Answering the Call to Fix the Skills Gap

February 7, 2013

Microsoft made headlines recently with the release of their report on securing economic competitiveness by upgrading our workforce. Within it, they noted that they have more than 6,000 jobs currently unfilled in the United States because they are unable to find applicants with the qualifications needed for the positions.

Microsoft isn't alone here. Our nation's lack of skilled workers creates a gap between the more than 3.5 million jobs currently available and the 18 million Americans still looking for work. And according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, this gap only continues to grow, and could result in up to 7 million unfilled jobs by the end of the decade. Most of those jobs will require some kind of education beyond a high school diploma. Many of those jobs are going to be in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Most American employers -- like Microsoft -- would vastly prefer those jobs to be filled here in the United States. They are, after all, deeply ingrained and invested in their communities even though the majority of their products are being consumed in places outside the U.S.

If we're going to find a way to keep those millions of jobs and billions of dollars in revenue in the U.S., it's clear that we have to close this skills gap. As with any problem of this magnitude, there's no singular cause, and no one solution to it. To put Americans back to work, we're going to have to overhaul our talent development system from top to bottom.

To improve our K-12 schools, we must identify the problems, set expectations, and enact proper solutions. While No Child Left Behind was a solid start towards providing the data we need to pinpoint holes in the system, we still need more robust, comprehensive data. Further, we must put that data to use in guiding the professional development of teachers, making smarter personnel decisions, and targeting areas in need of the greatest improvements.

Once we've prepared our high school students to be successful, we have to help them close the deal by earning a postsecondary education credential of some variety -- whether it's a certificate or a PhD. To accomplish this, we have to keep college affordable to ensure students have access. Unfortunately, tuition continues to skyrocket, with annual increases at public institutions far exceeding the rate of inflation. Institutions blame declining revenue from state appropriations, but the truth is that they began jacking up the price well before this source of funding ran dry. Schools can and should be more proactive in limiting their waste, eliminating redundancies, and budgeting intelligently.

After we manage to get students into college, it's crucial that we do whatever we can to get them out with a degree or credential in a timely manner. According to federal data, just more than half of all first-time, full-time students at public institutions complete a four-year degree within six years. That rate drops to one-fifth at two-year institutions.

We can do much better, starting with some simple fixes, such as facilitating credit transfer among institutions, reducing bloated credit hour requirements, and creating common course numbering systems. We should also align our student financial aid policies such that they promote the completion of degrees and encourage institutions to take responsibility for their students' successes and failures.

Of course, creating a system that pushes more students through the doors and issues more degrees isn't very valuable if the quality of the education itself doesn't remain high. If we fail to ensure educational quality, employers will lose confidence in the value of these degrees, and all of this effort will be for nothing.

The current safeguards of quality in higher education -- accreditation and the credit hour system -- fail to critically examine the content of curriculum or evaluate how an institution's academic standards are enforced. While it isn't necessary to install a k through 12-like testing system, there are ways institutions can and should monitor learning gains in a systematic, comparable fashion without intruding on institutional autonomy.

Make no mistake -- these are just a few of the necessary changes that need to be made. This endeavor will neither be easy nor fast, making it all the more vital that we start today. The education community cannot possibly accomplish all of this alone. Instead, it's going to take a collective effort from business leaders, elected officials, parents, and students alike if we are to reclaim our competitive edge in the global economy.

There is no question that we are capable of doing this hard work. Our nation answered the call of the Industrial Revolution. We answered the call of the "Sputnik Moment." But we've been a "Nation At Risk" for decades now, and have yet to act accordingly. The future of our economy rests on us rising to the occasion once more.

Cheryl Oldham is Vice President of ICW.

Crossposted from Huffington Post College.