09/19/2012 11:18 am ET Updated Nov 19, 2012

Four Ways Higher Education Can Close the Skills Gap

This is the last in a series of three posts that examine the workforce skills gap from the perspectives of workers, employers, and educators.

As the nation's workforce skills gap threatens to stall economic recovery and erode global competitiveness, employers look to higher education to help reduce the skills deficit. As thought leaders, the higher education community must stay ahead of the curve to prepare a workforce that will be globally competitive and equipped to meet the challenges of an unpredictable future.

A bachelor's degree is increasingly the minimum employment requirement, but according to the National Commission on Adult Literacy, 80 million to 90 million adults today -- about half the workforce -- do not have the skills required to land jobs that pay a family-sustaining wage. An Apollo Research Institute study titled 'The Great Divide' pinpoints the fastest-growing employment opportunities as those in professional, scientific, and technical services, where job growth is expected to increase 34 percent by 2018. Yet these opportunities are precisely those that require higher education and skills.

Even among workers who have achieved college degrees, continuous skill development is essential to stay employable in an evolving workplace, yet the gap appears to be widening. For example, 65 percent to 75 percent of employers in major U.S. cities reported difficulty identifying employees with essential critical thinking and collaborative skills, according to Apollo Research Institute's ongoing multi-city research study, Life in the 21st-Century Workforce.

Higher education plays a critical role in reversing these trends. Here are four recommended strategies.

First, address the needs of working adults.

The number of traditional undergraduates (those who attend college full-time immediately after high school) will not be enough to meet the demand for skilled workers. It is imperative to expand higher education opportunities for those already in the workforce, ensuring they have resources to upgrade their skills and acquire necessary credentials.

Working adults cannot quit work to go to school, so they need flexible programs that enable them to fit classes into their busy lives over longer periods of time. Innovative applications of technology in the classroom and the workplace are vital. With distance learning and smart technology, working learners can connect to classroom lectures, research, professors, and fellow students on their own schedules.

Second, work in tandem with business and industry.

Open communication between higher education and business and industry is critical to understanding workforce needs. With this understanding, colleges and universities can design programs and create public-private partnerships that will graduate capable new employees and retrain current ones.

College and universities must provide visibility into career requirements -- and access to resources such as career counseling -- early in the educational process and throughout the course of study. For example, career coaches can be valuable campus resources. These professionals are well acquainted with business and industry staffing needs, the knowledge and skills required, and the educational opportunities that match a certain career path. They can advise students regarding current degree programs and also inform higher education administrators about emerging needs in various employment sectors.

Third, implement industry-specific credentialing programs.

Students who are juggling work, family, and school typically need extra time to achieve their educational goals. Certification programs can help fast-track a worker's skill development.

In an Apollo Research Institute study of manufacturing skills credentialing, employers agreed that industry-specific certification programs can help reduce recruitment and training costs, and can help build a pipeline of qualified workers. Credentialing programs can also serve as an intermediate benchmark to help employers evaluate workers' skill levels and their educational accomplishments, and help workers align their educational pursuits with on-the-job performance.

As an example, Cisco's Networking Academy is a certification program that educates students across the globe on how to build, design, and maintain networks. Educators in 165 countries contribute their expertise, helping to prepare workers for industry-recognized certifications and information and communication technology (ICT) careers across all fields.

Fourth, improve graduation rates.

Currently, more than 8 million adults are enrolled in higher education in the U.S., but less than half of all students in four-year bachelor's programs will complete their degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Degree completion rates may be particularly low among nontraditional students who face many competing demands on their time and financial resources.

In a recent study of more than 4,400 students spanning multiple generations, Apollo Research Institute identified several stress factors that influence educational progress. (See "To Graduate or Drop Out? Factors Affecting College Degree Completion of Baby Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial Students.") Across all generations, students expressed anxiety over college-related expenses. Other stressors are typically linked to age. For example, Baby Boomers were most frequently worried about their intellectual ability to complete coursework, while both Generation Xers and Millennials most often felt anxious about not spending enough time with people close to them, the report said.

For students of all generations, the report noted, "support from spouses, significant others, faculty members, and staff from an institution's academic department had the best chance of positively influencing adult learners to continue classes," a finding that points to some possible solutions. For instance, higher education could create early warning systems for students at risk of dropping out -- especially nontraditional students -- and bolster support systems for these learners.

With these four strategies as starting points, higher education can join with workers and employers in the effort to address the workforce skills gap. This shared effort must be built on a systematic approach and a collaborative culture of continuous learn