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Poor alignment of American businesses with the schools that train their workers is creating a “skills gap” that may make it hard to fill as many as 650,000 technical- and science-based jobs by 2018.
The country needs a shift in how industry and educational institutions relate to each other, economists and business executives say.
“We do not take an approach — either at the national level or state level – that creates an ease of communications between employers and educational institutions that are going to impart skills and background to potential employees,” said Joe Fuller, a Harvard Business School professor and faculty member of the school’s U.S. Competitiveness Project. “This is why we have 12 million to 13 million unemployed people and 650,000 job openings in manufacturing right now.”
Recent college graduates typically have only about half the skills they need in the workplace, according to John Miller, chief operating officer for Denver-based consulting firm Hands-On Learning.
This forces businesses struggling to find qualified employees — in areas such as computers, mathematics, architecture, engineering, management and health care — to educate workers in-house, which is costly.
“We really need to have universities run as businesses,” said Miller, whose company helps universities develop workforce programs. “It begins with the understanding that what they deliver to the market is a commodity: that’s a graduate.”
Since not all students can — or want to — go on to college, the American education system must provide alternatives.
Fuller, who is studying how the skills gap relates to boosting U.S. business competitiveness, estimates that 35 percent of people go to college today, compared with 5 percent in 1940.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, but the notion that 35 percent is going to 100 percent ever, let alone soon, is plain crazy,” said Fuller.
Most people will be trained for work that requires “middle skills” or “low skills” — jobs requiring more than a high school education but less than a four-year college degree, he said.
“I’m not saying we should be a nation of shopkeepers,” he said, adding there are areas besides advanced manufacturing jobs and computer scientists that need attention.
Fuller said many technical and professional schools are not nimble in upgrading curriculum to compete in the changing business world, and U.S. employers often lack effective workforce planning.
Fuller has studied how western European countries fill jobs.
Some of those countries track and test children from their early years to their teenage years, steering them into lifetime occupations for which they are deemed suited.
Fuller and Miller say such tracking would be alien to U.S. culture.
But Fuller says the educators must start talking to kids and their parents at a young age about what the children would like to do and coordinate that with business.
“What we can draw (from the European experience) is to have that dialogue early to allow families to think about what their kids are actually interested in doing and having an aptitude for,” Fuller said.
Fuller said a big issue is the lack of counseling for children and their families and mid-career counseling for people who are out of work.
“We under-invest in that capability in our school systems and in our departments of labor in different states,” he said.
Navin Dimond, CEO of Stonebridge Companies, an Englewood-based hotel manager, sees a problem with an education system that presumes all students will head to college after high school.
Dimond, who recently donated $1.5 million to Metropolitan State University of Denver’s hotel management program, said students should have a variety of educational opportunities from which to choose.
Some students may need only high school plus a few years of vocational or trade school. Others may want an apprenticeship during high school.
“I don’t think everyone wants the four-year education,” said Dimond, whose company owns and operates dozens of hotels in the U.S.
Hands-On’s Miller said the fortunes of business and universities might also be linked by developing programs for mid-career workers.
Rising costs are keeping many out of college, Miller said, and dwindling enrollment threatens the economic viability of some universities. To survive, he said, universities have to change how they operate.
Private industry, he said, could pick up some of the tab through partner programs that allow workers to advance their education while remaining employed.
“At the end of the day, industry is going to win, and it is going to lower the cost of operation if they do it effectively,” Miller said. ” The schools will then migrate to a new revenue model by working with industry.”