Learn and Earn

More schools are partnering with the private sector to develop courses and apprenticeship programs

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As of August, the most recent period for which the figure is available, an estimated 3.6 million jobs were vacant, and employers say they can’t find the people they need to do them. Some economists question whether the figure is actually that high, saying companies are simply taking their time hiring. But most agree that there’s a significant mismatch.

In the IT industry alone, 93 percent of IT and business managers surveyed this year by the Computing Technology Industry Association, which represents information-technology companies, said they couldn’t find workers with the right educations, and 80 percent said this affects productivity and customer service.

(GRAPHIC: Degrees of Difficulty)

Yet even as demand for college degree-holders goes up, their numbers are leveling off. Enrollment appears to be flat or falling, even at community colleges that had been growing at double-digit rates. Once they are enrolled, only just over half of students in four-year universities graduate within six years, and fewer than a third of those at two-year community colleges do so within three, according to the organization Complete College America.

“If you take a longer economic view, it’s clear that, unless something changes, higher education is not going to provide the kind of workforce we need 20 and 30 years down the road,” said Rosenberg, who is part of a business-higher education initiative in Minnesota looking for solutions to bridge the skills gap there, and who thinks all kinds of higher-education institutions—not just community colleges—could do more to develop their students’ job skills.

The pace of change

Business leaders interviewed in focus groups last year by Public Agenda and the Committee for Economic Development overwhelmingly agreed that they think American higher education is unable or unwilling to adapt to economic demands and lacks accountability, contributing to a shortage of qualified workers. “There are growing and grave concerns about the system’s ability to remain a leader and produce the workforce our future economy demands,” said Steve Farkas, the report’s lead author.

Even when colleges and universities do try to satisfy marketplace needs, they have trouble keeping up with them, said John Dorrer, a program director at the nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future. “Sometimes you have this phenomenon of higher education being divorced from the reality, with faculty not spending enough time looking at developments in industry,” he said. “Technology is moving faster, the world is moving faster, markets are more unstable, and that instability and the pace of technological change [are] not well-aligned with what happens in institutions.”

“There is this mismatch,” said Lee Todd Jr., former president of the University of Kentucky, who founded two high-tech companies before helming the state’s flagship university. “In academics, you’ve got seven years to make tenure. In business, if you don’t have the next product ready by the next quarter, you’re in trouble.”

Eduardo Padrón sees that, too, in his capacity as president of the second-largest higher-education institution in the United States, Miami Dade College, which has more than 174,000 students. “What I hear from business leaders who come to us is that the universities place before them all kinds of excuses,” said Padrón, whose institution has hundreds of partnerships with business. The universities “want to take three years to put a program together, and then they have all these excuses for not doing it the right way. It’s part of a tradition that’s not changing with time,” he said.

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