These days, it’s about the skills, not the degree

We don’t agree on much these days, but we seem to be able to rally around the idea of education that builds skills and abilities

Published July 16, 2017, in The Virginian-Pilot

One of the most unfortunate and damaging cultural narratives in the U.S. has been the idea that everyone needs a bachelor’s degree, whatever the cost.

The result is $1.4 trillion in student debt for education that, for too many graduates, does not lead to a well-paying job. Now, however, we are witnessing a shift in the educational landscape.

You can find evidence in such disparate sources as a recent New York Times article, “A New Kind of Tech Job Emphasizes Skills, Not a College Degree” (June 28); in Virginia, where Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the General Assembly support workforce initiatives through programs such as the Workforce Credential Grant and Incumbent Worker Training; and in President Trump’s June 15 executive order stating his administration’s policy “to provide more affordable pathways to secure, high-paying jobs.”

We don’t agree on much these days, but we seem to be able to rally around the idea of education that builds skills and abilities, along with knowledge.

The Business Roundtable recently surveyed nearly 200 of its members. Only 5 percent reported that they had no trouble finding the talent they needed. Skills gaps exist across industries and skill categories, specifically in STEM and in general workplace skills, such as critical thinking.

Most of the employers said they struggle to hire qualified candidates with diverse racial, ethnic and gender qualities, and they spend a combined $1.5 billion per year in learning and development training to mitigate talent gaps.

There are currently 6 million job openings in the United States and 6.9 million unemployed, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The problem is a mismatch in the market between available jobs and applicants’ skills.

We appear to be at an inflection point when it comes to the acquisition of technical, vocational and “soft” skills that are needed by today’s employers. Businesses need workers. Workers need jobs. The government seems ready to foster the partnerships required to shrink the skills gap.

As I complete my first five years as president of Tidewater Community College, I look back with some pride on what we have already done to create the kinds of affordable pathways that lead to good jobs for today’s economy. By “good jobs,” I mean those that have the potential to sustain a family, improve quality of life and are a step toward shrinking the income gap between those earning top dollar and those struggling at the lower end.

In 2015, TCC established its Apprenticeship Institute, headed by Todd Estes, who formerly worked at the Newport News Shipbuilding Apprentice School. No longer the sole domain of blue-collar trades, apprenticeship-related instruction at TCC runs the gamut from maritime technologies to cybersecurity to business management and early childhood education.

This fall, in partnership with the shipyards, we will launch a regional pre-apprenticeship program in all four K-12 school divisions in TCC’s service region.

Registered apprenticeships are not the only solution. Our students are attaining industry credentials, certificates and associate degrees that prepare them for jobs in critical fields, from renewable energy to respiratory therapy.

Case in point: welding. Our manufacturers and shipyards tell us that they cannot find enough welders ready to replace retiring Baby Boomers. In response, TCC established a five-week, advanced welding training program that leads to an industry-recognized American Welding Society certification, which meets the need for the type of advanced welding required by Department of Defense contractors.

Other TCC students are gaining the skills and abilities to enter professions in engineering, health, information technology, maritime and logistics, automotive technology, high-speed precision manufacturing, and culinary and hospitality management – all major pillars of our regional economy.

For all of this positive momentum on skills education and apprenticeships, I would like to inject a note of caution about student focus and accountability.

Simplifying the process of setting up apprenticeship pathways is a good goal, but not at the expense of quality and proof-of-performance metrics. All colleges, whether public, private or for-profit, should be required to demonstrate that their students are graduating with in-demand skills employers need and without onerous debt.

Furthermore, expanding apprenticeships should not result in weaker state and federal requirements for registered apprenticeships. The quality of skills and knowledge of registered apprenticeships have served European economies for centuries. The current U.S. Department of Labor approval process and implementation guarantee the quality of the applicant and employee. To do any less will not serve America well.

TCC and all of Virginia’s Community Colleges have already demonstrated they can do the job responsibly and cost-effectively. Three out of five TCC students graduate without a single penny of debt, and more than 75 percent find immediate employment in the field they studied.

I am excited about this renewed emphasis on apprenticeships, and I am eager to work with our local employers to make it happen here.

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