THE BLOG
08/20/2013 08:10 am ET Updated Oct 20, 2013

Learning Revolution Comes to the Workplace

I think it's pretty obvious by now that Washington lawmakers are not going to lead us to robust economic recovery and employment any time soon. The evidence just keeps mounting.

President Obama's recent speeches on strengthening the middle class and the predictably dismissive Republican response (Speaker John Boehner disregarded the President's proposals as an "Easter egg with no candy") just reinforce the sense that we are stuck, that there's no way out of this political gridlock. The paralysis is palpable.

I recently woke up to read a New York Times report about how the sequester is taking a toll on job growth. Wrote the Times: "Corporate and academic economists say that Washington's fiscal fights have produced budget policies that amount to a self-inflicted drag on the economy's recovery."

The steady stream of reports about the nation's talent gap add further to the malaise. For example, in its Growth 2012 Talent Shortage Survey, Manpower found that 49 percent of employers still struggle to fill jobs. Too many workers just aren't prepared for the jobs of this economy.

There is a way out. And it doesn't depend on our lawmakers playing nice and leading the charge. In fact it hardly depends on them at all. What if the major providers of the lost jobs (employers of lower skilled workers) began a serious and transformative partnership with the major providers of skills (the education sector), all aimed at making more workers match more jobs. Imagine if their goal was bigger than a limited training or scholarship program, but rather an all-new kind of higher education that is more relevant to the workplace and not devastatingly expensive for students.

We don't have to imagine. It is actually happening. This new kind of partnership led by business and education is getting to the heart of the problem. Employers are setting the standards based on their current and projected workforce needs. Education partners play their role, crafting curriculum and innovating delivery models to meet those business needs while maintaining academic standards for their students.

On one hand this new way is addressing core business challenges such as recruitment, retention, succession planning, and leadership development. At the same time, it aims to fix issues related to affordability and access for America's students, while creating opportunities for the working poor to advance their careers--to address the skills mismatch we hear so much about and grow the middle class. And it is truly a partnership, mutually developed and owned by both business and education.

Take a look at the first major implementation of this approach, College for America. Seeded by a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/EDUCAUSE grant in 2012 and piloted earlier this year, College for America is a competency-based program with no credit hours or courses. Students learn via projects that are targeted towards specific, employer-focused skills--communication, teamwork, ethics, and others. At $2,500 annually, the program is self-directed and online with an "all-you-can-learn" approach that allows students to progress through the program at their own pace. The degree program is deployed in the workplace, and is designed specifically for adult working students with little or no college experience.

College for America (full disclosure: I work there) has been developed and is managed together by business partners and a college staff. Current partners include leading corporations such as ConAgra and Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield. The founder--Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc--has enlisted corporate leaders at these and other firms to help drive the vision.

The model is refreshingly relevant to the employers and exciting to the national education administration. College for America is fully accredited and was recently approved by the U.S. Department of Education to make federal financial aid available to eligible students.

And it's expanding. More employers in more segments are telling College for America about the core skills and competencies they most need to deliver high quality, and the program is delivering new, low cost solutions. By 2018, College for America aims to serve 350,000 of the 90 million Americans who lack a college degree. My guess is that the extraordinarily scalable approach will eventually serve millions.

And no Congress required.