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Aligning Higher Education with the Globally Competitive Workforce

AUDIO | Aligning Higher Education with the Globally Competitive Workforce
Employers are beginning to look internationally for talent, so higher education institutions must ensure they are producing graduates with workforce-relevant skills.

The following interview is with Gavin Newsom, lieutenant governor for the state of California. Newsom recently shared his perspective on the role of higher education institutions in the workforce. In this interview, he discusses the future of colleges and universities, the challenge institutions face in trying to rise to the demands of the workforce and the roles of governments, businesses and higher education institutions in closing the skills gap and better preparing graduates for the present and future labor markets.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are the most significant problems with higher education today as it relates to preparing students — especially non-traditional and adult students — for the workforce?

Gavin Newsom (GN): I think it’s pretty self-evident the dominant challenge is [that] the model itself is not sustainable; it’s simply become too expensive. And I think that’s fundamentally a great challenge that we face, particularly in public universities.

The states are not funding higher education as they once did. We’re not seeing the support in the business community that we once did. And, as a consequence of that disconnect, we’re starting to see some erosion in terms of the quality of education. Most importantly, perhaps, is the issue of access. At a time when higher education is more important than ever, access becomes more important, but as we price people out, that becomes a dominant concern.

The next thing, I would say, that’s a point of concern — particularly as a steward of the University of California (UC) system here in California and the California State University (CSU) Board of Trustees in California — higher education no longer has a monopoly. And, as a consequence, we need to evolve and we need to dramatically change our approach to higher education to make it more relevant to the world we’re living in, particularly to make sure we’re teaching up to or beyond today’s technology and preparing people for the workforce in the world they’re about to enter.

Evo: Ideally, what role do you think higher education institutions should play when it comes to workforce development?

GN: Well, I think that disconnect is pretty self-evident. I sat on stage a few weeks back with Sebastian Thrun, who started one of the MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses], Udacity, and he announced on stage a new partnership to create new certification — in essence, a vocational track — in partnership with Udacity and other MOOCs in an open-sourced environment and businesses, particularly some of the biggest names in technology, from Google on down.

That’s a very alarming announcement. I was there as a member of the traditional educational system, CSU and UC, marking that as a wakeup call. Why would these companies feel the need to do this? Google is partnering with edX, and in partnerships with MIT and Harvard [University] to create their own certificate programs to certify the skills they are looking for [that] they clearly were not conveying from our systems of higher learning.

So, there’s a huge gap that’s now self-evidently growing and that is, I think, glaring and staring us in the face. Let’s wake up for that. We’re going to be educating people with no promises on the other end. It used to be — my mom used to say this, and I imagine yours did too — “Work hard, son, and if you get good grades, there’s going to be a job for you.”

That’s no longer the case; a college degree is no longer a proxy for a career track. It may be a proxy to get a job ahead of someone that doesn’t have your degree, but at the end of the day, it’s not a guarantee of a kind of life that’s been available for others in the past.

We’ve got to reconcile this in a significant way. It’s nice to have a college degree, but what’s the point of it unless it becomes a proxy for something to become more meaningful? That’s an opportunity to be competitive in a world where we have to be even more competitive than ever.

Evo: How do the roles of different institutions differ when it comes to meeting workforce development goals?

GN:There’s a whole new pedagogy that’s now being created around education and, as a consequence, one size, by definition, doesn’t fit all. You have more of the technical skill sets — some would argue, the old vocational frame of skill sets — but there are these middle skills that also need to be addressed.

Community colleges, I think, are the forgotten gift to the economy that need to be, I think, revitalized and enlivened and recommitted to. And you think of California — a very small percentage of our students go to the CSU and UC. A disproportionally large number of our students are going to community colleges and our opportunity to dust off some of the core tenets of that system and to reignite and reconnect it to the private sector, in the context of the skills they are looking for and the technical attributes they need to succeed in a globalized economy, I think, is self-evident and incredibly opportunistic.

Evo: What steps do you think need to be taken — and this could include any action government bodies could take on a state or federal level — for higher education institutions to move toward a more workforce-minded system?

GN:The world is, as Tom Friedman and others have notably talked about, no longer connected; it’s hyper-connected. As a consequence, we are experiencing the white waters of remarkable change with the merger of information technology and globalization, and we have to keep up with it. And, what got us here, to the finest system of higher education anywhere in the world, and the core attributes don’t necessarily portend to keep us at the top tier into the future. So, the past does not equal the future.

So, we are going to step up and step in and reconcile these larger global trends where “average is over.” The global curve is risen. We’re not just competing with cheap labor; now we’re competing with cheap genus in this globalized world.

And, so, people — these companies in particular — are no longer, in the globalized construct, working locally and partnering locally. They’re hovering over their cities. They’re hovering over their states. They, in essence, hover over this country as they become more multinational and more global. And, as a consequence of that, they’re able to access talent; anyone on the globe, not just the regional environments in which they are headquartered.

We’ve got to wake up for that. And we’ve got to, I think, revitalize the partnerships with the business community so we have a better sense of their needs and [can] be more flexible in a world that’s not built to last but, frankly, is designed to change.

We’ve got to be more flexible in our approach, in our adoption of our curricula, and be more specific in terms of orienting our regional economic development strategy [to] where it’s regions rising together, as opposed to the old machine thinking, that top-down mechanism thinking, that aligned with an industrial economy that no longer exists.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the evolving role of higher education institutions in workforce development and your own ideas about how higher education could adapt to meet those new goals and needs?

GN:I don’t say this lightly, but honestly, reflectively and thoughtfully: I fear the system of higher education we’ve built, particularly public institutions and, of course, some of the great private institutions, they’ve been a godsend for this country and it’s perhaps one of the most important things we’ve achieved as a nation in the last half century, arguably, in some cases, over the last century itself. That said, we cannot make the same mistakes large companies like Kodak made.

And that is to set our condition as adequate; that we still maintain leadership, things are still going extraordinarily well, without paying attention to the contours of changes around us.

We’ve got, I think, to be sensitive to those changes in a hyper-connected world. Change happens quickly, and we need to, I think, orient ourselves much more strategically to those changes. And that’s why I’m very encouraged by the debates around MOOCs, very encouraged by the fact that the public education system that has existed is finally waking up to this new reality and beginning to debate a new pedagogy of engagement and learning and starting to redesign a system that is, in some cases, as old a century and a half to a more modern, flexible, bottom-up system that’s focused on networking and focused on devolving and involving more people and really democratizing information and making it more accessible to much larger audiences.

So, for all my concern, I sit here in the moment with some optimism, or at least beginning to believe we are in a moment as a society that we can be optimistic if we continue to be open to the debate that’s raging around us.

This interview has been edited for length.

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