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Higher Education and Employers: Thrive Together or Perish Apart

Higher Education and Employers: Thrive Together or Perish Apart

by Brandon Busteed

No matter who you ask -- whether it's a representative sample of Americans, incoming college freshmen, or parents of fifth- through 12th-graders -- they say the most important reason for a degree beyond high school is to get a good job. But, few believe that those who have a post-high school credential are well-prepared for success in the workforce. And, although many workers who don't yet have a college degree or certificate want to go back to get one, they see a number of barriers to doing so. The solution to these problems lies in new forms of collaboration between higher education and employers.

With a coming world-wide jobs war, it is imperative that higher education and employers get this collaboration right. If they don't, we run the risk of destroying one of the things America is best known for -- our higher education system. If higher education and employers partner together, they will thrive. If they continue down their disconnected paths, a large number of colleges, universities, and businesses will perish.

Americans have given higher education a clear mandate: a degree had better translate to a good job, otherwise it's very difficult to justify. Nearly every single American -- 97% to be exact -- says that education beyond high school is important. So, although America's appetite for higher education is still incredibly strong, there are painful data suggesting the demand may come to a crashing halt if we can't make a better connection between higher education degrees and jobs.

Half of recent graduates -- not even including the large percentage who drop out of college -- are in jobs that don't require a degree, meaning we obviously have not built a direct pipeline between degrees conferred and the jobs available in the U.S. This is shameful. And it's the direct result of employers and higher education failing to work together. Not only are they not working together now, they are barely even talking to one another.

Before employers start pointing fingers at higher education for failing to produce graduates with real work experience and 21st century skills, such as thinking critically, communicating effectively, and working collaboratively with diverse people and teams, they should look carefully at their own role in this problem. Gallup recently discovered that only 7% of high school students currently intern or work with a business, although 43% say they plan to start their own business someday. Employers are missing the mark right now just as much as higher education is.

Here are some ideas and examples for how business and higher education leaders can collaborate to make sure that those earning college degrees are prepared for jobs.

CEOs and other executive leaders of organizations must get to know their local college and university leaders. It is the obligation of employers -- especially those looking to fill jobs with talented people -- to make it clear what they are looking for. Make sure you build a relationship with your area educational institutions to connect their pipeline of degrees with your pipeline of job openings and ongoing training needs. The Manufacturer's Institute -- an association of high-tech manufacturing companies -- for example, developed their own set of "stackable credentials" reflecting what they are looking for in those they hire. They partnered with community colleges, like Northern Virginia Community College, to offer these programs.

Colleges should give credit for outside knowledge and skills. Americans overwhelmingly support receiving college credit for knowledge and skills learned outside the classroom (87%), and they also support being evaluated and receiving credits for what they already know (75%). Northeastern University has one of the hottest degrees in the marketplace right now, thanks to their co-op program in which they actively seek a variety of Boston-area employers to participate by hiring students for six-month stints in jobs. These students earn college credit, and because they can spend more time in these positions than the typical summer internship, they are able to perform real jobs for the employers who hire them. Northeastern has blended real work experience with academic programming, and it's working brilliantly. Many companies participating end up hiring students that were part of their co-op program.

Employers should ramp up internships of all kinds in their organization. These internships can be paid, unpaid, for high school students, college students, etc. The most desperate need of all students and schools is for real work experience in tandem with academics. Students can't get this experience unless employers step up to the plate and dramatically increase the number of such opportunities.

Business leaders should offer "externships" for area teachers and faculty. One of the biggest disconnects in our system is the lack of teachers and faculty who have had real work experience in companies and organizations. If they gain a better understanding of today's workplace and the needs of area employers, they will most certainly be better at adapting their curriculum to meet these new expectations. But they need the experience themselves, too.

In addition to building a much stronger relationship between employers and their local education partners, there are direct actions employers can take to dramatically improve the likelihood that Americans will pursue more and better educational opportunities.

Offer tuition assistance for employees pursuing degrees. Fifty-nine percent of Americans say their company does not provide financial support for enrollment in higher education courses. Employers could tie tuition assistance to retention efforts, by making the financial support contingent on number of years worked.

Help Americans overcome the biggest hurdle they cite to getting a college degree: "family responsibilities." Fifty-one percent of Americans say they are not allowed any flextime to pursue additional education, and 54% say they are not offered on-site training that leads to a workforce certificate or certification. A unique benefit would be to offer flex hours to employees who take classes during work days and also subsidize or offer childcare support for parents without childcare coverage during evening and weekend times, when many continuing education degree classes are offered.

It is incumbent upon employers and education leaders to collaborate to make sure higher education degrees are a strong preparation for a good job. The world is changing far too fast for us to tolerate a disconnect between our educational system and the jobs our economy needs to thrive.

For more details on these findings and survey methods, read America's Call for Higher Education Redesign.

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