This post was co-authored by John M. Bridgeland and Jessica Milano
How can it be that today, in the midst of the most severe economic downturn since the Great Depression and millions of Americans seeking work, that 53 percent of employers -- and 67 percent of small business employers that create most new jobs -- find it difficult to find qualified workers? How can a workforce desperate for new jobs appear so helpless amid so many businesses desperate to hire?
The answers to those questions lie at the heart of a new divide that has developed within the American economy. Over the last several decades, a chasm has emerged to divide the skills of the nation's workforce, as they exist, and the demands of the nation's job market. Today, America has only 45 million workers who have the training and skills to fill 97 million jobs that require some post-secondary education. U.S. companies have to choose among importing skilled workers, outsourcing jobs, or relocating operations in markets overseas with a rising supply of skilled and affordable workers. At the same time, the nation has more than 100 million candidates for only 61 million low-skill, low-wage positions. If America wants to remain competitive, we will have to expand our supply of high- and middle-skill workers.
But that will require more than just pointing high school graduates in the direction of their nearest college campus. The national spotlight on "access" to college has shrouded another priority: ensuring that those who enter college programs graduate with the skills and credentials they will need to succeed in the workforce and help America remain competitive around the world. Today, more than 70 percent of high school graduates enroll in some kind of advanced education within two years. Yet, just over one-half of bachelor's degree candidates complete their degree within six years, and less than one-third of associate's degree candidates earn their degree within three years. America has a serious college completion crisis.
The first step to overcoming this crisis is to broaden our definition of "college." Despite the conventional wisdom that bachelor's degrees are critical to success, the job market of the future will demand a vast new supply of talented graduates of a diverse range of postsecondary programs, including those that are two-years or less. By the end of this decade, about an equal percentage of jobs will require a bachelor's degree or better (33%) as some college or a two-year associate's degree (30%). Not recognizing the value of career credentials and associate's degrees is hindering our efforts to meet the needs of employers.
The second step is to recognize that as the costs of higher education outstrip what many can afford, businesses and colleges, especially community colleges which offer shorter-term degrees, need to do more to allow students to "earn and learn" at the same time. More than 80 percent of college leaders and 60 percent of college dropouts identified financial pressures such as needing to work as a major challenge to students completing their degrees. Compounding this challenge is that oftentimes the work students do outside the classroom to pay the bills has little relevance to the degrees for which they are studying, and so rather than enhancing their studies and increasing their motivation to finish their degree, it often becomes a competing priority for their time.
Ultimately, it is crucial that American businesses work collaboratively with higher education to provide internships, apprenticeships, cooperative learning experiences, and to ensure that they are producing graduates with the competencies required by the business community. As the former Chairman and CEO of Procter & Gamble John Pepper recently stated, "Closing the skills gap is an important issue for business leaders, for citizens, and for the country as a whole." If America wants to regain its place in the world and restore the American Dream for millions of our people, closing the skills gap must be priority number one.
John M. Bridgeland and Jessica Milano of Civic Enterprises released new research this week on America's college completion crisis and skills gap in connection with the Grad Nation Summit in Washington, D.C.