The Evolllution, in a report titled, Lifelong Education and Labor Market Needs, presents findings that support a key role for post-secondary institutions in educating workers for jobs that have gone unfilled while unemployment remains high, and in continually improving the position of workers within companies. The report’s conclusion states:
Many North Americans have trouble keeping pace with the changes occurring in today’s workplace. Despite the existence of 9.3 million unemployed Americans, the country experienced a shortage of 7 million skilled workers in 2010, a shortage that is expected to climb to 21 million by 2020. A lack of educational attainment sits at the root of the issue. So much so, that unless more North Americans strive to achieve a higher level of education, average income per capita is going to decline within the next decade.
Much of this unemployment is structural. Employers just don’t need as many employees today as they did a few years ago to do the same jobs. Technology and automation have made companies much more efficient. The only hope for workers is to continually upgrade their skills. Alvin Toffler, the futurist, has been quoted as saying, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” Colleges and universities will remain one key resource for this learning, unlearning, and relearning.
However, let’s not put all colleges and universities into the same pot. They have different missions, structures, and cultures. For example, large universities are not adept at making quick and timely changes in their curricula to respond to changing needs in a company’s workforce. In my region of the U.S. there is a severe shortage of IT engineers. Companies do not need people with four-year computer science degrees nor do they necessarily need people with two-year, community college degrees. They need people who have had enough education to be able to do the job and solve problems for customers. Some employees might only need a class or two. For others, a two-week “bootcamp” might be all that is necessary. Universities tend not to look at education this way. They are oriented towards the academic year, academic terms, and academic requirements. These programs are often designed around the intellectual interests of faculty, not around the needs of students and their employers. That’s fine, but this is not what employees need in order to be successful in their work places.
Community colleges, by virtue of their mandates, can be more responsive to the development of workers. Living up to their name, these institutions strive to meet the needs of employers and learners in the communities that they serve. They can add and subtract courses and programs from term to term, and sometimes in shorter time spans, as long as there is a demand from students and there are available instructors (full-time or part-time) to teach the courses.
Universities often have to go through a much longer process to change curricula, sometimes taking several years with required approvals from departments, central administration, and state-level committees. These institutions can be effective partners in employee learning and development, but employers and learners should not assume that every institution can be responsive. Their mission and culture will dictate whether or not they can meet the needs of employees.
For these partnerships between employers and post-secondary institutions to work, employers must demand more cooperation from colleges and universities. And employers must be prepared to encourage and support employees who want to take advantage of this kind of resource.