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Education Leaders, Policymakers Struggle To Define Emerging Skills in ‘New Work’ Era

WASHINGTON – In order to alleviate America’s unemployment problems and eliminate the so-called “skills gap,” colleges and universities must not only produce more graduates but also more graduates with the kind of education and skills that employers demand in an ever-changing global economy.

That was one of the many suggestions that business and education leaders proffered Tuesday at The Atlantic magazine’s first New Work Era Summit.         

The challenge is particularly daunting as the expectations associated with various jobs—from auto mechanics to tool-making jobs—become more varied and complex. Many schools remain so disconnected from industry that they are largely ignorant about current needs, panelists said.

While much of the conference focused on what the world of higher education can do to solve the nation’s job woes, panelist John Sexton, president of New York University and immediate past chairman of the American Council on Education, cautioned against allowing colleges and universities to devolve into workforce producers instead of focusing on giving students an education that enables them to live a fulfilling life.

“I think there’s a danger in this magnificent conversation … of reducing down to production of a job once you get out of school,” Sexton said. “Not to say that’s not important.”

“However,” he said, “as important as the job numbers next month are, if we’re going to attack this problem we need to think about how we inculcate critical thinking (and other skills) and indulge kids to the maximum of their potential.”

Business leaders seemed to take a different tact and said more students would find a rewarding life if they knew more about what skills are in demand in today’s economy.

Laszlo Block, vice president of People Operations at Google, said at any given time the multibillion-dollar Internet search company is trying to fill 1,500 to 2,500 jobs.

“Eventually, they all get filled,” Block said. But at the same time, he said, computer scientists, user interface designers, and other such individuals that the company needs are “very hard to find.”

“It’s a combination of emerging skills that don’t really exist in the marketplace and very precise skills that do exist but not in large quantities,” Block said.

He said the biggest challenge to solving the problem is “information asymmetry.”

“Kids have no idea, and colleges and universities have no idea, what skills they should have to actually get a job,” Block said.

That problem was echoed by Nick Pinchuk, CEO of Snap-on tools, who said his company once had to set up its own course in machining at a community college in order to get the workers that the tool-making company needed in that area.

Making tools is “complex, it’s not repetitive, you need skills to handle this, people who understand statistics that can pursue continuous improvement,” Pinchuk said. “Skills like this, they are hard to find.”

He urged higher education leaders and business to communicate more and to cooperate on creating industry standards in order to bridge the gap between education and work.

Tuesday’s work summit took place on the heels of a new report issued by one of its underwriters, McKinsey &Company. The conference also was underwritten by National Association of Manufacturers and United Technologies.

Among other things, the McKinsey report found that 21 million jobs must be created by 2020 to return the country to “full employment,” meaning an unemployment rate of 5 percent or less. The latest unemployment figures show the jobless rate at 9.2 percent.

The report also found that there will be an estimated shortage of 1.5 million college graduates in the workforce of 2020 and 5.9 million more high school dropouts in 2020 than jobs available for workers with that level of education.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who gave the “headline interview” at the summit, called America’s high school dropout problem “staggering,” particularly for African-American and Latino youths. He stressed that the problem is one that needed to be abated starting as early as kindergarten, where lack of attendance has been shown to predict dropout behavior.

“Relationships make a huge difference,” he said, calling for more people to step up to help guide children whose parents may be struggling with issues such as drug addiction or incarceration.

When The Atlantic contributor Amanda Ripley asked Duncan if he agreed that the U.S. focuses too much on college readiness and not enough on career readiness, as she said her reportage found in Finland and South Korea, Duncan dismissed the issue as one of the many “false dichotomies” that permeate education reform debates.

“It’s not either-or. It’s and,” Duncan said. “The skills necessary to be successful in college and careers are almost identical today.”

Duncan said career and technical education saw its “heyday” roughly half a century ago. 

Back then, “we had a clearer sense of what we were preparing students for,” Duncan said. “Too many schools today, we’re preparing students for jobs of 30 or 40 years ago.”

Robert Templin, president of Northern Virginia Community College, said leaders of higher education must tackle the dropout problem head-on.

“For higher education, it’s not good enough for us to sit on the sidelines and criticize the schools,” he said. As an example of what his own college is doing in this regard, he cited a program whereby NOVA puts a corps of counselors in high schools to talk to first-generation college students and would-be college-goers about what it takes to succeed in college and beyond and to get jobs in the interim.

The program reaches 6,500 students, he said, and graduation rates are double that of other students, he said.

“These kids can do it,” Templin said. “But you can’t do it by stepping on the sideline talking about what can be done.”

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