Middle-skills gap threatens U.S. competitiveness in the global economy

April 30, 2015

phot of panel on learning gapTo compete in a global economy, the U.S. needs to fill crucial middle-skills jobs in manufacturing, infrastructure, computers, health care and other industries that require post-secondary technical education and training. The problem is that there aren’t enough people who are trained for them.

At the Milken Institute Global Conference, leaders in education and business discussed ways to close America’s skills gap. They also pointed to the necessity of addressing the large numbers of minorities and students in disadvantaged communities who are being left behind, a problem which, if left unresolved, could lead to an economic crisis worse than 2008.

“The public education system is what needs to change,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, superintendent-president of Long Beach City College, whose partnership with the school district and California State University, Long Beach earned a $5 million state grant last month for innovation in higher education. “It is the gateway for the majority of people of color.”

Chris Romer, president and co-founder of Quad Learning, Inc., creator of the American Honors college prep program, added that the path to a post-secondary employment certificate is harder for students with less “college knowledge.” To compound the challenge, businesses tend to recruit more from four-year universities than community colleges.

Raul Valentin, vice president of talent acquisition at Comcast, explained that it’s been difficult finding qualified candidates at community colleges, but he’s beginning to work with these institutions more. Teaching core training skills and “life” skills are equally important. Many students in disadvantaged communities haven’t been exposed to a culture of putting on a tie and working in an office environment. Others don’t have Internet access at home to beef up their competencies and embed digital skills into their daily lives.

In an education system that follows the status quo, how can we convince policymakers to change it?

Romer recommended a commitment to smarter funding. “Policymakers and employers want to play this on the cheap,” he noted. And a skilled workforce “doesn’t come cheap.” Wise choices could include training low-income students on the “middle-class playbook” and tying funding to outputs.

All panelists agreed that employers need a bigger seat at the table. Felix Ortiz III, CEO of Viridis Learning, said he is surprised by conversations on workforce training that don’t include employers. “Employers need to mobilize” to make a strong case to policymakers, he said. Employers, universities and students need to work together and “have skin in the game” to keep America competitive.

Journalist Giselle Fernandez, who moderated the panel, asked whether there would be more collaboration if the debate about undocumented students and workers in the U.S. focused more on their potential long-term contributions to the economy.

“Demographics are your future,” Romer told the audience. “Immigration is not a problem; it’s a gift. We’re looking at a gift right in front of us.”