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Higher Education’s Role in Solving the Workforce Gap

March 25, 2022 by Anne Peasley

In The Demographic Drought, we painted a stark picture of the declining population. And indeed, the enrollment squeeze has already hit higher education. With fewer traditional-age students, educators need to figure out how to serve and recruit new populations. Workforce shortages, and the lack of youth pipeline, means existing workers will need to reskill to fill certain roles — which shifts the idea of education from a one-time experience to a lifetime of learning.

The shortage of people doesn’t only apply to higher education. Employers are also grappling with a low labor force participation rate and shrinking prime-age workforce. In our follow up report, Bridging the Gap in Our Labor Force, we further explore the causes of the people shortage, and suggest ways to re-engage people who are on the sidelines. 

While the numbers look dire, they reveal tremendous opportunity. Without the expected pipeline of students, and with the help of labor market data, educators can reexamine pieces of higher education from a new angle. Prospective learners still desire to gain an education, whether traditional-age or those looking to re-skill. Our economy still needs skilled workers, so there is still a need for an educated workforce. The problem lies in figuring out how to bridge that gap in new ways. 

This is not a problem that can be solved by any one piece of the pipeline (educator, employer, job seeker, even community or economic developers). Groups like Strada advocate the importance of collaborations between higher education and other sectors. Each sector of the economy, including educators, need to do what they can to sustain and recruit the people that we need to keep our society running. 

Working together, we have a better chance of bridging this gap than working alone. With that in mind, here are some considerations for higher education.

Equip learners to market their skills

In the labor market, employers seek and recruit talent to fill their job postings. In a labor market where there are more open positions than there are workers, talent (ie, your graduates) has an advantage. On a large scale, rather than a glut of workers competing for scarce jobs, job seekers are now in a position to select the job they want. The power balance is shifting from employers picking learners, to learners advocating their skill set and abilities. Yet, many working age adults remain unengaged. This presents an opportunity for educators to flip the script on the traditional career services model. 

If employers can no longer be picky “buyers,” that opens the playing field for learners to have the upper hand in describing the work that they want to do, rather than taking the first job that comes along. For students to play that game well, they must be equipped to do so. They’ll need a good understanding of the skills they’ve gained during their education, and which of those skills are most valuable to employers. They’ll need real-world experience (ie, internships or work-based learning), not only because employers value it — but because they’ll get insight into the culture of the workforce and how jobs are won or lost. 

It’s worth noting, however, that the tight labor market hasn’t necessarily created equal opportunity for everyone. If you have the right skills, yes, it’s a great time to be in the job market. But there are still people in some industries who are struggling to find work or get a raise. So learners (and their educators) still need to pay close attention to in-demand skills in the market to make sure that learners can ride this wave rather than getting left floating at sea.

What does this mean from the educator perspective? It could mean taking the time to skillify curriculum to translate skills from the language of higher education to the language of the labor market. It could mean using real-time job postings data or real-life alumni career data to show students the career possibilities associated with their majors — and even better if this happens early in their educational journey, rather than at the point of graduation. It could mean creating more opportunities for students to create work-products or portfolios that showcase their skills in ways that employers value.

For example, use labor market data to pull the top skills for various occupations. Then, help students craft their academic pathways — and their resumes — to reflect these skills. In a world where AI often gets the first pass at reading job applications, this can give applicants a serious leg up.

Look for opportunities to serve new pools of students, especially working learners

If a reliable pipeline of high school grads is no longer tenable due to population decline, you’ll need to turn to other populations of workers — notably, adult learners with jobs. Some may be stop-outs looking to complete their first degree, others may be looking to level-up in their career with a master’s degree or additional skill set, while still others may be looking for an initial certification to make the leap from minimum-wage position to an entry-level position with room for growth. The question is, how do we identify and reach out to these learners?

One way to start may be identifying where these learners work or live. What jobs are they working in, and what skills do they already have? You’re looking to build a bridge to move working individuals from where they are to where they want to be. They’re looking for the most efficient pathway, so it’ll be helpful to have insights into their starting point. For institutions that have traditionally served learners right out of high school, this will be a different way of considering the starting point.

Another method of finding new pools of learners is identifying areas where there may be a booming industry or occupation, without a higher education program to serve learners in that area. By targeting your marketing at that spot, or configuring an online program that would fit the employers and skills needed in the area, you can attract learners who may not have otherwise considered your institution. For example, the University of Florida used this method to run a highly targeted marketing campaign for their urban and regional planning programs.

This could also be an opportunity to revitalize your employer partnerships (or perhaps forge new ones), such as discussing ways to offer tuition assistance, work-and-learn programs, or internships. As businesses look to attract skilled labor, they could benefit from providing training opportunities to their existing employees. But they’re not always equipped to do so. Education-business partnerships can be a mutually-beneficial option for both parties when it comes to enrollment and hiring.

Offer the right mix of credentials for your region

One of the things The Demographic Drought: Bridging the Gap in Our Labor Force points out is a mismatch has developed between workers with degrees and job types that require them. The onus to fix this doesn’t fall solely on higher education, but it’s essential to make sure that you’re offering a mix of credentials that suit the labor market needs of your region. 

Higher education can focus on skills and learning content, packaged in different ways (ie, stackable certificates, microcredentials), rather than relying on degrees. By offering other types of credentials that are focused on getting the job done, education providers can expand their pool of potential recruits. People are looking for efficient pathways to good jobs, and employers will be looking for people (and probably recruiting them more aggressively and earlier than what you’re used to seeing). So, it would be prudent to ensure you’re offering right-sized education offerings that align with the needs of both learners and employers.

When considering alternative credentials, it’s worth taking a closer look at the supply and demand of degree types in your region. For example, top in-demand skills in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area, such as auditing, accounting, and warehousing, vary from that of the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area, which favor bilingual abilities in Spanish and English, nursing, and (again) accounting.

In addition to looking at the needs of your region, it may be worth considering different ways to package and award degrees for your existing academic offerings. With the rise of the subscription model, for example, education providers such as Coursera or even Masterclass have shown that learners are willing to approach education and upskilling in different ways — that provide flexibility to the learner. 

Education from a different angle

More than ever before, it’s essential for higher education and employers alike to recruit, value, and retain students and employees. And we now have tools — based on labor market data — that can help educators consider their traditional offerings in a flexible and granular way.

  • Majors are made up of courses; so are general education pathways: how could these be broken down into smaller milestones, or reconfigured? Many skills taught in general education are highly sought by employers. How could you repackage that to communicate to learners and employers that those skills are achieved?
  • The “global citizen” of tomorrow’s world will need different sets of technical skills than citizens who were served by higher education in the past. Yet, there are timeless human (or soft) skills that never change. How can you help learners describe time-honored skills in the language of the marketplace?
  • Consider the importance of lifelong learning. With fewer young people in the pipeline, we’ll need to get better at reskilling the existing workforce to fill emerging roles. This will be good for individuals (allowing them to shift from less in-demand jobs to more modern, in-demand, maybe even higher paying jobs) and good for businesses who need to fill those roles. Education has a critical role to play in filling that gap.

This challenge represents an enormous opportunity for education providers. Those who are willing to adapt (guided by data) can play a vital role in ensuring every individual gets the education they need to fill critical roles in the economy. In our current circumstances, where the shortage of people is a very real issue, this approach opens up opportunities for institutions to enroll students and employers to hire skilled graduates.

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