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Closing the Skills Gap with Jobs-Focused Education

As the need to close the skill gaps increases, institutions can look to deliver job-focused education to not only meet the needs of employers but also the modern learner. 

Students today are looking for career mobility when it comes to the next step in their lives. This means institutions need to deliver jobs-focused education to meet this need. But this programming needs to be implemented strategically to maximize its potential. In this interview, Scott Ralls discusses the importance of jobs-focused education, the challenges that come with creating this type of programming, and its impact on the institution and economy. 

The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why is it important for higher ed to focus on developing and scaling jobs-focused education?

Scott Ralls (SR): Many students look to higher ed for career mobility, and that’s where jobs-focused education becomes very important. Institutions like mine, Wake Tech, have always had jobs-focused education because we were created to foster upward economic mobility and equal access to higher education. Today you’re seeing interest in jobs-focused education expanding beyond technical colleges and career community colleges to other parts of higher ed.

That doesn’t mean that higher education should just be job training. But it’s clear that students aspire for their years beyond high school to lead to economic opportunity and for institutions like mine that means it’s vital we be tightly integrated with employers.

Evo: What are some of the challenges to creating a program focused on upskilling and reskilling?

SR: Well, there are different types of institutions. Some institutions admit fewer than 10% of applicants, and part of what employers may see in that, even if the education is not as career focused, is that it provides them with a screening method. The fact that you got into an elite institution is enough to some employers. But for institutions like ours, open enrollment community colleges, our brand doesn’t carry beyond our own region. And for that purpose, it’s important that employers recognize what our students learn while they’re in school, and we have to provide clarity of those opportunities to both employers and students.

Acceptance letters aren’t what necessarily lead to their opportunities—it’s what they are able to learn and do while they’re with us and how tightly that’s matched with what employers are looking for. That’s what leads to opportunity. That’s why for institutions like mine, employer engagement is a full contact sport, if you will. It’s an everyday engagement. It means being nimble, flexible. It means adjusting constantly to meet ever-changing demands.

So, it’s a different type of responsiveness, but it is student-focused. Community colleges that are going to serve more low-income students need to prioritize jobs-focused education because their students strive for career mobility not just for themselves, but to lift their families.

Evo: What are some of the best practices to effectively create the type of programming that meets both learner and employer demand?

SR: If you’re an effective institution, you have big ears. You’re listening and constantly testing what you have to see if it is meeting the needs of the organizations you hope will hire and support your graduates. It means being willing to be flexible, willing to change what you do and to engage externally. It means having instructors who have enough confidence in themselves to question what they do with employers to bring that sense of nimbleness and focus on economic opportunity. One of the things we try to do at Wake Tech is create ladders.

It’s not about being in this or that program, but it’s how one step connects to the next and the next. For many, job training is important for many people because they need quick upskilling to gain a job.  But without a connection to the next learning or degree opportunity,  job training alone is too often like a ladder with only the bottom rungs. It provides all the needed entry skills, but also the possibility for a stunted career path without the next educational connection.

For many people, particularly working adults and non-traditional students, many college degree opportunities are like a ladder with only the top rungs. They’d be great, but they’re unreachable. So, when you can bring the two together, make connections and provide students with that stepping stone, then more becomes possible for them. It leads to not just a job opening but to career mobility. And that’s what we aspire to. We want our students to climb an opportunity ladder, from first job to fulfilling career.

Evo: What impact does jobs-focused education have on the institution and the broader economy?

SR: Well, take the economy. Jobs-focused education provides the opportunity for economic mobility, for upward economic opportunity to people who have not previously had those opportunities. Education has always been referred to as a great equalizer, but we know that educational opportunity is not equal. Many do not have the opportunity to pursue a more traditional path. A jobs-focused education is not only their path to higher education, but it is their opportunity to furthering their own economic and that of their family. That is the way in which people are able to further their skills, but most importantly, their economic opportunity. And that leads to broader economic prosperity for all.

It lifts our society, and allows for more broadly shared economic prosperity. Our county is one of the most prosperous in the country. We’re one of the fastest growing tech job communities in the nation, but we still struggle and people in our community still struggle if they grow up poor here. So, that’s where our notion of laddering, our notion of connected jobs-focused education without limits, is so important because we want to serve not just those who move to our region but those who grow up here. And we particularly want educational and economic opportunity for those who may have grown up without it.

Evo: Is there anything that you’d like to add about the importance of jobs-focused education and the awareness that needs to be around it?

SR: For some institutions, jobs-focused education is a new discovery. There are today big-name institutions whose names you recognize all over the country that are just jumping into jobs-focused education. But jobs-focused education is not new. It’s been core to what community colleges are about. 60 years ago, we were created around jobs-focused education, not just to provide workforce development but to further our purpose as engines of economic mobility.

That’s what makes colleges like ours, open-door institutions, so vital. It’s not because jobs-focused education is the way in which we provide economic opportunity. It’s the way in which equity through hiring opportunities and career advancement becomes possible. While there’s a lot more attention on jobs-focused education within overall higher ed, many institutions like ours were created just for this purpose. And I think we are still probably the ones who are able to bring it together, not just because we have been doing it for a long time, but because we have always had widely shared economic opportunity at the core of our purpose.


This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

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