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.

College is Not Enough & The University Doesn’t Own the Liberal Arts #collegeand

Dale Stephens, author of Hacking Your Education and founder of Uncollege, takes the vision of unschooling and applies it to higher education.  He points out that learning and getting an education is much more than attending classes at a University.  For many high school students, they are given a few options.  You can go college, join the military, or get a job.  Stephens helps young people discover a fourth option, one that embraces a commitment to learning that is just as rigorous as many college experiences, but that also allows them to pursue entrepreneurial opportunities at the same time.  He challenges the idea that college is the only choice that leads to success, but he also challenges the idea that college is the only path that leads to deep, substantive, transformational learning.  Like many who embrace the spirit of unschooling, Stephens shares a compelling case for a life of learning beyond school.  We learn through play, building new and meaningful relationships, experimentation, exploration, work, reading, travel, community engagement, finding others to mentor us, leveraging the vast pool of resources in the digital world, and participating in a variety of communities and groups with shared interests.

One does not need to abandon the pursuit of a college education to learn from this message.  I’m a University administrator, professor, and a lifelong student (with a bachelor’s degree, two master’s degrees, a doctorate, and coursework at 20+ Universities), and I have no problem endorsing Stephens’s message.  Many University faculty and administrators promote the value of a solid liberal arts college education, noting that it equips people with the capacity the think well, live well, write well, and communicate well.  And yet, it is in some of those liberal arts classes that students learn about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman, Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland, Frank Lloyd Wright, William Faulkner, Ansel Adams, Jack London, William Blake, Robert Frost, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford.  They never earned a college degree.  We can extend that list by hundreds with highly successful people in multiple industries and parts of the world today. We can add thousands more by touring the history books.  One may respond by arguing that these are exceptional people, that they are exceptions and not the rule. My point is not that avoiding college will make a person successful.  It is that the proposed outcomes of a solid liberal arts education are possible beyond the walls of the University.  I know many who attended liberal arts colleges and left with little respect for the great books, little interest in reading something that isn’t required for a class or job, and a fear of public speaking.  I know others who never attended college and they have an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a love of the classics, and they live as a contemporary renaissance man or woman.  Steve jobs never finished college, but in a 1995 interview, he specifically noted that the vision and innovation behind Apple comes partly from their commitment to the liberal arts.  The University does not own the liberal arts.

Despite all of this, a solid college education is a good and valuable investment.  It is a learning community that is rich with opportunities, but not if you are simply talking about taking a series of classes and earning a bachelor’s degree. That will not adequately prepare someone for life beyond college. I do not recommend that students allow their college years to be dominated by some sort of cloistered college experience. “College and…” is my suggestion.  There is value in college and…travel, road trips, work, community engagement, entrepreneurial efforts, personal exploration and experimentation beyond the classroom walls and the campus boundaries, using the digital world to build a broad and substantive personal learning network, and participating in diverse groups and communities beyond the college. Many colleges recognize the importance of this as they offer more travel study options, are deeply engaged with community activities and social causes, give students opportunities to work on cutting edge research and innovation, provide resources to help students with internships, provide entrepreneurial centers to help students start their own businesses, emphasize things like service learning, and help pair students with mentors beyond the University. Going to college and not exploring these learning experiences leaves one with an incomplete education.  The true spirit of the liberal arts cannot be contained within a classroom or school.  It is about cultivating refinement, but is even more about liberation, exploration and transformation that extends for a lifetime and well beyond the school walls.

While I appreciate many things from the unschooling movement, the reality is that certain vocational paths will continue to require a college education.  For those aspiring to be doctors, lawyers, and P-20 teachers; for example, skipping college isn’t typically an option.   However, if one wants to be ready for life beyond college, then it requires getting deeply involved with life beyond college…it requires “college and…”