Higher Education Must Support The ABC’s of A Reskilling Workforce

By Michael Simpson, chairman and CEO, PAIRIN.

Michael Simpson

After completing high school in the U.S., most students are encouraged to take the traditional path of attending a four-year university with the intention of earning a degree and preparing themselves for a successful career. In fact, 88 percent of students say their main goal of going to college is to “get a good job” – a goal that has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently more than 50 million people out of work in the U.S., making the fight for any job right now that much harder.

The population of people looking for new careers is larger than ever, and they need support from education institutions to ensure they are as prepared as possible for the workforce and specific career pursuits. The problem? These jobseekers do not all have the same needs and goals, and therefore, education institutions cannot treat them in a “one size fits all” manner as they have done historically.

There is a systemic shift that needs to take place within our education system so postsecondary institutions can address the needs of these groups of jobseekers more effectively. For example, there are three types of jobseekers, also known as the ABC’s of the workforce: people looking for “any job,” people looking for a “better job” and people looking for a “career job.” Right now, our education institutions are not in a place to meet the urgent needs of our diverse, reskilling workforce.

The ABC’s of the workforce

People looking for “any job” want to understand their skills and how they apply to other careers, not just the role they currently serve. Millions of Americans currently find themselves in this category, looking for any job that will pay the bills. However, many people struggle to identify how the innate skills and experience they possess could be transferred to another career, and they need specific support to do so.

To support the unique needs of this category, education institutions and employers need to work together to offer short, COVID-resilient, job-specific training. This training needs to address the particular needs of employers in an industry, and should focus on quickly helping career workers to identify their skills and areas of success that can be applied to other areas of work.

People looking for a “better job,” want to make significant advancements in their career or are looking to move to a better fitting job. In postsecondary education, the continuing education and career services departments typically take on a role to help these students and career-oriented workers, but are oftentimes severely underfunded and understaffed. In fact, as the recession deepens across the country, universities are cutting funding to career services, making it harder than ever to service those in the “better job” category.

Coupled with the fact that the primary domain of community colleges is to serve those in this category, four-year universities have faced – and will continue to face — a shift in where students are spending their time and money, and it’s not in favor of the traditional university. Career services and continuing education programs need more prioritized funding and support. Without this, institutions risk losing students to two-year community college programs that offer modern career planning and a more developed structure that allows students to work while they go to school at a fraction of university tuition rates.

Finally, people looking for a “career job,” are working to find success in one specific career. This is the primary focus of four-year, postsecondary universities. Unfortunately, these institutions historically have not done a great job of focusing on and tracking outcomes, and the programs are often not designed with skills-based learning in mind. If an education institution wants to help its students find the right career for them, there are multiple areas in which they need to make significant changes.

A Shift in Education

Overall, there needs to be an alignment of skills to current academic programs based on what employers are looking for in specific industries. Not only can this be done through increasing funding to career development departments, but also through general education of students. It is the duty of a university to inform its students of the labor market data and options that specific degrees and majors will afford them from the beginning of their education.

Universities also need to place a strong emphasis on partnerships with industry-specific organizations. By doing this, they are not only helping to fill the job pipeline with qualified students following graduation, but they are also supporting industries by equipping students with the specific skills they need before heading into the workforce. Now more than ever, people need to be assured that going to college and spending tuition money will lead to a stable, long-lasting career.

The higher education system must take a rapid and flexible approach to make these adjustments, or risk jeopardizing the recent progress made in strengthening the future of the workforce. COVID-19 has showcased the extreme need for adjustments in our education system, and institutions must evolve to incorporate modern career planning, support and skills-based learning to continue competing against community colleges and other non-traditional forms of education. The future of our workforce is at stake.

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