Learn and Earn

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

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WARWICK, R.I. — Angel Gavidia worked as a construction worker, an auto detailer and a taxi dispatcher before he found his calling as a computer-networking engineer, a high-paying job that employers have had trouble filling even at a time of high unemployment.

Gavidia, 26, says that community-college advisors had initially steered him into a general engineering course, which was of so little interest to him that he quit school after less than a year. Then Gavidia heard from a classmate about a program jointly developed by the Community College of Rhode Island and IT-services company called Atrion to help students get both a classroom education and on-the-job training. The year-long program, in which Gavidia was paid to work as an apprentice at Atrion while taking on-campus courses in networking and other IT subjects, gave him the kind of real-world skills employers say they want but often can’t find in college graduates.

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Gavidia, who now works full-time at Atrion as an associate engineer, says it was the apprenticeship part of the program that taught him not just theoretical knowledge, but skills he could actually use on the job. “I came into this position feeling like, we didn’t learn this in school, and we should have,” he said.

Before Atrion approached the college and helped launch the program in 2009, the company’s talent recruiter, Patrick Halpin, said, it was “very difficult to find the right combination of skills and talent, and frankly it was often at a cost.” Atrion found itself having to spend more and more money on the frustrating hunt for qualified candidates.

Collaborations like the one Atrion forged in Rhode Island are broadly referred to as “learn and earn” programs, which combine academic courses and work experience to lead to a specific job, and they’re slowly becoming more common as the two camps try to stop bickering and start filling the skills gap.

Business officials have long complained that too many college students aren’t learning what they need to get jobs. Many academics, particularly at four-year institutions, have maintained that what undergraduates really need isn’t job-specific preparation, but the ability to think critically that comes from a well-rounded education.

“There’s been something of a rupture,” said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. “On the higher-education side, we have sometimes not thought enough about how best to prepare our students for the jobs that will be available when they graduate. And employers haven’t always communicated clearly enough to universities what skills employees need.”

It’s not for lack of prodding.

“I hear from business leaders all the time who want to hire in the United States, but at the moment, they cannot always find workers with the right skills,” President Barack Obama told an audience at a community college in Virginia in February. “Companies looking to hire should be able to count on these schools to provide them with a steady stream of workers qualified to fill those specific jobs.”

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.

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.

Which raises yet another, perhaps more surprising problem: few CEOs—or, for that matter, policymakers—went to community colleges, or send their kids there.

“They’re four-year grads. All the people they know are four-year grads. They don’t have experience with community colleges,” said Karen Elzey, director of Skills for America’s Future, a nonprofit that is trying to create a network of partnerships among employers and community colleges.

“We have to get business leaders to pay more attention to the institutions that are going to serve the populations that right now are not reaching the levels of attainment that we need,” said Joseph Minarik, senior vice president of a think tank made up of corporate and university leaders called the Committee for Economic Development.

In a report in April, the American Association of Community Colleges acknowledged shortcomings. “Employers complain about inadequate student preparation for the job market,” the association’s president, Walter Bumphus, conceded and is now prompting community colleges to refocus their attention on providing students with the skills they need for existing and future jobs.It’s a step in the right direction, said Minarik, who was chief economist of the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration.

“Educators understand that the world needs poets,” he said. “Business leaders need to know that, too. And business leaders and educators also need to know that the world needs people who can work with sophisticated control systems on a factory floor.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University. It’s one of a series of reports about workforce development and higher education.

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