With graduation season in full swing, newly minted graduates will hit a U.S. job market that is finally showing sustained signs of life. That’s good for them.
The news for companies looking to hire highly skilled graduates isn’t nearly as good. That future workforce is ill prepared and lacking essential skills for job success, says a report from Corporate Voices for Working Families, a nonprofit advocacy group.
According to its survey of 400 U.S. employers conducted with The Conference Board and the Society for Human Resource Management, high school graduates were rated deficient on 10 basic and applied skills rated as important by employers. College graduates fared better, but still lacked key written communications and leadership skills.
Judging by international standards, things don’t appear to be getting better anytime soon. Results from the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study of 15-year-olds across the globe, released last December, showed that U.S. students continue to fall behind their peers in other countries. They ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th — below the global average — in math. A Georgetown University report released last year indicated that by 2018 the U.S. will be short as many as 3 million highly skilled workers.
“What we’ve got is a systemic issue,” said Cheryl Williams, executive director of the Learning First Alliance, an organization made up of 17 education associations. “The system we have actually did exactly what it was designed to do, which was to prepare a quarter to a third of students for higher education and the rest for manufacturing jobs.”
While the world has changed, that educational system has stayed the same. Today, Williams said every student must achieve to a high standard on multiple levels. “The world is much more complex now than when this education system was designed 100 years ago,” she said.
While employee education is typically an inward-looking affair focused on providing employee development and boosting workforce performance, there is a role for CLOs to play in closing the external skills gap apparent in today’s students. It starts with collaboration between businesses, educators and the communities they serve.
Williams points to The Kalamazoo Promise, a pledge made by the community of Kalamazoo, Mich., to provide local graduates with tuition to attend Michigan universities, as an example of how the business and education communities can work together to boost student achievement.
“If your business wants to be known as a place that’s great to work and you want to attract kids who have the skill sets you need and want, it certainly doesn’t hurt to be visible in the community and to make the kinds of contributions the schools say they need,” Williams said.
Volunteering time to mentor local students is another way businesses can become involved. Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, a professional services firm, implemented the Deloitte21 initiative to partner Deloitte employees with local community groups to better prepare students, particularly in struggling or underserved communities, for work.
Internships have long been a staple of business/academic partnerships. Bosch, a maker of automotive equipment and products, recently announced it is offering 200 internships for high-potential college and graduate students in energy-related fields.
Beyond mentoring and internships, business can play a critical role in defining what students need to know and be able to do when they enter the workforce, particularly in high-demand science, technology and math careers. As an example, drug-maker Merck’s Institute for Science Education partnered with New Jersey schools to align math and science curriculum standards and instruction to the needs of the local workforce.
EMC, a technology company focusing on information storage, has taken education partnerships even further in creating its Academic Alliance program. Launched in 2006, the alliance includes more than 500 universities in 35 countries and has educated more than 35,000 students in information storage and technology. EMC provides courses and materials on information storage and technology theory and practices to alliance members with the goal of building a stronger pipeline of tech talent.
There’s a definite and distinct skills gap in high-tech fields, said Tom Clancy, EMC vice president of education services, and supporting students in closing that gap is good for EMC and its competitors.
“We’re not helping them work on EMC products better,” Clancy said. “We’re helping them work better on all information storage products regardless of who builds it [or] who sells it. It’s good for the entire industry.”
In addition to academic credit, students get real-world knowledge and skills they can use toward industry certifications.
“It goes through theories, best practices, examples and so forth, but it’s theory that is being used. It’s theory that you need to do a job when you get out if you come into our space,” he said.
Students also have access to a collaboration portal used by industry professionals that brings them direct access to real-life challenges and solutions. “They have the opportunity to join the business world while they’re still in school,” Clancy said.
While the skills gap is real and increasingly apparent in science, technology and engineering, that doesn’t mean companies will dedicate precious resources to close it. Clancy advises CLOs interested in setting up an academic partnership to get executive sponsorship and commitment up front.
“These programs can be built and can go away very easily if you don’t have that sponsorship,” he said.
Whatever form those programs take, it’s important that business, and CLOs, play a role in defining the education required to compete in the future. But it’s more than just skills and knowledge.
“You can force adults and children to learn facts but you can’t force them to be curious,” Williams said. “What CLOs want in the workforce are people who ask questions, who collaborate with their colleagues, people who aren’t afraid to make a mistake.”
That engagement and enthusiasm for learning is critical for their own growth. It’s also critical for the success of their organizations and something CLOs can do their part to help.
Mike Prokopeak is editorial director of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.