What It Takes to Retain a Strong Local WorkforceMary Gwen Wheeler | Executive Director, 55,000 Degrees
The following interview is with Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees. 55,000 Degrees is a group funded by the Lumina Foundation devoted to improving degree attainment in the Louisville, Kentucky area. In this interview, Wheeler discusses the importance of degree attainment to regional economic growth, and shares her thoughts on what municipalities can do to keep degree holders local after graduation.
1. How do regions benefit from having a high percentage of degree holders?
[There are] correlations between higher education levels and everything from higher wages, median income, better health outcomes and more civic engagements. All of those things really matter and, in an economic development scheme of things, higher education translates to better wages and a better talent pool to be able to attract employers.
2. Why must higher education institutions and employers collaborate to increase the number of degree holders in their local regions?
We have partnerships that include the mayor, the civic leaders of community organizations, the higher ed presidents and our superintendents of our K-12 system. They’ve come together because they realize that education needs to be tied with the local economy.
People want to go to college and get an education because they want to enhance their lifestyle and their careers. We’ve been collecting data; we put a public report out on how we are going to reach our goal. We’ve actually set a goal to have half of our population with an associate’s degree or higher by the year 2020. We’re annually looking at how we’re doing and what are some of the indicators. We know that sometimes we have a lot of graduates who get their degrees, but on average only about a third of them are working here five years later. We know that there’s some mismatch going on between the local institutions and the local workforce.
3. What responsibility, if any, do local governments have in facilitating these collaborations?
What’s really worked here is having our mayor serve as a neutral convener. The mayor, when we first started this initiative, stepped up and held a roundtable that brought this group together. He had no dog in the fight except to improve the local economy. He was the only one that daily was hearing from employers who were thinking about coming here who said it’s not about location or tax incentives anymore, it’s really about talent. Employers are saying if we can come together as a group and believe in this, we can create a more seamless system. That’s the piece that people will agree with and certainly higher ed understands this. We as a country have had a very separate system for K-12 public education and then our college and university system. Really, it is one education system to the user and how we make that a more seamless system ends up benefiting everybody.
4. What does it take to keep degree holders in a given municipality?
We’ve really been able to look at this data analysis for four or five years and dig deep and understand that one, it gives us a common language and it creates a space where we can talk about this without finger pointing and really figure out what’s going on. [We haven’t grown in] high-wage jobs. We’ve grown primarily in low-wage jobs. At the same time we’re seeing that we haven’t had a dramatic increase in our education attainment either. If we can bring those two together, that’s one of the goals. We’ve also been able to see that some of our graduates are leaving, yet at the same time employers are saying that they’re not finding the skills they need. This is really going to be one of our key focus areas for the education of our project between now and 2020, which is how do we better make those ties between the education system and align programs, studies, majors, with the demands and needs of the workforce. Local employers need to do more than just say, “I’m not getting people that have the skills.” They need to tell us what skills they need, what competencies, and we’re going to try to create those kind of conversations.
5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of bringing all the stakeholders together when it comes to workforce development and how higher education can really work with local stakeholders, employers and the government to improve the regional economy?
Colleges and universities have the smarts, they have the researchers and the people, and they’ve been the ones that have really been able to give us a lot of the data and to help identify what’s going on. They often are the state data centers or the census trackers. They can really be very helpful in digging deep and at looking at student outcome data and being able to share that. We have a data committee of all the institutional research people of our partner colleges and universities. That data committee is really what helps us identify the right indicators.
The second thing besides universities really playing that key research role is that it’s hard to collaborate but in the end we’re really talking about the students and student outcomes. We all have a vested interest in that and to understand the education pipeline as a system from cradle to career really can improve outcomes for everybody.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Association