The Middle Crises: Middle-Tier Universities and the ‘Middle’ Skills Gap

Success and achievement business conceptWith a crisis in two sectors, higher education and in the labor market – could each be the solution to the others problem? I suggest so. In this post I examine both crises, provide suggestions for educators and community institutions to come up with viable solutions, and share examples of education programs that have done just that.

Crisis #1: The Middle Skills Gap:  I recently read Who Can Fix the “Middle-Skills” Gap? from the Harvard Business Review.  It’s not the first time I’ve come across the ‘skills gap’, employers grumbling that they can’t fill jobs, can’t find applicants with the ‘right’ skills. Estimates by the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that 47% of all new job openings from 2010 to 2020 will require middle-skills (Kochan, Finegold and Osterman, 2012).

Crisis #2: The Higher Education Crisis: Rich DeMillo, author and professor defines the crisis in higher education most succinctly in his book Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities where he shares the new value system for higher education, one of universal access, open content and new technologies all of which is forcing schools to evaluate how they deliver traditional education. There is a disconnect between education that is needed and what is currently offered. Not to mention the value of higher education is under scrutiny as families question if a degree is worth the investment. The top-tier schools will survive, but it’s the middle-tier schools that will struggle; they will need to differentiate themselves by demonstrating how they offer value for a unique educational experience.

More on the Skills Gap
So we have two problems, 1) a gap in the labor market for workers with a unique and specific skill set, and 2) higher education institutions that need to show relevance and value.  Before we discuss solutions, there is more to the story of the skills gap. This is not a new topic of discussion, and one that both sectors have addressed at some level. A good article by Jeff Selingo in Chronicle of Higher Education covers this in-depth. In a nutshell, employers complain about lack of ‘skilled workers’ yet feedback is at times contradictory, as they want workers with strong interpersonal skills, effective written and oral communication skills, teamwork, and the ability to think critically – claim that college graduates don’t have these skills, and don’t have the technical skills either. And at the same time, employers list experience as a requirement. Yet college students question— how can we have applicable experience fresh out of college? Good question.

On the other hand, we have higher education with it’s long held value that its purpose is to provide knowledge, expose students to new concepts and ideas, and to teach critical thinking. Preparing students for a ‘job’ or a vocation is not what universities are geared for [with some exceptions like law and medicine]. As an educator, I agree that students need to be exposed to a core curriculum that includes a liberal arts focus, and development of critical thinking skills.  But, as a parent of three, with one child that has just earned a four-year degree, at a price of over $100,000, and two more close behind, I would hope that my kids receive not only an education that includes exposure to the liberal arts, [rigorous] higher level courses in their chose major, but also schooling that will prepare them for a career or at least a full-time job upon graduation.

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Baltimore Collegetown Network, Coppin State University and other area colleges and universities at fifth annual Service-Learning and Civic Engagement Conference: “Community-Based Learning: Paving the Way for Change.”

What to do?
I believe there is a way for higher education to hold on to its core values, protect the integrity of its educational purpose, yet at the same time adopt a sense of ‘openness’ by thinking of the businesses and the institutions in the community as partners. Educators can work with leaders in the community to educate a body of students together, using the community as a place where students gain experience in the real world, while getting an education at the same time. This can take many forms, internships is just one example, co-ops, problem-based learning initiatives and service-learning. Below is a list of innovative programs that cover all of these options and more.

Real Solutions:

  • Service-Learning programs provide application of academic skills and knowledge to address a community need, issue, or problem and to enhance student learning, one example – the program at University of Georgia
  • University co-operative (Co-op) programs are entrenched in the Canadian university system and numerous US universities. Co-ops provide paid job opportunities [for one or more semesters, during which students work full-time] that relate to a student’s major. Click here for a list of programs at the University of Ottawa.  A co-op program at Auburn University, NC State University, and at Concordia University.
  • University-Communities-Schools: Partnership For Change: A  program that involves students becoming involved in the community to solve complex, interconnected problems for the benefit of the school, community and society.
  • Campus Connect: educating citizens, and building communities.
  • Government sponsored co-op programs that offer a tremendous opportunity for students interested in working in the government sector, particularly for engineering and computer science undergraduate majors.
  • Apprentice Programs: Community College of Rhode Island collaborated with an IT company Atrion, to create an academic program for students, who also gain real-world experience.
  • Pearson College in the UK a new model – a ‘school’ where courses are designed by business.

Closing
Who can fix the middle-skills gap? I suggest it is a team effort that could begin with educators partnering with community institutions for creating new academic programs, project based learning, and work experiences. This requires a different way of thinking, essentially a culture shift within higher education. Opening up to community leaders who may not have the same educational background as instructors and educators and collaborating on how to educate students may seem counter-intuitive. Yet if we examine what is happening in our society now, in this digital era, one can see that institutions need to change and adapt and embrace the community as a place to learn and grow, for students, educators and businesses that will benefit all.

Resources:

Photo Credit: Service learning conference, UMBC Community Photostream

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