How Higher Ed Institutions Can Close the Widening Skills Gap

Like the digital gap in schools, the skills gap in the U.S. workforce has received widespread attention – not just from the media but from academia, consultancies, and government agencies. As things stand now, higher education and postsecondary institutions have struggled to effectively prepare job seekers for the workplace, which, combined with unrealistic employer expectations regarding the skillsets of their new hires, has left millions of unfilled job openings.

Without intervention, this skills gap will only widen over time. According to research from Deloitte and Pew Research, millions of jobs are expected to remain unfilled over the next several years. The silver tsunami of retiring Baby Boomers (an estimated 10,000 Boomers will turn 65 every day in the U.S. until 2030, and the percentage of workers between the ages of 65 and 74 is expected to cross 30% over the next two years), in addition to the influx of students entering the workforce without needed skills, are the main drivers of this phenomenon.

In short, there is a mismatch between what the workforce demands and the skills that individuals entering the workforce are bringing to the table.

What can be done, and what role does technology play in addressing this issue?

Here we talk about the challenges businesses face when it comes to training and finding individuals for the workforce, as well as some of the ways in which higher education institutions can use technology to address the widening skills gap.

Understanding the Problem

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, roughly two-thirds of the 165 million jobs in the United States this year will require a higher education qualification. Unfortunately, rising education costs, ballooning student debt, and incongruity between employer needs and employee skillsets paint a stark picture for the future employment prospects of tens of millions of Americans.

Here are a few additional statistics from the past year:

  • The number of jobs requiring a college degree declined more than those that did not require a college degree.
  • A lower number of entry-level jobs now require a degree than in previous years.
  • About 33% of U.S. workers work remotely at all times and 25% work remotely sometimes.
  • Companies have had to invest heavily in cloud adoption, digital transformation, and cybersecurity, but they are unable to find the people needed to drive these initiatives.
  • Many corporate tech initiatives are expected to be delayed two years or more because of a lack of skilled workers.
  • The explosion of e-commerce triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay, and it will continue to drive demand for high-tech skill sets such as software development, software engineering, AI, analytics, and digital marketing.

At the same time:

  • Employers want experience, but few are willing to be the first to provide it, in part because…
  • About half of college graduates leave their first entry-level job within the first two years…
  • Which makes the prospect of hiring new workers risky and expensive, with bad hires costing some companies as much as six figures, even though…
  • Vacant tech positions cost businesses an estimated $30,000 – not counting the costs of attrition, overwork, and lost productivity due to understaffing, and…
  • There are countless fresh graduates currently competing with experienced workers who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

According to one survey, 90% of companies would consider someone without a 4-year college degree for a job, considering certifications or specializations as a sufficient substitute. Many organizations may hire people who attended skills bootcamps or have other industrial or professional certifications, as well as using AI, upskilling current workers, and even hiring people who have a free online degree. The majority of employers feel that fresh college graduates are not prepared for the workplace, even though, as per a recent employer research report, employers do believe that college degrees are a worthy investment.

The combined economic impact of these realities is significant: the skills gap is expected to cost the U.S. economy an estimated $1.2 trillion over the next 10 years.

What Are the Available Solutions?

There are many ways to approach the problem of the growing skills gap. Here, we look at a few of the available solutions – and ways that higher education institutions in particular can help.

Business Collaborations with Academia

Colleges that offer traditional 4-year programs, as well as community colleges and institutions that offer diplomas or certificates, must thoroughly understand labor demands and trends and then tailor their program offerings toward workplace needs. Corporate training and employment partnerships can also be availed to do this. Consider the following:

  • Google launched a partnership with Howard University in 2017 that gave students access to industry-relevant training at Google, as well as access to courses taught by Howard faculty and Google engineers.
  • The City College of New York partnered with Facebook to develop a cybersecurity graduate program based on Facebook’s experience in this highly sought-after specialty.
  • Northern Virginia Community College partnered with Amazon to create a degree program that focuses on cloud computing.
  • A Google-developed IT Support Certificate is currently available from 25 community colleges.
  • Several D.C.-area universities, including Georgetown University and the University of Richmond, established corporate partnerships with the likes of Capital One, JPMorgan Chase, and Under Armour to develop better tech talent.

The goals of these partnerships are clear: they give students the training they need to join the workforce upon graduation, and they give employers a rich talent pool with which to grow. However, these partnerships can also help identify skill gaps, which we discuss next.

Identifying Gaps in Skills

One goal that can come out of higher education’s partnerships with employers and local corporations is to get a better sense of what they need versus what kinds of content and learning material is currently being offered at colleges, universities, and other training institutes. Only after relevant skills are identified can these courses be made available to current or future batches of students. If institutions fail to adapt to changing dynamics that are driven by technological advancements – or if they fail to leverage technology to stay relevant – their programs will not attract new students, and their graduates will be underprepared for new jobs.

Give Associate Programs a Comeback

Studies such as this Harvard Business Review report have shown that American employers struggle to fill jobs in skilled trades, IT, and accounting and finance – roles that typically require more education and training than a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree. It is a unfortunate truth that community college and associate degree programs have been marginalized for so long, despite the fact that many two-year programs give students the training they need to be successful more quickly and at lower cost than their 4-year counterparts.

Leverage Technology

Consider the following ways that higher education institutions can utilize technology to help close the widening skills gap:

  • Create learning objectives: You can use technology to deliver a high-quality education to all learners and focus on the whole student, not just on siloed learning objectives. Technology can also prepare students for life in the workplace, provide them with the digital literacy they will need to succeed, and enable them to take ownership of their career paths.
  • Develop curricula and teaching strategies: Technology can provide professional development to educators, provide staff and students with resources and learning material, and customize instruction, lesson plans, and more.
  • Deliver instruction: Educators may take advantage of tech tools to make classes more engaging and informative. For example, they may use quiz apps on student devices to pose pop quiz or survey questions to students throughout the class period. These devices can also be used to flip between blended learning, self-directed learning, and teacher-led learning to meet the students’ individual needs.
  • Improve assessments: Technology can be used to improve data gathering on performance and deliver assessments to understand trends and identify problem areas.
  • Provide appropriate interventions: Based on assessments, educators can develop data-driven interventions to address student-specific problems in real time.
  • Track outcomes and learning: You can use technology to develop personalized learning plans (PLPs) and recalculate student trajectories and goals based on historical data. You can also standardize data collection and management across customizable verticals to improve student outcomes.

The efficacy of these and similar tech-driven solutions for improving the quality and relevancy of instruction hinges on building the right groundwork. We talk about the factors that can help you do just that in the next section.

Getting it Right

According to the World Economic Forum, four key qualifiers must be present if we are to effectively address the issue of the skills gap:

  • Equal access to learning and training, irrespective of education, background, income, race, or social status.
  • Reliable internet access, a lack of which currently holds back millions of children in the United States who unfairly suffer because they do not have access to the tools, resources, and knowledge needed to succeed in the workplace. Kajeet works to bridge the digital divide through a range of WiFi solutions tailor-made for education.
  • Collaboration between the private and public sectors to make training accessible and relevant.
  • Committed leadership that can drive the initiatives that can bring about the changes that universities, students, and workplaces want to see.

Closing the skills gap will require improvements in all four areas. Then, we can begin to move the needle and see change for the individuals and industries that desperately need it.

Final Thoughts

There are many ways that technology can help close the skills gap, from providing high-quality instruction, allowing for personalized learning, and improving productivity and workplace readiness.

It all starts, however, with access and connectivity. Without connectivity and access to performant and cost-effective tech solutions customized to unique user needs – whether the user is a college-bound senior, a student at a traditional 4-year college, someone studying at a vocational institute or community college, or someone pursuing an associate degree – the vast potential of technology in closing the skills gap will go unharnessed.

To learn about developing or deploying a solution that can work for you, contact a Kajeet Solutions Engineer.

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