How Adult Education Can Help Close the Skills Gap

America won't be able to sustain its economic strength if 40 million citizens are unprepared to contribute or never know the pride of having a job that provides for them and their families.
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It is impossible to ignore the skills gap that exists in today's labor market and the fact that thousands of job openings go unfilled because too many individuals lack the skills to perform these jobs. Most recently, this topic received national attention when political leaders at both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions discussed it. Policymakers have stressed the importance of equipping adults with the skills sought by employers and providing pathways to training programs. But before we can define solutions, we must take a step back and examine the current education system, specifically the adult education pipeline.

The national debate around education is primarily focused on improving K-12 standards and increasing access and aid to college. Make no mistake, these are important issues. However, if we are going to truly improve the education system and adequately train America's workers for 21st century jobs, we need to have a serious national discussion about the 40 million adults who do not have a high school diploma.

We know that workforce demands continue to change dramatically and rapidly. In 1973, only 28 percent of jobs required a college degree or professional certificate. Today, it's about 60 percent and by 2020, that number will reach 73 percent. Moreover, the jobs for workers with only a high school diploma pay significantly less than those that require additional training or a college degree. We know that the unemployment rate in August for those without a high school diploma was 12 percent, compared with 8.8 percent for those with a high school diploma or GED credential, and 4.1 percent for those with a bachelor's degree.

The reality is that the economy has changed and we have been slow to address these changes with proper education and training for our workforce. This is why many of us in adult education are working to raise expectations for our adult learners so that they understand that a GED credential is not an endpoint -- it needs to be a stepping stone to higher education or job training programs in order to access better jobs.

Lack of education is directly tied to higher rates of incarceration and greater dependency on social services as well. And, the cost to the American economy is staggering. If dropouts from the class of 2011 had completed their high school education, the economy would benefit by the addition of $154 billion over the course of their lifetimes. Conversely, it is estimated that each adult lacking a high school credential costs $260,000 in taxpayer support over his or her lifetime.

Here's what we can do.

GED Testing Service is developing a new GED Test aligned with career and college readiness standards and designed to ensure that adults seeking a high school equivalency credential can also demonstrate their readiness for college-level work and career training programs. This new test will be delivered on a computer, further ensuring that adults can demonstrate the basic technology skills required for 21st century jobs.

Congress should update the Workforce Investment Act, which has not been reauthorized in 14 years. State and local governments need to support adult education and workforce training programs which will mean resisting making drastic cuts in these areas to balance budgets. Many adult education programs already have waiting lists and we, as a society, can't afford to make the situation worse.

Employers could invest more in joint education and job-training programs to fill the thousands of jobs nationally that remain unfilled due to the lack of qualified candidates. And everyone -- colleges, employers, foundations, federal, state and local governments -- should work together to expand education and training programs that connect adult learners to jobs.

At a time when our nation is focused on job creation and economic recovery, addressing adult education couldn't be more important. These programs are cost-effective and should be viewed as a necessary investment in our economy. America won't be able to sustain its economic strength if 40 million citizens are unprepared to contribute or never know the pride of having a job that provides for them and their families.

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