U.S. states are on the frontline of the battle to improve the bonds between education and business and they are the ones most properly placed to do it, Joe Fuller, a senior professor at Harvard Business School, told attendees at the National Governors Association’s education and business summit in Stamford, Conn., on Tuesday.
States have diverse economies, Fuller said, and they are the ones who control the things like the junior college system, they have disproportionate impact on the teacher qualification system, they are close enough to employers locally to have job hunting and arm-twisting power but are also able to be receptive and sensitive to businesses needs.
Tuesday’s meeting was the first in several gatherings planned around the county that will focus on an initiative spearheaded NGA Chair Gov. Mary Fallin, R-Okla., called “America Works: Education and Training for Tomorrow’s Workforce.”
The goal of the program is to improve states’ education and work training programs and make them better able to meet the needs of individual state economies. Tuesday’s summit was hosted by Gov. Dan Malloy, D-Conn., and included participants from 11 states.
“Developing a highly educated workforce and closing the skills gaps in our states is essential to ensuring our children’s futures and strengthening our economies,” Fallin told the audience. “By bringing these state teams together to share best practices, we are creating a national dialogue about how we can best prepare America’s students to get good jobs and stay competitive in a global economy.”
The bi-partisan initiative is also aimed at helping states overcome the widening gaps between education and training systems and a job market that graduates are preparing to enter.
“There is nothing more critical to securing the economic future of all Americans than preparing our workforce for tomorrow’s jobs,” Malloy told participants. “To do this, Connecticut has made unprecedented investments in education - from pre-K through college. We have aggressively pursued 21st Century jobs, and the investments we are making in education will ensure that we have the workforce to fill those positions in the coming years.”
Problems and Solutions
Recent data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development shows some sobering facts -- the U.S. is behind other countries in almost all areas of competency, Harvard’s Fuller said in his keynote speech on The Role of Business: Addressing The Misalignment Between Education and The Economy.
“This is a problem that has been known for a while, but there are also reasons for hope,” Fuller said. “We know that the trajectory of the economy suggests we are going to create lots of jobs in the future that don’t require a PhD in nuclear physics.”
“But before we also get fixated on ‘Gee, if we just getting that higher degree we’re going to be all set.’ - remember that 42% of all Bachelor degree holders describe themselves today as underemployed. So we just don’t have a problem with credentials - we have a problem with the skills underlying those credentials. And particularly those skills as they relate to employability.”
But not all jobs are created equal and not all need the same level of educational attainment.
“We are talking middle skills jobs," Fuller said. “So just what are middle skills? The classic definition is ‘something requiring less than a BA degree.’ But that’s like about 60% of the jobs in the United States. That’s a big, big category.”
The traditional definition ignores foundations skills vs. credentials; routine jobs vs. critical positions; how durable are the jobs – will they last or be offshored later; and differentiating jobs by industry such as service vs. healthcare vs. manufacturing.
The traditional definition also fosters a short-term solution to what is a long-term problem. So Fuller has proposed a new definition of middle skills: “Those jobs that can help U.S. companies succeed globally as well as help the average American earn rising wages and enjoy an improved standard of living.”
But there is a real reluctance among most people to aim for a job that seems less than stellar, either in terms of fame or fortune.