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Closing The Education Skills Gap In The 21st Century

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By Kathleen Houlihan | 05 February 2018

If businesses want to shape the talent of the future, they should take a more active role in helping students find cost-effective educational solutions that meet their emerging industry needs.

Alongside engaging with schools to assist educational institutions, including K-12 schools, here are some solutions that can help reduce the skills gaps in the 21st century.

1. Stop requiring a degree for positions that don’t use it.

According to a report backed by Harvard Business School, hiring middle-skills managers with a bachelors degree is more costly due to lack of employee loyalty, as it leads to less productivity and higher turnover rates.

Hiring middle-level managers without a degree cuts costs and improves production. Furthermore, with unemployment rates at record lows, it’s going to be even more difficult to fill middle-skills

positions if the current practice of requiring a degree does not change.

Students need to be exposed to various career pathways, including apprenticeships, certificates, and two-year degree programs that better align with their career aspirations and workforce needs. Companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook are focusing more on whether a candidate has hard skills than if a candidate has a degree.

2. Offer students experiences.

There are several types of workforce-related educational experiences business can employ, including job shadowing, networking events, mentorship programs, skills competitions, apprenticeships and tradeshows. Offering students opportunities to learn about organizations is not only good for the student, but it’s good for the brand.

Learning opportunities need to be designed to be interactive, engaging and business-led. Employers find that by helping students, they also help morale and innovation within the company. Students who are inexperienced will ask the right kinds of questions to open up new dialogue for discovery and reflection.

There are businesses groups, particularly in STEM disciplines, that are on the cutting edge of student engagement. For instance, the Da Vinci Science Center’s WISE initiative offers a program for high school girls to interact with women in the sciences at a networking dinner. This is a great example of how businesses can engage in enhancing education.

Students love to be challenged and to have the opportunity to compete. Harrisburg University sponsored a “hackathon” where students were asked to build a mobile application using the Open Data PA portal. The participants benefited by having the opportunity to network with business professionals while having fun.

While some of these students will share their products with the businesses that inspired them, others may decide to strike out on their own, and that’s good for society too.

According to research conducted by Lawrence Katz of Harvard University and Alan Krueger at Princeton University, most of the jobs created between 2005 to 2015 were for positions outside the traditional nine-to-five. We should educate students about this type of “alternative work,” and incorporate entrepreneurship into the student experience in order for them to comprehensively understand the future of work.

3. Sponsor a specific program.

Though some are nonprofit, colleges work like any other business: They focus on promoting their brand. Unfortunately, that doesn’t necessarily mean they encourage students to enroll in the majors that match highest industry demand. Colleges push undecided students into the majors that have the most available seats, so they are retained by the institution. You would never hear an advisor in a college career office telling an undecided student, “You should go into nursing.” Advisors encourage undecided students to go into programs such as business or psychology because these programs, in most cases, can hold unlimited capacity.

While this solution is best for a school’s bottom line, it is not necessarily best for the student who is strapped with enormous tuition debt and an unsatisfying career when they are mismatched.

When donating to universities, it’s best that businesses donate to a specific program that would most benefit them in the long run.

4. Support K-12 school teachers. 

Teachers need more opportunities to interact with business professionals. Research shows that telling a story is the best way to teach, and these teachers will be full of stories that inspire youth about the world of tomorrow.

Businesses could pay K-12 teachers to be trained in business operations that they want their new employees to learn during the summer. In the classroom, teachers will be talking about their real experiences with actual businesses that operate in the community.

As the teacher learns, it will also enhance the quality of students coming out of our K-12 institutions.

Businesses engaging with teachers would be the simplest way to educate our future workforce and to create an effective workforce pipeline.

5. Engage with politicians about changing the game.

Policies are changing regarding credentialing and certification in the U.S. government. Tuition costs continue to rise and education programs fail to train students with the requisite skills required by businesses, leading businesses to agree that educational systems and workforce development programs in America need reform. In June 2017, President Trump signed an executive order to expand apprenticeships and reduce apprenticeship regulation.

While many educators disagree with this order and other measures like it, the changes are necessary. The Higher Education Act (HEA) was written in 1965 when the population looked very different from today, and it hasn’t been re-written in over a decade.

Accountability means helping students financially based on student outcomes — not just graduation, but gainful employment. It is up to businesses to help create new education-workforce-focused policies, through organizations like America Succeeds or 50 Can. Businesses need to be more engaged in helping students learn about careers before they spend money on tuition for a program with no future earning potential. Organizations like these help businesses have a political voice to help policy development.

To effectively lessen the skills gap for the 21st century, focus on today’s students.


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