Allies in Addressing the Nation's Skills Gap

It is going to take more than finger pointing and misdirection to solve the workforce problems before us. We still have too many employers with technical jobs they cannot fill and too many unskilled job seekers without suitable employment.
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As with most tenacious social problems as of late, many cynics have resorted to finger pointing when it comes to the skills gap issue. Some look to blame the problem on employers, while others claim that educators are at fault. A few take their allegations so far as to say "the entire issue has been fabricated."

Well, it is going to take more than finger pointing and misdirection to solve the workforce problems before us. We still have too many employers with technical jobs they cannot fill and too many unskilled job seekers without suitable employment. All semantics and characterizations aside, right now, most of us are more interested in finding solutions than in finding fault. So, who should address the nation's skills gap issue?

As much as we would wish it to be true, jobs are not going to inexplicably conform to job seekers; those in the job market must rather conform to the jobs that are available. With industries all across the country adopting more and more technological solutions for their business problems, it is unlikely the technical requirements for entry-level positions are going to decrease any time soon.

So it would appear the only viable solution is to increase the technical skills of job seekers -- this is where technical colleges, community colleges and universities come into play. We need places where job seekers can go to prepare themselves for this new job market and obtain the advanced technical skills that so many employers are looking for today.

The training challenges ahead are great, but if we are going to retool the U.S. workforce, it will require our finest college instructors looking for ways to make their courses more relevant than ever before. They might have to go against some of their long-held academic convictions and replace certain theoretical learning components with more applied learning components and technical training regiments in order to give their students a competitive edge in this tech-driven job market.

But the skills gap is not a problem that higher education can solve alone. To attempt to do so is like trying to navigate a rowboat with only one oar in the water. A boat can easily go adrift or in circles when just one oar is used. Educators know how to teach, but they may not always know what to teach -- this is where industry experienced professionals and private sector employers come into play. We need instructional experts from college campuses and content experts from industry working collaboratively, like two mighty oars pulling together, if we are going to provide a way for job seekers to successfully navigate the skills gap.

Public colleges and universities would be wise to better utilize the expertise and experience of the private sector. They should pay closer attention to the expressed needs of employers and make substantive changes and modifications within their curriculum accordingly. Private sector businesses and industries should be more trusting of and willing to engage with public institutions of higher education. They should not be afraid to ask their local colleges and universities for assistance with their corporate training and workforce development needs. Meaningful skills gap solutions are only going to be found when those who are training the workforce are talking to those who are employing the workforce.

There are many crucial ways employers can assist in the educational process on most college campuses.
  • They can serve on steering committees, advisory councils or as program consultants.
  • They can provide valuable input into the research and development of new curriculum and supply feedback on existing courses.
  • Employers can fund scholarships programs or fully sponsor promising students.
  • They can establish apprenticeship programs of professional internships to supplement the education of students and provide real-world experience for their resumes.
  • Employers can furnish specialized tools or equipment for the learning environment to assist in applied skills training.
  • They can even identify potential new students to help feed the academic pipeline.
  • But most importantly, when employers are fully invested in the educational/training process, they are much more likely to hire graduates.

If by attending college, future job seekers are to have greater access to ever-changing workforce opportunities, public/private partnerships must be forged and become a regular component for curriculum development and academic program review.

College degree programs can no longer remain stagnant year after year or decade after decade. They should be regularly assessed and measured against the immediate needs of employers. College courses must evolve with the technological demands on the national labor force and changing needs of the U.S. economy.

The skills gap is not a fabricated dilemma, it is very real. And it is only going to get worse if we do not take it seriously and address it. The skills gap is not the fault of educators or employers, but it is their joint responsibility. Like two mighty oars working as one, the public sector and the private sector must pull together to affect real change and to put our U.S. labor force back on a proper course for job success.

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