Business Viewpoint: Higher education must prepare students for today's workforce
BY BILL PATH Business Viewspoint
Thursday, March 07, 2013
3/07/13 at 6:13 AM
There is a growing "skills gap" in America that, if left unchecked, threatens the stability of the U.S. workforce, the productivity of industry in this country and the reputation of colleges and universities.
The skills gap refers to the disparity between the skills possessed by average potential workers and the skills required by employers.
Traditionally, it has been the role of higher education to fill this gap by preparing young people to enter the workforce. But in recent years, many college graduates have unexpectedly found themselves in unemployment lines, while college officials have struggled to explain why.
Employers are quick to point out that the problem is not a lack of jobs, but a lack of workers with the advanced skills necessary for the jobs that are available.
Unprecedented advancements in workplace technology are partially to blame, but higher education also bears some of the responsibility for this national dilemma. Colleges have simply not done enough to keep up the rapidly changing needs of industry. Job entry level skills have changed, but traditional college teaching methods and curriculum have not.
If institutions of higher education are to regain the status and trust they once enjoyed, they must seriously re-examine their methods and outcomes. From the sobering trends we see in the nation's labor force, there are many hard lessons that higher education must learn. Here's what should be done:
While most of the collective focus in higher education has been on improving retention and graduation rates, far too little emphasis is placed on the ability of students to find jobs after graduation.
- Begin paying more attention to the job placement rates of graduates.
Lawmakers have called for more "accountability" from colleges across the country, and educators have responded by signing pacts to increase the overall percentage of completers at their institutions. But the problem is this: If traditional college degrees are not leading to actual jobs, and we are simply producing more graduates with these same degrees, then we are just contributing to the growing problem in the workforce of too many people being overeducated and underemployed.
Most colleges proudly promote that their "primary customer is the student." This may sound great in a college recruitment brochure, but if students are not able to find meaningful employment with their diplomas, they are left to wonder about the kind of customer service they actually received.
- Begin working closely and directly with employers.
Colleges would be wise to listen more carefully to the needs of employers and then make changes within their curriculum accordingly. Private sector businesses and industries should be seen as valuable partners and collaborative allies in the educational process, not just as potential donors.
The conventional advice to young people has been to go to college and get a degree in anything - "just having a college degree will open doors for you." Well, the rules have changed for first-time job seekers, and this kind of outdated academic advisement is not only ill-informed, it is irresponsible.
- Begin directing students into fields of applied technology.
Not all college degrees are created equal. Some are much more sought after by employers, and students deserve to know this. Certain fields are saturated, yet colleges continue to produce graduates in these areas by the tens of thousands every year.
Today's students must make smarter decisions about college. School officials should provide them with relevant workforce data about various majors and inform them about the differences between theoretical and applied instruction. Colleges should offer more options with applied, hands-on teaching methods in the fields of advanced and emerging technology.
Original Print Headline: Higher education must prepare students for workforce
Bill Path is president of the Oklahoma State University Institute of Technology.
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