pays better than the college graduate route.

“That [the future 11 million skilled worker gap ]may not seem possible, especially for any graduate who is unemployed or underemployed.”

This further verifies that college is not an adequate solution to the skills gap. There are equally good, potentially better solutions outside of higher education to train people for skilled jobs.  We just need to invent more of them. As Peter Diamandis wrote in Bold, “If you don’t disrupt yourself, someone else will.” This was intended to be a suggestion for organizations to preparation for the next big thing beyond what they offer now, and that is a possible route for higher education institutions. There is much room for creative and diverse models of higher education that will have many social benefits, with workforce development being one, but we will be doing a huge diverse to society if we destroy many of the other rich benefits of higher education institutions by creating mandates and policies that drive as many of them as possible to become job training grounds. A better solution is to create other training grounds, giving more people more options for work and life after high school. When such an idea gains traction it will undoubtedly impact enrollment in college. We might even see a decline in enrollments and graduates, but imagine a model where that happens because people have found other routes to pursue their goals, develop personally and professionally, and find a fulfilling and good paying job. This is possible.

“It’s time for higher education and the “real world” of employers to start working together to meet the demand for 11 million skilled workers in the US. If we’re successful…we’ll do more than close the skills gap. We’ll also make progress reducing the large and growing gap between America’s rich and poor.”

Again, this is a fine vision for some schools, but what if we worked with more than higher education leaders? What if we leveraged grass-roots groups to address workforce development through creative alternatives? What if we helped employers build new hiring/training programs for skilled workers that skipped the college route altogether? Or, once you get the skills through this training, you can always go to college later. What if we built more free and open online learning resources that could be used to become qualified for various skilled jobs…designing an array of alternative credentialing tests, perhaps as entry points? What if we stretched ourselves to think about next generation video games and alternative reality simulations focused on addressing skills gaps? Add these to the existing focus on partnering with higher education leaders, and now we have a plan that can fill those 11 million skilled vacancies over the next 10 years while also narrowing that gap between the rich and the poor.

This is not a critique of higher education. In some ways it is the opposite, a way of resisting the push to turn most colleges into job training grounds. This is a vision for changing the entire way that a culture thinks about education as well as training for jobs. It is about not limiting ourselves as we consider the nature of education and work in a connected world.

6 Replies to “We Need Alternatives to College for the Workforce of the Future”

  1. Robert Columbia

    I was excited to hear about the Gates’ endorsed concept of Skills-Based Hiring that proposes to replace degrees and years of experience with a comprehensive system of standardized testing that could directly assess the skills necessary for the workplace, regardless of whether they were obtained in elite colleges, fly-by-night for-profit colleges, on the job, on grandma’s lap, or through self-discovery. I obtained one of the so-called Career Readiness Certificates that is tied to the ACT WorkKeys exams. Guess what? Employers don’t seem to recognize it except for the lowest-level jobs, and even that is a crapshoot.

    I’d love it if the concept of job-skills competency levels could be expanded to professional, management, or even executive levels. To some extent, certification programs could provide that, but the trend has been for certification programs to shovel more and more prerequisites onto the front-end and bar more people from even attempting the exam.

    Consider the Registered Health Information Technician exam,which requires that candidates “must meet one of the following eligibility requirements: Successfully complete the academic requirements, at an associate’s degree level, of an HIM program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation for Health Informatics and Information Management Education (CAHIIM) OR Graduate from an HIM program approved by a foreign association with which AHIMA has a reciprocity agreement¹ The academic qualifications of each candidate will be verified before a candidate is deemed eligible to take the examination. All first-time applicants must submit an official transcript from their college or university.” (http://www.ahima.org/certification/RHIT). What happened to competency? What they are saying is that unless you register for and complete an approved program, you are persona non grata and conclusively presumed incompetent to hold the certification. How could we fix this so that it is achievable to people who have mastered the material but who attended the “wrong” school?

  2. Sandy Montalbano

    Changes in the global manufacturing market, technology and the benefits of locating manufacturing closer to customers are giving companies more options to manufacture competitively domestically.
    Availability of a sufficient quality and quantity of skilled workers is often the number one site selection criterion and is a key issue for retention and expansion. The bottleneck to expanding the skilled workforce needed in manufacturing is recruitment; too few students want to follow STEM fields, especially manufacturing, mainly due to 3 key issues in recruitment:

    1. Perception that training is not as important as degrees
    2. Perception of ongoing manufacturing decline due to offshoring
    3. Perception that vocations/trades training is lower prestige and income than a 4-year university degree

    However, skilled manufacturing technologists, especially those that have passed an apprenticeship, are extremely well trained, work in their area of training and earn an income at least comparable to university graduates.

    The Reshoring Initiative believes that the key to skilled workforce development is motivating a higher quantity and quality of recruits and recommends a high impact-minimal cost skilled workforce development program which can be found here: http://www.reshorenow.org/programs/

    • Robert Columbia

      Ms. Montalbano, thank you for the information! I took a look at the ReshoreNow website and it looks like most of the information is targeted at communities rather than individuals, and that an individual worker cannot simply go to reshorenow.org and “sign up” for training, testing, or job placement. This is also a problem that I frequently see when researching digital badges – most of the material out there is targeting potential badge issuers, leaving “wannabe” badge earners scratching their heads and wondering where they can get their skills tested for badge issuance.

      Do you have any links or information that could help individual workers understand what programs are out there and how they can take advantage of them?


  3. By Baylis

    For hundreds of years, hIgher education institutions and their faculties have provided services and goods for humans. However, for the most part, the current higher education system has been set up by faculty to privilege faculty. Faculties are like any other living organism. They consume resources in order to grow and reproduce their own kind. Faculties want to take students and mold them into clones of themselves.They continue to do this until one of three things happens. First, micro-evolution interrupts the process with minor changes to the basic DNA, creating over time a slightly changed organism. Second, an outside force grafts new DNA and different living material into the organism, and produces a new organism. Third, faculties deplete the local resources and the organisms die of starvation.

    • Robert Columbia

      I believe you are right, Baylis. Faculties are not that different from other self-preserving groups. Politicians work amongst themselves to support each other and seek re-election. Many clergy have historically protested at attempts to start new faiths. While some of that concern was most likely theological in nature, I cannot help but believe that there was also a significant element of self-preservation in that – that if a new religion gets started, their position as pillars of the community with secure salaries would be threatened. This sort of phenomenon also happens on the international scene with countries that go to war against others not so much out of a desire for justice but a desire to preserve their own superiority.

      In other words, self-preservation is a natural, human tendency that one can hardly place disproportionate blame on faculty for. The question then becomes what we can do to acknowledge this instinct and work around or through it. I don’t have an easy answer to that – if I did, I would be going to pick up my double doctorate in Sociology and Psychology tomorrow!

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