Colleges and universities aren't being mentioned much in the continuing debate in Washington over a jobs program. But in the face of zero growth in employment, higher education should play more of a central role in any jobs agenda.
In the short term, colleges could create programs to help close the "skills gap" that right now keeps some three million jobs from being filled, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Wisconsin, for instance, some 31,000 jobs were unfilled in the state, even though unemployment there is close to 8 percent. Employers there and elsewhere say the unemployed simply lack the skills to fill the jobs.
"I worry more about [the skills gap] than I worry about competition from China," Paul Rauscher, president of a Wisconsin company that builds equipment for the paper and packaging industry, told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The problem will only worsen in the decade ahead. Of the nearly 50 million jobs expected to be created by 2018, more than half will require a post-secondary credential, according to Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce. But projections show we'll be some three million short on workers with those credentials.
In the long term, what can colleges do to better prepare their students to succeed in jobs that have yet to be created?
Offer fewer majors. Colleges are great at creating new programs in response to growth areas in the economy, but not so good at eliminating those programs when demand falls. And in a dynamic economy, it actually seems shortsighted to respond to every new hot job by building an expensive new academic program rather than offer gateway majors that help students learn how to learn for the jobs that don't yet exist.
Provide more help in picking a major. Most 18-year-olds have no idea what they want to be when they grow up, although many are forced to pick a major before their first day of college classes. In recent years, colleges have seen an uptick in multiple majors and in "wasted credits" as students have added and switched majors in an attempt to figure out what they want to do.
Could academic programs be designed in a way that allows students to sample courses across a range of disciplines yet graduate on time? And should colleges be required to provide more advice and career information, including such things as earnings by major, before students pick their course of study?
Conduct workplace surveys. How much do colleges know about how well their students succeed in the workplace after they graduate, and even if the colleges did know, how much of that data would they share with faculty members, as well as prospective students and their parents?
A few weeks ago, the president of Westminster College, in Fulton, Mo., George B. Forsythe, stopped by my office for a visit and talked about how he wants to survey employers to see if Westminster's graduates are performing to specific goals outlined by the college. He could envision the results helping the college redesign academic programs, and perhaps give his graduates a leg up in the job market. In the end, such data will also help him attract more students to his liberal-arts institution.
By inserting themselves into the conversation about how to create jobs, colleges not only will help the economy but can also ensure that higher education will be part of the political debate in the run-up to the 2012 presidential election.