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When Education Fails to Align with the Workforce

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More than one quarter of all middle-skills credentials and associate degrees offered nationwide are misaligned with the needs of their local labor markets, according to the latest report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), "The Great Misalignment."

Dr. Zach Mabel, research professor of education and economics at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.Dr. Zach Mabel, research professor of education and economics at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.This misalignment impacts both local and national economies, as well as the social mobility and economic growth potentials of students. The report calls for more intentional partnerships to be built between institutions, workforce leaders, and for more guidance to help students decide which educational program to pursue.

Michele Spires, assistant vice president of learning evaluations at the American Council on Education (ACE), said the report highlights “the existing translation gap between education and workforce needs,” which must be closed for higher education to continue to play its important role in American society.

“For each labor market to function at its peak potential, the needs and skills must align. This underscores the importance of improving the translation and communication of expectations within specific job roles,” said Spires. “Building trust, enhancing translation, and ensuring transparency are essential. Flexibility is crucial for growth, upskilling, reskilling, and transitioning, especially as life demands change.”

While institutions may be keen to separate themselves and stand out, this report suggests a solution that runs counter to the idea of competition. The data show that greater workforce alignment happens when there are more institutions serving a singular area. As community colleges are often resource-strapped, collaborating with neighbor institutions allows for each to offer different specializations that fit the workforce needs of the area.

“If institutions prioritize different programs and fill different niches, then they could really be complementing one another,” said Mabel. “The complementing of program offerings, where the collective sum is greater than individual parts, stood out to be the real driver [of alignment], where each [institution] was really seeming to be more responsive to parts of the local economy.”

This complimentary behavior has, for the most part, been incidental, said Mabel. But if institutions chose to deliberately partner, plan, and coordinate together, and supports for such collaboration are put into place, workforce alignment will be much stronger than it is today, he said. This intentional collaboration must cut across sectors, allowing public, two-year and for-profit institutions to serve the needs of their local economies as one.

“Collectively, the set of middle skills credentials they produce tend to better meet the needs of employers,” said Mabel. “So often, we hear about institutions competing with one another, limited students, limited support for higher education. In fact, it really seems like there is the opportunity for a diverse ecosystem of institutions that can work together.”

The report asks for not only institutions to de-silo, but for economic leaders and stakeholders in the area to do the same, reaching out to nearby institutions and being clear about their workforce needs. Not only that, businesses could shift the pedagogy of those programs to ensure graduates are immediately prepared for the roles.

Michele Spires, assistant vice president of learning evaluations at the American Council on Education.Michele Spires, assistant vice president of learning evaluations at the American Council on Education.Spires agreed.

“ACE’s research and work with learning and employment records indicate that workforce partnerships are a key solution,” said Spires. Collaboration and communication, she added, help build pathways and pipelines to directly hire graduates, and builds a community that “supports a developmental, human-centered approach to the employment ecosystem, involving K–12 education, social services, regional workforce agencies, and training providers.”

The role of student choice must also be considered regarding misalignment, said Mabel, as well as the workforce outcomes of the students who intend to transfer to a four-year institution and take general studies, humanities, or liberal arts courses. Despite nearly 80% of community college students expressing their intention to transfer, only about one third successfully do, and fewer than half of those go on to complete their bachelor’s degree within six years, according to a 2024 study from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

CEW emphasizes that institutions must continue to improve the rates of successful transfer and also think about how to give students who take general studies courses a better return on their investment.

“Traditionally, we sort of think about multiple missions of institutions, workforce and then, separately, transfer. The reality is that those shouldn’t be separated in the way that they are. It’s imperative that we not think of these as distinct objectives, but that every student pursuing a program needs some occupational training that addresses the needs of local economy, so they can hit the ground running in a job,” said Mabel. “If [students] are not going to successfully transfer, they can still leverage the training they’ve received in order to achieve a better economic outcome.”

The report also encourages institutions to invest in more counseling for students, even before they sign up for programs. If students are more aware of the workforce and earning opportunities available to them once they achieve certain credentials or degrees, they may be more likely to make choices that correspond with greater economic independence within the communities where they live.

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

 

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