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Bridging the Skills Gap in Today's Economy

A dire need for workforce development is at hand for today's adults who are struggling to complete basic schooling and hone the skills necessary for gainful employment in our global, multi-faceted and fast-paced economy.
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Ready or not, the demands on America's workforce are changing. In 1950, unskilled positions accounted for 80 percent of U.S. jobs, but today, 85 percent of our country's professions require skilled workers who have critical-thinking capabilities combined with career and industry specific requirements (Blodgett, 2000).

While this talent shift was occurring, however, our education system remained stagnant, and failed to include instruction in the "soft skills" needed for many of today's professional roles as well as industry specific applied skills. High schools focus on making graduating seniors college eligible, rather than college and career ready. Not only are some high school graduates ill-prepared for the demanding jobs of our global economy, but many never move on to higher education or even complete basic secondary education. Currently, the U.S. is the only highly developed democracy where young adults are less educated than the previous generation, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that more than 18 million adults without a high school credential are in the labor force today. In short, worker supply is grossly deficient to employer demand.

What Will Help Bridge This Widening Skills Gap?

A dire need for workforce development is at hand for today's adults who are struggling to complete basic schooling and hone the skills necessary for gainful employment in our global, multi-faceted and fast-paced economy. More and more jobs are being replaced by technology, such as McDonald's recent move to install 7,000 automatic order takers in its European restaurants -- a stark reality for what is becoming a world where any job that can be automated will, at some point, become a job of the past.

While some jobs are being replaced by technology, there are new and growing needs for other professional roles in our society. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce notes that of the 30 million new and replacement jobs to be created between now and 2018, 63 percent will require some college. These middle-skill jobs require more than a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree. They include firefighters, truck drivers, carpenters, nurses, radiation therapists, dental hygienists, radiology technicians, claims adjusters, and computer support specialists -- who often earn in excess of $50,000 per year. This is great news for some, but in order to combat the reverse progress of 7,000 students dropping out of high school each day as reported by the BLS, contextual training programs are needed that foster success for those who don't follow the "traditional" education path. This includes programs that lead to workplace and academic skills training and career certification. Consider that only 0.3 percent of the U.S. workforce currently acquires skills through an apprenticeship program, while in Austria 40 percent of 15-year-olds enter an apprentice program while in high school, making them career-ready upon graduation.

Non-Traditional Career Pathways Becoming the Norm

It may be no surprise that GED credential recipients, on average, see lower wages than those with high school diplomas, and that the latter group trails those with post-secondary education by 10 percent in earnings for every year of college completed. An emerging group, however, is acknowledging what have become non-traditional pathways, such as career readiness certificates and industry-specific certifications that are stackable, transferable, and more highly valued by employers than a high school diploma alone. The Springboard Project found that almost three-fourths of the occupations that are expected to grow over the next six years require credentials beyond a high school diploma. These students, in many cases, need to acquire transferable and transportable skills that are directly applicable in today's workforce. And while a job that exists today may not exist tomorrow, having transferable skills means one is trainable (and workforce-pliant).

The Need for Contextualized Curricula

Our community colleges spend two billion dollars annually remediating students who arrive ill-prepared for coursework requiring analytical and reasoning skills. This is a staggering number that highlights the strain on our community college, adult education and workforce training systems, not to mention the challenges faced in preparing learners for a knowledge-based economy heavily reliant on the professional services sector. The disconnect for many students and employers is the lack of contextualized learning from high school to college -- learning that focuses on work-readiness skills such as communication, "real-world" math, negotiation and business processes. The Common Core State Standards Initiative strives to address this need in the K-12 system, and the federal government is starting work on aligning the Common Core to adult learners, but the Standards have not yet been adopted by all 50 states. By linking education and training services through bridge programs, education and industry can develop an entirely new set of skills for students to master -- not just soft skills and academic skills, but also valuable industry-specific skills and competencies.

These skills form the "new basics" of adult education, which are shifting from life skills, numeracy, and literacy -- which have comprised the traditional curriculum -- to a contextualized bridge curriculum that focuses on applied numeracy and literacy and work-readiness skills such as reasoning, problem solving, and teamwork. More and more, the instruction for these skills is delivered online, and technology is a critical catalyst in furthering the mission of effective and successful delivery for contextualized education. For the industries indicating a growing need for workers with this combination of academic and technical background -- health care, manufacturing, information technology, hospitality and "green" industries, among others -- this approach is helping education and industry develop innovative programs that clearly articulate the career pathways needed for learners to progress toward family-sustaining employment that fills our nation's skills gap.

Funding Has a Job Too

I would be remiss to avoid mentioning the role federal funding plays in the progress of a successful workforce development scheme. Adult education is a basic, fiscal benefit for our states and municipalities. Funding for these programs has been proven to pump money back into communities through tax revenues, consumer spending, and investment capital. The return on investment in adult education is a robust indicator of the successes that can be found through targeted funding streams.

The Workforce Investment Act (WIA) of 1998 attempted to reform federal employment, adult education, and vocational rehabilitation programs to create an integrated "one-stop" system of workforce investment and education activities for adults and youth. But in 2010, total funding for Adult Education and Literacy programs in the U.S. equaled $540 million. And while more than 18 million adults lack a high school diploma or equivalent credential, and 90 million adults read at or below the functional literacy level, the federal program serves only three million adults a year through adult education services -- yet another gap to bridge in our quest to create a competitive workforce.

Currently under reauthorization in Congress, WIA has the potential to remove the barriers to career entrance through the existing education and labor infrastructure. Currently, WIA Title I focuses on unemployment, while Title II focuses on improving adult basic skills. With increased funding of both labor and education initiatives that allows partnerships between adult education providers and the Workforce Investment Board system, more students could be reached through contextualized education, delivered online, that accelerates learners' basic skills acquisition and leads to industry specific certification as well as college and career readiness.

Our education systems, workforce and global economy will all benefit in the long-term with the prioritization of federal education dollars to this critical group of "soon to be" professional workers focused on career and college readiness.

If We're Serious About Workforce Development

In conclusion, if we are determined to enhance the skills of the nation's workforce, we must:

o Focus our attention on providing skills that enhance critical thinking, reasoning, problem solving, and teamwork at all educational levels;
o Recognize and support the growing need for career credentials and industry specific certifications that are stackable and transferable;
o Leverage technology to ensure that students receive the contextualized education, through bridge program models, that they require to follow distinct career pathways; and
o Reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act to support the flexible use of funding and partnerships between adult education providers and Workforce Investment Boards.

* Michael T. Moe and Henry Blodgett, 23 May, 2000, The Knowledge Web, People Power - Fuel for the New Economy, Merrill Lynch & Co., Global Securities & Economics Group, Global Fundamental Equity Research Group