How responsible are institutions of higher education for making sure that their graduates are job-ready? That is the question being asked by Joshua Wyner, the Executive Director of Aspen Institute College Excellence Program, in an article for the Huffington Post.
He takes for his departure point the statements made by both President Barack Obama and the current GOP frontrunner for the 2016 nomination Senator Marco Rubio that the economic recovery will be the key to the reversal of the decline of the American middle class. And one way that this economic recovery could be pushed forward is with college programs that do a better job to filling the employment gaps in the country’s most forward-looking industries.
Research shows that there are about two million jobs in the United States today going begging because Americans don’t have the skills needed to fill those jobs. If domestic and multinational corporations are to fill those jobs here in the U.S. rather than moving them overseas, two things will need to be done.
There have been nascent efforts to fill that gap at the high school and college level. New York City’s successful P-TECH school, which got a mention during the President’s State of the Union address and which teaches its students skills necessary to begin an entry-level job at IBM upon gradation, is one such move that’s promising success. Yet most colleges still continue to run their programs as if the realities of the job markets don’t exist. Few make the effort to liaise with industry representatives to find out what they expect from their potential employees.
Last year, a story on NPR provided a good example of the challenge. There are thousands of computer-related jobs in the high-tech Seattle area that are going unfilled despite the fact that qualified students are clamoring to get into computer science and computer engineering programs at the University of Washington. How is this possible? Because while the University of Washington has an undergraduate program designed to train and place students in this field, that program has not been expanded since 1999 even though the number of high-tech jobs has exploded. Good jobs and eligible students make for what might seem like a perfect match, but there is log jam: Students can’t access the training that they need to be prepared for those jobs.
What is preventing the program expansion at the University of Washington and elsewhere is, of course, money. Funding for public universities has been shrinking on both the state and the federal level, and schools often can’t afford to hire additional faculty and dedicate additional resources to meet student demand.
To fix the problem, Wyner calls on the federal government to find a way to financially reward schools that make an effort to produce more graduates in shortage fields. But the schools must also be willing to make hard choices like “realigning their own resources” from less job-oriented programs to the ones for whose graduates the local businesses clamor.