Public Education and Job Readiness: What Can Be Done to Shrink the Skills Gap?

This is the third in a three-part series, researched and written with co-author Natalie Pregibon, Director of P3 Intelligence at The Concordia Summit, about the U.S. economy, the job readiness of the country's labor force, and how public education could play a more-effective role in addressing the skills gap that keeps existing jobs from being filled. Some of the data analyzed by Ms. Pregibon for this third and final installment in the series can be found on the Concordia web site.

The first installment in this three-part series, "Where Have All the Jobs Gone," addressed how more than five decades of structural changes in the U.S. economy has led to the anomalous circumstance of stubbornly high unemployment while an estimated four million jobs go begging. The second installment, "Why Is There a Disconnect Between Available Jobs and Qualified Employees," offered a closer look at the scope and extent of the current skills gap to help explain why so many currently available jobs will continue to remain unfilled. This third and final installment offers several short-term strategies to address the skills gap more quickly, as well as a long-term policy prescription to better align, in perpetuity, the foundational and workforce skills of public primary and secondary school graduates and the qualifications employers seek in the marketplace.

What role should K-12 public education play in the job readiness of its graduates? Answering this question first requires addressing the proper role of public education. Some believe in education for education's sake; that no further explanation is required. Others prefer simple yet more-expansive descriptions of the role of public education, such as "to give every child the opportunity to fully participate in society," "to create adults able to function and thrive" or simply "to serve as the great equalizer for all."

A more-detailed explanation, however, from the historical perspective of the U.S. system of public education, may be somewhat more instructive as a starting point for this third installment:

The purpose of public education has been affected by major changes in American society. These include economic transformations and the expansion of civil rights, which have had enormous effects on what goes on in the classroom. Added to these forces are others, including population growth, immigration, inner-city poverty, and school violence. Whenever there has been major social or economic change, the goals that were established for public education have changed. Over time, the following have all been goals of public education:

• To prepare children for citizenship
• To cultivate a skilled workforce
• To teach cultural literacy
• To prepare students for college
• To help students become critical thinkers
• To help students compete in a global marketplace

[Emphasis added.] PBS's "School: The Story of American Public Education."

At least four of the foregoing, six goals of public education--to cultivate a skilled workforce; to help students prepare for college; to help students become critical thinkers; and to help students compete in a global marketplace--relate directly to job readiness and should, presumably, address the current and growing skills gap in the U.S. However, as highlighted in the second installment in this series, both the composition of the "skilled workforce" and the nature of the work offered in the "global marketplace" are shifting and morphing at a rapid pace. The pace is such that any system designed to meet these four goals for someone just entering kindergarten in September 2014 may be woefully inadequate at achieving those goals by the time that kindergartener is graduating from high school in June 2027. Accordingly, and as suggested at the conclusion of the second installment, what is truly needed is a public education infrastructure that can more-naturally keep pace with the changes documented in the first two installments in this series, as well as those yet to come.

In the short-term, some of the emerging initiatives--such as career accelerators and worker training and re-training programs, which inherently focus more on those who have already graduated from public secondary schools--need to be better supported and more-effectively promoted. In the long-term, however, nothing short of a comprehensive re-thinking about how, what, and why we teach things in primary, secondary, and post-secondary education, and how those "things" align, directly or indirectly, with the goals of public education relating to job readiness and shrinking the skills gap, is required.

Three Short-Term Solutions for Shrinking the Skills Gap

The CBO Labor Market Outlook discussed in the second installment in this series projects that the current skills gap will dissipate by 2017. While there is some question as to whether and how this "gradual absorption process" will take place, if we assume for the sake of argument that the CBO's time horizon is relatively accurate, short-term solutions should strive to accelerate this "absorption" process. Accordingly, the question becomes: What can be reasonably accomplished in the next twelve to twenty four months in the U.S. to shrink the skills gap and help employers fill currently available positions for which there appears to be a legitimate shortage of specifically skilled labor?

1. Expand Apprenticeship Programs in the U.S.

Existing apprenticeship programs in the U.S. should be better promoted, supported, and funded. Additionally, those U.S. apprenticeship programs that are successful but highly localized or narrowly drawn should be expanded to become regional and industry-wide. The most-successful apprenticeship programs--those that are both wide and deep, encompassing entire industries and a broad geographical reach--whether found in the U.S. or elsewhere, should be emulated and adopted throughout the U.S.

"As a nation, over the course of the last couple of decades, we have regrettably and mistakenly devalued apprenticeships and training," said Thomas E. Perez, the secretary of labor. "We need to change that, and you will hear the president talk a lot about it in the weeks and months ahead." "Where Factory Apprenticeship Is Latest Model From Germany," Schwartz, Nelson, D., New York Times, November 30, 2013

As discussed below, the U.S. lags well behind most of Europe and parts of the Asia-Pacific region in the integration of "learning-doing" programs--ones that feature creative collaborations between educational institutions and specific industries--into the formal public education curriculum. That is not to say, however, that the U.S. does not offer examples of apprenticeship programs worthy of emulation. There just aren't enough of them, and many of the currently existing programs may not be as broad or deep as they could or should be. One short-term solution to the existing skills gap, then, would be to strengthen and expand the apprenticeship programs that are successful in the U.S., and encourage cities, states, and/or entire regions, and their respective education institutions and benefiting industries, to emulate and embrace such successful apprenticeship programs.

Inspired by a partnership between schools and industry that is seen as a key to Germany's advanced industrial capability and relatively low unemployment rate, projects like the one at Tognum [America, a heavy equipment manufacturer in Greenville, S.C. (started by its parent company in Friedrichshafen, Germany)] are practically unheard-of in the United States.
But experts in government and academia, along with those inside companies like BMW, which has its only American factory in South Carolina, say apprenticeships are a desperately needed option for younger workers who want decent-paying jobs, or increasingly, any job at all. And without more programs like the one at Tognum, they maintain, the nascent recovery in American manufacturing will run out of steam for lack of qualified workers. [Emphasis added.] "Factory Apprenticeship" article, Schwartz, NYT, November 30, 2013

A 1998 article from WardsAuto, a global automotive industry publication, suggests the entry of BMW in South Carolina in 1993 marked the beginning of the manufacturing turn-around in the state, which had suffered a marked decline in manufacturing over the preceding decades, primarily in the textiles industry. The introduction of the BMW plant in Spartanburg, S.C., and the twenty-two BMW suppliers that followed, also ushered in a renaissance of the use of apprenticeships in the U.S. to create a pipeline of skilled workers to support the state's manufacturing.

To its credit, South Carolina has in response taken both a statewide, and a truly global, approach to apprenticeships. Twenty years after the BMW plant broke ground, the state has 28,000 workers employed in the manufacturing facilities of German companies based in South Carolina. This meteoric increase in the number of manufacturing jobs in German-run facilities is in part a testimony to the "wide and deep" perspective of South Carolina's ambitious and successful apprenticeship program. Apprenticeship Carolina offers to partner specific businesses and industries within the state, as well as those the state is trying to entice to come to South Carolina, with its statewide system of sixteen technical colleges.

The Tognum apprenticeship program, which is a product of Apprenticeship Carolina, is a partnership between the Aiken County School District, Aiken County Career and Technology Center, Aiken Technical College, and Tognum America, the U.S. subsidiary of the German manufacturer. The program combines specific instruction in the local high schools, technical college training, and hands-on learning in the manufacturing process in Tognum's Greenville factory. The program is designed to accommodate six high school juniors each school year.

"We try to prevent students from dropping out," says Mr Klisch [vice president for North American operations of Tognum America]. "We want them to know even in ninth grade [aged 14-15] that this is possible."

Teachers recommend 10th graders, who along with their parents are invited to a presentation about the programme. In 11th and 12th grades, those accepted after a maths test and interview add 600-1,000 hours of work a year (at a career centre and plant) to their usual high school curriculums.

They earn $8.25-$8.75 an hour, rising to $12.96-$14.02 an hour once - and if - they join the company as employees. There is no obligation on either side. "Germany exports its apprenticeship model," Financial Times, January 24, 2014

Regrettably, however, the Tognum/Aiken County apprenticeship program is the exception, and not the rule, in the U.S., when compared with some of the U.S.'s European counterparts. A European Commission report found that apprenticeship programs result in more rapid school-employment transitions than vocation training alone. Compared to the U.S., European countries have a richer history of apprenticeship programs that combine workplace training with formal education. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland are often cited as having particularly successful "dual systems." Perhaps not coincidentally, Switzerland (#1) and Germany (#4) ranked ahead of the U.S. in global competitiveness in the World Economic Forum's latest rankings.

While country-specific contexts are critical to consider when implementing an apprenticeship policy, cross-country analyses of apprenticeship programs can offer insight with regard to best practices. The European Commission report identifies the importance of a strong work-based training component, which characterizes what it calls a work-based apprenticeship model. In a work-based program, apprentices enter into a direct employment contract with a private company. On-site company training accounts for three-to-four days of the week, and in-school vocational training accounts for one-to-two days of the week. The training contract lasts several years (depending on the occupation), and the company bears the majority of the apprenticeship costs, including compensating the apprentice. Germany--where over 60 percent of youth choose this dual system track, and whose government attributes its low unemployment rate to a successful apprenticeship program--employs this model. Successful entrepreneurship models are also characterized by mechanisms that ensure the quality, relevance, and transferability of skills acquired. Apprenticeships are most successful and the benefits are maximized when programs engage workers at a younger age.

Unfortunately, there are a number of barriers to widespread adoption of apprenticeship as a learning model in the U.S. As discussed in a Center for American Progress report, despite some efforts by the Department of Labor, apprenticeships in the U.S. remain underutilized and still largely limited to traditional sectors like construction. U.S. workers and employers alike attach a stigma to the term "apprenticeship," which they equate with low-paying, low-skilled employment. Businesses are also wary of costs associated with training a potential employee who may ultimately take his or her skills elsewhere. Research has shown, however, that this concern may not be entirely valid. A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 46 percent of surveyed apprenticeship sponsors did not perceive "poaching" as a problem, and among those who did perceive it as an issue, 85 percent still recommended apprenticeship.

Furthermore, a Canadian study identified a positive return on investment for apprenticeship sponsors: Businesses gain $1.47 for every $1 they invest in training apprentices. Additionally, as programs are geographically broadened to become regional rather than local, and substantively broadened to accommodate the needs of an entire industry--such as high-tech manufacturing--rather than focusing on a specific business, individual companies will assume less risk. The entire pool of qualified workers emerging from these apprenticeship programs will be more-highly trained, thereby benefiting all of the employers in that industry and region.

While individual states like South Carolina have made great strides in establishing apprenticeship tracks, the federal government needs to make a greater effort to promote such programs nationwide. In the early 1990s, England made such a push to expand apprenticeships, and by 2012 had increased the number of new apprentices by approximately 940 percent. While such an increase undoubtedly takes time, there are short-term solutions that can "kick-start" the apprenticeship movement. The federal government should allocate greater resources to promote, support, and expand current apprenticeship programs.

Additionally, a robust marketing campaign should be initiated to inform employers, as well as youth and their parents, about the potential benefits of apprenticeship programs. For example, secondary schools students, and their parents, might be surprised to learn that workers who complete apprenticeships on average earn about $240,000 more than comparable job seekers over their lifetimes. The government can help with the expansion of programs through financial incentives, such as direct or indirect subsidies, that are currently employed by apprenticeship-embracing states. As recommended by the Center for American Progress report, the government might consider using its role as the largest employer of Americans to create its own model apprenticeship program and/or give preferential status to contractors that offer apprenticeships.

2. Support and promote career accelerator programs that address the skills gap between imminent and recent college graduates and specific industries.

Nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps nowhere is this axiom more apt than in the evolution of career accelerator programs. Such programs--including Fullbridge and Startup Institute--offer intensive, boot camp-style training to bridge the skills gap for prospective employees in specific industry sectors. A recent entrant into this nascent educational framework--Beyond Business--is offering its first program starting in mid-June in San Francisco.

The Beyond Business program is targeted at graduates of undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as matriculating undergraduates, who want to pursue non-technology careers in the high-tech industry (such as business development, marketing, human resources, and management) but lack the baseline qualifications prospective employers view as prerequisites. Such "developed skills" are notably missing from the recruits high-tech companies generally see, the reputations of applicants' degree-granting institutions notwithstanding. Those who complete the Beyond Business six-week, intensive program, depending upon where they are in their academic matriculation or career trajectory, are expected to be much-better prepared for opportunities as interns, college ambassadors or full-time employees in non-technology positions in the high-tech industry.

In essence, Beyond Business offers to teach its students all those important things their degree-granting institutions didn't, including public speaking, project management, networking skills, and applied problem-solving. The program also provides skills training in a host of more-traditional disciplines such as economics, writing, and financial modeling that students' prior academic training may have covered but not in the same way or level of intensity and integration required to make these candidates for employment stand out in the recruitment process. Everything Beyond Business offers its incoming crop of students is intended to make them more career-ready for non-technology positions in the high-tech industry and much more desirable to the recruiters seeking to fill open jobs in the companies comprising that industry.

Beyond Business is a start-up venture, the brain-child of educator Becky Fisher, M.Ed., formerly with Kidaptive, Inc. Through her own networking with recruiters, H.R. directors, managers, and senior executives with some of the Bay Area and Silicon Valley's most-successful and, in some cases, fastest growing high-tech companies, Ms. Fisher recognized a common problem: A growing disconnect between what these high-tech employers are seeking in the marketplace and the qualifications presented by the annual pool of graduates from undergraduate and graduate programs that are supposed to be creating career-ready graduates in various high-tech industries but generally are not.

In developing the Beyond Business curriculum, Ms. Fisher has partnered with start-ups such as Airbnb, a web-based lodging matching service facilitating direct, private rentals, and Prezi, a cloud-based presentation and story-telling software company. The Beyond Business program also makes extensive use of experts from notable high-tech companies such as Amazon, ebay, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and YouTube as mentors for program participants. For its more-traditional, classroom instruction, Beyond Business pulls instructors in a variety of relevant disciplines from Stanford University and U.C. Berkeley. This presents a unique educational model, offering a combination of traditional learning, applied skills training in real-world problem-solving, mentoring, and career and industry networking. Beyond Business also offers its students enhanced prospects for future internships, ambassadorships, and employment by creating potential opportunities for them to interview with the program's participating business partners.

3. Develop locally and regionally based education/industry feedback programs.

The Obama administration has made investment in community colleges a priority. This is encouraging, as community colleges are uniquely positioned to respond nimbly to changing workforce demands. Community colleges are increasingly partnering with local and regional businesses to better understand employer needs and how the colleges can adjust curricula and instructional methods to better meet the current requirements of employers. Whether the partnerships address a specific, of-the-moment labor need or a longer-term human capital need, these relationships help close the skills gap.

Efforts should be made to promote, support, and expand this "new vocationalism," the collaboration between industry and education providers. Existing education/industry relationships should be leveraged to transform community colleges' abilities to produce creative, highly skilled, employable graduates. The League of Innovation in Community Colleges recommends that business's relationships with education should extend beyond vocational training and employment opportunities. Employers' understanding of what skills they need can inform curriculum transformation and professional development; employers' resources and business acumen can assist with a college's sustainability, mission, strategic planning, and resource allocation (something the career accelerators have already learned, and from which they benefit greatly). A more comprehensive education/industry partnership will result in a more natural transition from education to employment. The government can help stimulate "new vocationalism" by emphasizing the importance of innovative education/industry partnerships and offering competitive grant funds to exemplars.

Long-Term Solutions for Shrinking the Skills Gap

The "Education Reform" movement continues to generate impassioned debate, including growing challenges to the increasing privatization of public education and a marked rise in the reliance on standardized testing. This may indeed be an opportune time to consider some alternative models for public education on which, perhaps, both sides could agree; alternatives that could better align graduates of education institutions with careers in the "Innovation Economy" described in the second installment in this series. Such a shift in focus could greatly improve overall outcomes, which is presumably the goal of any education reform efforts.

Reforming the U.S. public education system to make it less like a factory processing future workers, and focusing instead on creating a nation of thinkers, might seem counterintuitive to matching up high school and college grads with... available jobs. And, indeed, this kind of "trade school approach" to recasting secondary and post-secondary education is something [that has been] suggested by The Economist's Matthew Bishop, author of "The great mismatch," Sept. 10, 2011.

However counter-intuitive this notion may appear, fostering a nation of creative thinkers will serve the U.S. well in an increasingly global and technological economy. After all, one of the most successful and profitable companies in the world (high-tech or otherwise) is Apple. Until August 25, 2011, Apple was led by CEO Steve Jobs, who stepped down (for the second time) for health reasons. Jobs was one of the most creative thinkers of the past 50 years and was not trained by the American university system for such greatness. He was a creative thinker, not the toiler of a particular trade conferred upon him by some professional degree. "Three Innovative Ideas, Which Could Help the Economy,... but No One's Talking About Them," The Huffington Post, October 9, 2011

By the same token, attempts to make the education system better-aligned with the needs of the current job market presents some genuine concerns about leaning too far toward making public education the farm system for specific industries. There is also the risk of pigeonholing students for a specific career path at the expense of producing effective citizens able to navigate their lives as self-sustaining adults.

What, one might ask, is the problem with an educational system predicated on the belief that its graduates should be fit for future employment? There are at least two problems with this narrow basis for an entire educational framework. First, a child entering Kindergarten in the fall of [2014], assuming they will be career-ready with a four-year bachelor's degree, will enter the workforce in [2031]. Is there anyone who presumes to know what the global economy will require of its workforce just five years from now (in [2019]), much less what will be needed in [2031]? Viewed in this context, this predicate for our entire primary and secondary public education system seems not only antiquated but wholly absurd.

The second problem with this system is that the path to getting to this end goal works great for some students; only marginally well for others; and yet not at all for those with less academic-oriented interests and capabilities. The subject areas in which some students have tremendous talent, remarkable aptitude, and keen interest--the fine arts, for example--become increasingly marginalized in secondary schools in favor of those subjects that are viewed as more pragmatic; more "job worthy." "We Need an Education System that Promotes Innovation, Creativity, and Critical Thinking," The Huffington Post, March 23, 2012

Arguably, innovation, creativity, and critical thinking skills should be a means to an end: They should serve each student graduating from high school by making them highly flexible in responding to, and adaptable to embracing, economic changes. These changes may well include changes in the nature and form of work that is demanded by global businesses and how that work gets done. These combined traits of flexibility and adaptability are in part necessary because of the pace of technological change. However, they are also necessitated by the fact that the nature of work itself and the mechanisms through which it is produced and delivered are rapidly changing as well.

Following the recent economic downturn, the employment rate has recovered at a frustratingly slow pace, except in one area: temporary, contingent, and independent workers. Between 2009 and 2012, according [to] the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of temporary employees rose by 29%. A survey of the 200 largest companies found that temporary workers represented, on average, 22% of their workforce, and that percentage is growing. Workers from all different industries (not just tech) are discovering that they're able to be productive outside of the corporate office and without a long-term employer. [Emphasis added.] "40% of America's workforce will be freelancers by 2020," Neuner, Jeremy, QUARTZ, March 20, 2013

In the 1960s--the beginning of the fifty-plus-year period during which fundamental, structural changes in the U.S. economy began to occur (as detailed in the first installment in this series)--a significant majority of workers were full-time, permanent employees of a corporation or were sole proprietors of their own businesses. It was not uncommon for a worker to spend his or her entire career with one company or at least in a single industry. Since the early 1970s worker tenure with the same employer has decreased.

By 2012, approximately twenty-two percent of all work performed in the U.S. was "contingent" or "temporary" work. This includes temporary, part-time, seasonal, and contract or freelance work. Jeremy Neuner, quoted above, Co-Founder and (R)evolutionary in Chief of NextSpace, and co-author with Ryan Coonerty of ["The Rise of the Naked Economy," predicts that by 2020 fully 40% of all of the work performed in the U.S. will be temporary or contingent.

Workers are almost always the first victims of seismic economic upheavals, but...they don't have to be. For those workers who want to clock their 40 hours for "the Man"...the news is not good. In the age of globalization, companies are under intense pressure to find more and more efficiencies in the way they do business. Using new platforms, they will be able to find people for specific tasks on demand and do it far more easily and inexpensively than hiring just the right person for a career.

Successful workers in the new century are those who will adopt an entrepreneurial mind-set, because essentially that's what they'll have to be. Entrepreneur is a term that is gradually losing its elitist mystique, which is a good thing. The self-employment guru Chris Guillebeau, author of The $100 Startup, used to live in Sierra Leone, where he learned a thing or two at the village marketplace. In West Africa, everybody's an entrepreneur, he said. [Emphasis added.] Coonerty, Ryan and Jeremy Neuner, "The Rise of the Naked Economy," Palgrave Macmillan, New York, N.Y., 2013, pgs. 15 - 16

If Nuener's prognostication about the proportion of contingent work by 2020 proves true, among this Summer's rising high school juniors destined for a four-year degree, four in ten will be working for themselves, as freelancers and independent contractors, after graduation, versus finding full-time, permanent employment with an existing company. In such a scenario, to be a productive and self-sufficient member of society in the U.S., graduates from post-secondary programs, as well as high school graduates who do not intend to immediately enter college, need to be flexible and adaptable enough to meet these challenges of a constantly changing workplace.

Taking the foregoing into account, students should emerge from public secondary education with the following:

1. Facility in four, core competencies as tested in the OECD's Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC), a practical skills assessment (referenced in the second installment in this series):

• Literacy
• Reading components
• Numeracy
• Problem-solving in a tech-rich environment

2. The ability to innovate, create, and think critically; to apply these skills to overcome challenges and create opportunities in their chosen careers and industries; and to apply these skills to adapt to new industries and new careers. This is one of the principal goals arising out of a truly innovative and wide-reaching collaborative effort among the federal, state, and territorial government institutions of Australia, coordinated through the Career Industry Council of Australia (CICA). The resulting Australian Blueprint for Career Development is the product of an international partnership between a coalition of Canadian agencies lead by the National Life/Work Centre (NLWC), the Canadian Career Information Partnership (CCIP), Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC), and the National Occupational Information Coordinating Committee (NOICC) in the U.S.

3. Either general proficiency in the foregoing two areas sufficient to enter a degree-granting program or, alternatively, proficiency in specific skills already in demand in an existing industry or necessary to enter an apprenticeship or training program sponsored by or tied to an existing industry and/or employer. In other words, graduates from secondary public education should be well-positioned to take whatever the next, logical step in their career development should be, and have the necessary tools to do so.

Achieving the foregoing may be a truly Herculean task, well beyond the scope of this three-part series specifically and this forum generally. This may be an especially daunting challenge at this particular point in time in the U.S., inasmuch as this dramatic paradigm shift is in direct opposition to the direction in which the education reform movement has taken public education, which is toward greater standardization and centralization. The "standards movement" is characterized by more standardized testing, the overlay of the Common Core State Standards, and less flexibility afforded to school administrators and classroom teachers.

On the whole, both the symptoms of the current skills gap, as well as the dire prognosis if it is not ameliorated quickly and in a meaningful and long-lasting way, have been made clear in this three-part series. And while some very pragmatic and easily implementable, short-term fixes are offered above, solving these problems more permanently, and in a way that radically alters our public education infrastructure to keep up with and, hopefully promote, future growth, must be a priority for everyone involved.