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15 Creative Ways Colleges Can Close the Skills Gap

by Staff Writers

In America, and even worldwide, there are hundreds of thousands of jobs left open, waiting for employees who have the skills necessary to fill them. At the same time, we’re hovering around an 8% unemployment rate, with so many highly competent workers left without jobs. In a state like Massachusetts, 240,000 people are looking for jobs, but there are 120,000 open and ready to be filled. How can we have so many jobs but so many still unemployed? The answer is a skills gap, where too many workers are not trained with the right knowledge and abilities to fill the jobs that are actually out there.

So what do we do to fix the skills gap and match these unemployed masses with the companies that so desperately need workers? We get more students to take on programs that result in jobs from high-demand industries. So many students pursue four-year degrees that turn out to get them a job at Starbucks, when they could be earning a much bigger paycheck as a master plumber or working as a nurse; jobs that aren’t necessarily glamorous but fill an important need and, even better, practically guarantee gainful employment. Here, we’ll take a look at how colleges are currently going to work to make a change in this direction and close the skills gap, as well as some of the ways experts believe they can do more.

  1. Community College to Career Fund

    President Obama recently announced a budget proposal for 2013 to include an $8 billion Community College to Career Fund that would provide community college job training for careers in high-growth, high-demand industries that need workers. Through the program, colleges would partner with businesses to train workers in health care, manufacturing, clean energy, and more in paid internships that offer practical job experience. This program gives community colleges the resources they need to train tomorrow’s workers, while ensuring that businesses will be able to find them.

  2. Adding strong general education to all degree tracks

    As students pursue degrees in non-professional areas like English or philosophy, they are being prepared with communication and thinking skills that can be applied in just about any type of job. But many students fall short on employable skills. While schools aren’t doing away with traditionally less employable education tracks, they are adding a strong general education to every degree. That means a broader liberal arts education, teaching skills that can translate into jobs for students even as they change careers over their lifetime.

  3. Business academies

    Some companies feel that academia has failed to produce the graduates they need in order to meet their employment demands. So, they’ve taken it upon themselves to create their own educational resources. Through programs like the Cisco Networking Academy in India, the large company teaches students about computer networks, with "project-driven training in high-demand job skills" that help Cisco bridge the gap in their need for professional networkers.

  4. Unified community college systems

    In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick believes a unified community college system could be the key to closing the skills gap for their state. Patrick, like many others, believes that strong community colleges are the key to producing graduates with specific employable skills, what he calls "middle skills" that don’t necessarily need a four-year degree. By unifying the state’s community colleges, Patrick hopes to increase the overall power of the community college system with better recognition, funding, and resources to attract and graduate the students that the state needs to fill its 120,000 open jobs.

  5. Nutrition facts for majors

    Restaurants often show calorie counts on their menus, and some experts recommend that programs of study do the same. With a transparent explanation of tuition, fees, salary, student loan payments, and job market prospects, students can have a better idea of what they’re getting into if they choose to pursue a degree that does not fill the need for a high-demand industry.

  6. Involving local industry in curriculum

    In Japan, many students leave high school behind to go to Kosen colleges, which teach young Japanese students technology skills that are in high demand, including learning how to write software and make robots. When they graduate, they’re flooded with job offers, often up to 30 offers for each student. These Kosen colleges work so well because in their education, students spend time in actual workplaces, putting their abstract concepts to work. They’re also especially effective because the local industry that will soon hire these students is deeply involved in the design of curriculum, a move that ensures students will be ready for the jobs they have to offer.

  7. Partnering with Mike Rowe

    Through Go Build Georgia, schools like Chattahoochee Technical College encourage high school students to enroll in their degree programs for a fast track to practical job skills. They’ve found support with Mike Rowe, who profiles many of these types of jobs on his show, Dirty Jobs. By bringing Rowe on to help, colleges in Georgia are taking great steps to make "dirty jobs" a lot cooler to high schoolers planning their next steps in education.

  1. The Completion Agenda

    For some students, getting the right skills is not about finding school in the first place, it’s finishing up and getting their degree. Through the Completion Agenda, students are encouraged and supported in their work to not just start job-building skilled degrees, but finish them and move on to the workplace.

  2. Learn and earn

    What keeps skilled students out of school? The need to work and earn money after high school. But with programs that allow students to "learn and earn" at the same time, schools partner with employers and help develop "working learners" that can complete their education while working, breaking down a huge barrier that often keeps students from getting a degree in high-demand industries.

  3. Community colleges, obviously

    We can talk about some of the innovative things schools are doing to bridge the skills gap, but it’s obvious that the simple answer is the increased use and influence of community colleges, who have been training employer-ready students for years. Employers have recognized their work, and through the Skills for America’s Future program, partnerships can come together between industries and community colleges. These partnerships identify training needs and work to better connect students with their future employers.

  4. Breaking the prejudice against trade schools

    A recent Forbes article points out that 15% of parking lot attendants have bachelor’s degrees, a part of the work population that may have been better served by going to trade school. But they point out that so often, parents would much rather send their child to a college than a trade school, even though learning to become, say, a master plumber would result in a paycheck that’s significantly higher than a parking lot or restaurant job. Schools are working to undo the thinking that only four-year colleges are honorable, sending the message that there is honor in the trades, and money, too.

  5. Early apprenticeships

    Apprenticeships are a great way to teach students the details of mastering a trade, and in countries like Germany, many of these training programs start very early, some as young as the age of 15. This gives students the opportunity to get started with their career early and puts them on the fast track to employment. They’re also typically hired by the companies after graduating, making the path from school to work incredibly simple not just for students, but employers as well.

  6. Retraining displaced workers

    What happens to skilled workers who are laid off from their jobs? Often, they end up unemployed for long periods of time, unable to put their specific skills to work in a new setting. Although they may have skills similar to those currently in demand, they’re not exactly the right ones, and the retraining necessary to put them in high demand jobs is often out of reach. Both schools and businesses are working to make retraining of displaced workers a more attractive and viable solution, putting the laid off and unemployed back to work.

  7. Feeding from high schools

    Community colleges are working to do a better job at attracting students while they’re still in high school. By going in to high schools and explaining the realities of skilled work, community colleges are better able to encourage students to enroll in programs that will put them in high-demand industries. Through this outreach, they’re working to bust the misconception that community college programs lead to low-paying unskilled jobs, helping students understand that their programs can help them get on the fast track to well-paid and fulfilling jobs.

  8. Higher apprenticeships

    Apprenticeships for skilled trades are proven winners, but what about higher skills like engineering and IT? In the UK, the answer to the skills gap in these high level skills areas is the Higher Apprenticeship, which teaches both specific and broad skills that can be put to work in a variety of positions within the technology industry. This program helps to bridge the skills gap and the STEM gap at the same time, teaching highly skilled and intelligent students with the hands-on training they need to be employer-ready when they graduate, and be flexible enough to move to new positions in their lifetime.