America's Talent Gap: Five Areas of Focus

Talent is something we should focus on in America these days. Sure, we have amazing athletes, musicians and the latest YouTube sensations. But, we need the talent- knowledge, skills and abilities, honed by education- to meet the massive gap that exists between the workforce we have and the workforce we need.

This reality is something about which most Americans- including some of our elected officials- are blissfully unaware. We see reports of lower unemployment and an occasional outlier story about a recent college grad working as a janitor, and we assume we have all the talent we'll ever need. Unfortunately that's not the case.

The challenge before us is significant, but so is the opportunity to drive change. Here are five reasons to be optimistic about how America can address the talent gap:

1. Employers are Increasingly Motivated to Support Education and Training for Employees

There are two million unfilled jobs across America and employers are increasingly taking matters in their own hands to fill them. Cigna Corporation is one employer increasing its investments in education tuition reimbursement to attract and retain the talent required for high demand jobs. And a new study found Cigna generated a whopping 129 percent return on investment from its education reimbursement program. So, they're growing their bottom line and their future workforce at the same time.

2. Millions of Americans Have at Least Some College... Let's Help Them Finish Their Credential

Today, there are roughly 27 million Americans (ages 25-54) that have started college but failed to obtain a degree or other credential. We can continue to reduce this number, in part, through the myriad states and institutions successfully targeting adult learners and encouraging them to complete what they started. Expanding these efforts to harness the tremendous power of this group presents enormous opportunity to help us address our national need for talent.

3. By Closing the Talent Gap, We also Expand Educational Equity

According to the recently released Stronger Nation report, part of our national talent problem stems from fundamental inequities around completing education beyond high school. While the overall postsecondary attainment rate in the U.S. is 45.3 percent, the rates for African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans are significantly lower. If we can increase postsecondary success for all Americans, we can grow the talent we need and provide more people with a brighter pathway to increased wages and social mobility.

4. Postsecondary Certificates Are Increasingly Important

By moving beyond our decades-long focus on four-year degrees, we can attract, educate and deploy the talent specifically required to meet the needs of our 21st century workforce. High quality certificates- most often awarded by community colleges- are increasingly important and many of them have significant value in the jobs market. And because they carry college credit, they offer a pathway to further education- especially associate degrees- that can lead to advancement opportunities and greater prosperity.

5. Cities Are Increasingly Investing In Talent Development Strategies

Research shows that when a city's population with education beyond high school increases by 10 percent, its gross metropolitan product rises by 22 percent. That's a powerful indicator to city leaders on where their money is best allocated and more of them are investing to develop talent. These city leaders recognize that growing the talent that already exists- not just attracting it from other places- is critical to growing jobs and securing the substantial social benefits that come with increased attainment including: greater civic and social engagement, higher rates of voter participation and volunteerism, healthier lifestyles, less dependence on public assistance and more. The more we see cities as hubs of talent, the more we all benefit from the combined efforts of cities nationwide.

It's time for us to start acknowledging that the United States does not have the talent it needs. And it's also time to shine a spotlight on the people and programs working to shift the talent tide.

That's why Lumina is supporting #TalentTuesday. This is our effort to draw attention to the talent gap and highlight what's required, what's working and where we want to go from here to build a stronger nation through greater education attainment. We want to engage YOU in this process. Each Tuesday we'll share new content about our nation's need for talent and what can be done to meet it. We invite you to join us in this conversation curated around the #TalentTuesday hashtag.

Together, we can build the 21st century workforce we need. But, it's going to require some heavy lifting through policy changes, a focus on affordability, system redesign, employer engagement and more, all topics we'll explore through #TalentTuesday. America knows how to respond to a challenge and I'm convinced we can grow the talent we need to prosper, but only if we're all engaged and pressing for meaningful change.