Addressing the Workforce Education Gap

You may have heard the term "skills gap" used to describe the disparity between those who are unemployed looking for a job and companies with jobs looking for employees, but you may not be as familiar with the term "education gap" as it relates to the workforce.
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You may have heard the term "skills gap" used to describe the disparity between those who are unemployed looking for a job and companies with jobs looking for employees, but you may not be as familiar with the term "education gap" as it relates to the workforce.

According to a 2014 skills gap study by CareerBuilder, more than half of the country's employers have open positions, but cannot find qualified candidates. At the same time, our nation is still facing high unemployment numbers -- even among recent college graduates. When employers were asked in the study, what factors are driving the skills gap, their number one response was that the educated labor supply in the U.S. is not keeping up with demand (i.e. an education gap).

In this context, "education gap" describes the discrepancy between the skills possessed by the average college graduate and the work-ready technical skills being required by many of today's employers. In short, employers are not as interested in "book learning" as they are in applied technical training. The workforce education gap, described by employers, is largely the result of the theoretical learning model that has historically been used at most colleges and universities and is still prominently used today. Expectations within the labor market have changed, but college instructional models have not.

This growing divide between employer expectations and the educated labor supply seems like it should be easy to bridge, but without specific training and technical skills, many college graduates will not be qualified to fill the positions that are currently available. In this new job market, we urgently need institutions of higher education that can close the education gap. While I recognize my comments cannot be entirely unbiased, I feel compelled to cite the example of the institution where I currently serve as a university that is uniquely positioned to meet the training needs of today's employers.

Since 1946, the mission of Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology (OSUIT) has been to train a workforce to meet the needs of the country's infrastructure. Unlike any other higher education institution in Oklahoma, and perhaps the country, OSUIT is a university of applied technology where hands-on learning is the standard. Students are taught technical skills, but OSUIT should not be confused with a vocational school. Our students earn real college degrees, not just certifications, and they leave here with technical and critical thinking skills ready to take on leadership and management roles in their careers.

One profound difference at OSUIT is that our instructors are not professional teachers, but professionals who teach. They are industry-proven practitioners with years of experience in the specific fields into which they are preparing students to enter.

But perhaps what makes OSUIT even more unique is that our programs of study work hand-in-hand with hundreds of companies and industry professionals, some even sponsoring entire degree programs. These corporate partners recognize the value of the educational and skills training we provide and are willing to invest in our students as their future workforce. Many support our programs through donations of equipment so students can learn on the most up-to-date technology available.

On-the-job internships with employers are an essential requirement within each of our technical degree programs, ensuring students gain real-world experience in their field of study before they graduate. These internships typically lead to a hired position, so more than 90 percent of our students have a job in their field of study waiting for them the day they graduate and many of our graduates have multiple job offers. Immediate job placement success of this magnitude is nearly unheard of in higher education right now.

OSUIT assists with the critical workforce needs of many industries where their experienced employees are reaching retirement age in the midst of new corporate growth and expansion. We are essentially filling the skilled labor workforce shortage one highly-trained graduate at a time, but much more work remains.

Government officials and corporate executives repeatedly tell us there is a genuine demand for the type of education OSUIT provides, and they would like to see more applied learning offerings throughout higher education customized to meet ever-changing industry requirements. Essentially, they are saying the workforce education gap still needs to be addressed in the U.S., and it is my hope that more colleges and universities would join OSUIT in this model of advanced workforce development.

The era of randomly earning a bachelor's degree in any subject, and that being enough to get a job after graduation is over. Students need to be armed with more than a piece of paper after graduation in this challenging job market. They need an education that will serve them well and supply them with the specific workforce skills necessary to impress employers.

Today's employers want and need employees who can 'hit the ground running" from Day 1 -- someone who is already familiar with that industry's standards, procedures, and equipment. This requires more than theoretical learning; it requires an applied education with relevant hands-on learning -- a specialty OSUIT and its corporate partners have perfected over many years.

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