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Many Future Jobs Will Not Require a Bachelor’s Degree—Where Does that Leave Higher Education?

The EvoLLLution | Many Future Jobs Will Not Require a Bachelor’s Degree—Where Does that Leave Higher Education?
The four-year degree is no longer a necessity for individuals entering today’s workforce. Institutions need to do more to ensure their offerings are in demand both by students and employers.

The headline on the front page of the business section in the Boston Globe on Monday, November 9, 2015 said, “State facing lack of labor, Job-training system falling short, study says.”

This must have instantly caught the attention of the local higher education community. How could there be a labor shortage in Boston, a metropolitan area known for its concentration of colleges and universities with a strong tradition of supplying a trained workforce for area industries? In 2009, Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that the Boston area was home to over 80 private colleges and universities employing 68,600 people and attracting over 360,000 students from all over the world. These institutions generate a substantial number of jobs, attract and graduate a well-educated workforce that feeds the local high technology, medicine, biotechnology and financial services industries. The education sector is a major contributor to the area’s prominence as a center for higher education and research and supports local economic growth.

The Boston Globe article, however, reported a looming dark side to this picture. A new study just released by Northeastern University, one of Boston’s prominent institutions, projects most job openings in Massachusetts over the next seven years will not require a four-year college degree, and that the vocational education system in the state will be unable to train enough people to fill the expected job vacancies. Three out of five job openings will require employees with less than a bachelor’s degree, and many will need vocational training, postsecondary certificates and associate degrees. Many local community colleges and vocational schools are finding it impossible to keep up with the demand for a skilled workforce, with long waiting lists for those wanting to enroll in the required classes and coursework. The study warns that critical labor shortages in healthcare, manufacturing, and other key industries could result as the economy expands and more baby boomers retire, creating some 1.2 million job openings by 2022. Massachusetts’ colleges and universities, it warned, would have to support both its traditional mission and recognize and back the vital role that vocational education and community colleges play in training the majority of the state’s workforce.

Massachusetts is not unique in its workforce needs. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics, about 15.6 million new jobs nationwide are expected to be added between 2012 and 2022. The strongest job growth is projected in the healthcare, healthcare support, construction, and personal care fields. More than half of new jobs will be in occupations that require a high school diploma or less. Some good news for higher education is that occupations that typically require postsecondary education are projected to grow at a faster rate than occupations that require no more than a high school diploma. But skills training is needed in certain key areas that don’t necessarily require a bachelor’s degree.

Should institutions be in a panic over their relevancy in regards to industry needs and their inability to provide the necessary workforce?

Yes and no. More importantly, there is a significant message being delivered here. There appears to be a disconnect between higher education and industry when it comes to quickly identifying the needs of the regional economy, determining how best to educate and train a skilled workforce, and how this fits into the mission of our individual colleges and universities. A mismatch of employee supply and demand has evolved and there may be a suspicion that higher education may not be “getting the message.”

This can be corrected. Some states have already begun to address the issue. In 2013, a task force in Louisiana estimated that that state would require 86,300 new skilled craft workers by 2016 to build the $60 billion worth of new industrial plants and planned statewide expansion. Where would the trained workforce come from? In October 2015, the New Orleans Advocate reported 4,644 National Center for Construction Education and Research training-level completions (industry certifications) during the 2014-15 school year, up a record 145 percent in certifications for electricians, carpenters, welders, pipefitters and skilled crafts people than in the 2013 school year. To help, the state’s community colleges stepped up and implemented non-credit, compressed training courses. Sixteen-week programs took place five days a week, eight hours a day, and also met on nights and weekends to help deliver the necessary workers. Another example of institutional response was reported when the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University in its 2010 report, Help Wanted: Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, showed that industries in New York State will create 756,000 job openings by 2018 that will require either an associate degree or some college. Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY studied the issue and created an Economic Development and Innovative Workforce Services division focused on credit-bearing and technical education, and non-credit continuing workforce education and public-private partnerships. MCC prepares students for sustainable careers with area businesses that help strengthen the local economy. My own institution, Excelsior College, has also turned its focus on workforce development. The Center for Professional Development offers non-credit certificate programs in business, cybersecurity, education, healthcare, multimedia, technology, specialized short courses, and self-paced tutorials.

More needs to be done. There’s a lesson for each of our institutions, no matter how traditionally focused, recognize our responsibility to not only educate our students but also to offer them the skills that provide flexibility in their career path. Not all students will seek or require a four-year degree to succeed. Some may want certifications and licenses beyond academic credit or instead of a degree. We need to expand what we offer and be flexible in defining our mission to educate for the future. We should talk to economists, our state governments, and regional industries to look into the future. And while states should continue to support our higher education institutions, we all need to acknowledge the importance of vocational and technical training for a skilled workforce.

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