Frustrations have reached such a level that major corporations have started their own college-level training and education programs. For instance, the Farmers Insurance Group in 2006 launched the University of Farmers, which provides employees with leadership and management training. Corporations from Dunkin’ Donuts to Walt Disney World also offer college-level educations to workers, prospective workers, and even employees of other companies.
“If they can do it,” asked Brent Weil, senior vice president of the Manufacturing Institute, a policy wing of the National Association of Manufacturers, “why can’t colleges do it?”
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Shifting the burden
Colleges and universities insist that there’s plenty of blame to go around. They complain that what the industry means by “job skills” is often vague. Surveys of company executives indicate that what they really seek in their employees isn’t a knack for widget-making, but such characteristics as critical thinking, innovation, and an ability to write and speak well.
Nearly 90 percent of employers think colleges should place more emphasis on producing graduates who can communicate effectively, according to a 2009 survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Seventy-five percent say colleges should emphasize ethical decision-making more, while 70 percent want colleges to stress among students the ability to innovate and be creative. Beyond that, said Rosenberg, “CEOs have to be more clear about the kinds of workers that they want.”
“I’m not sure it always filters down even to their own HR departments,” he said.
Higher-education officials point out that the same companies talking about the value of employee education have been cutting back on their own professional-development and tuition-reimbursement benefits, shifting the burden of workforce training onto the very higher-education system that they have been criticizing.
In 1979, workers new to a job got an average of two and a half weeks per year of professional development, according to the consulting firm Accenture; last year, Accenture says, at a time when people change jobs much more often, only about a fifth of employees surveyed reported receiving any training at all over the previous five years.
Meanwhile, the proportion of employers who provide tuition reimbursement has fallen from nearly 70 percent to under 60 percent in the last five years, reports the Society for Human Resource Management.
“Too many businesses pay lip service to education, especially higher education, but often are not willing to go the extra mile to make significant partnerships happen,” said Padrón.
As the two sides struggle to work together, a new force is pushing them to redouble their efforts: students and their parents, who want to know what career payoff to expect from spiraling tuition. In an annual survey of first-year college students by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 86 percent said they were going to college “to be able to get a better job,” which in 2009 overtook “to learn about things that interest me” as the top reason for enrolling.
It’s community colleges like Padrón’s, which serve nearly half of all the undergraduates in the U.S., that have been most in the spotlight for workforce development. That’s because so many of today’s job vacancies are for “middle-skills” occupations that don’t require a four-year degree, such as lab technicians, early-childhood educators, radiation therapists, paralegals and machinists. Nearly half of all jobs in the U.S. now require an associate degree—a greater proportion than call for a bachelor’s degree.