February 1, 2013

Addressing the Education-Workforce Mismatch: Preparing Students for Success in Today’s Economy

By: Laura Perna
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All too often, young people in our country enter the job market without the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in today’s workforce. By in large, today’s education system is simply not aligned with the needs of today’s workforce, and students are paying the price. Without the skills they need to succeed, many of today’s young people are struggling to find jobs. And it’s not only prospective employees that are reeling from the mismatch between educational skills and workforce needs; today’s employers all too often struggle to fill skilled and professional jobs given the dearth of qualified applicants. 

The mismatch between the educational qualifications of the population and the educational requirements of current and future jobs is particularly dramatic in many of our nation’s metropolitan areas, including Philadelphia. In the introduction to Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, I describe how, in Philadelphia, the share of the population qualified for unskilled jobs (jobs that require no post-secondary education) far exceeds the number of unskilled jobs in the city.  At the same time, there are fewer skilled workers (those with some college education) and professional workers (those with at least a college degree) than there are skilled and professional jobs in the city. The result: too many unskilled workers without jobs, and too many skilled and professional jobs unfilled.

Addressing the mismatch between educational qualifications of workers and the knowledge requirements of jobs is not easy. Educational attainment is now lower in the U.S. than in several other developed nations.  In fact, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25-34 year-olds with higher education (OECD, 2012). Within the United States, educational attainment is particularly low in many of our nation’s central cities; this despite the seeming abundance of postsecondary educational options.

Educational attainment is also lower, on average, for students from lower-income families, and for Black and Hispanic students. When they do attend postsecondary institutions, students from these demographic groups tend to be relatively concentrated in less selective colleges and universities and for-profit postsecondary institutions— places that tend to have the lowest degree completion rates. 

The task that our country faces is daunting.  Creating meaningful improvements in educational attainment and workforce readiness is difficult, and is complicated by constraints on the availability of public and private financial resources.

In Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, my colleagues and I tackle three essential questions:   

  1. How should workforce readiness be defined and measured?
  2. What is the role of different educational sectors in providing the necessary education and training?
  3. What are the most effective institutional programs and public policies for stimulating educational preparation for work?

Through a review of existing data and research, as well as some new analyses, the chapters point to the need for additional research, while also offering insights into what we do know about these issues. One of the central conclusions of the volume is that we— meaning school and college administrators and teachers, policymakers, business leaders, researchers, and others— do not have a shared or consistent definition of “workforce readiness.”

The book also recognizes the diversity of educational options and approaches that are available in the United States to promote students’ readiness for work.  These approaches include career and technical education in high school; for-profit postsecondary educational institutions; community colleges; and adult education providers.  In the chapter he contributes to the book, Harvard Professor Ronald Ferguson discusses the benefits of a “multiple pathways” approach, arguing that attention to the connection between education and careers should begin as early as the 5th grade and incorporate multiple stakeholders, including families, schools, churches, colleges, military, and employers.

Our country’s collective discussion about how to best align education skills and job requirements is not new, nor is it likely to end anytime soon. Over the course of many decades, various public policies have been created with the goal of improving this alignment; unfortunately, the available research calls into question the effectiveness of these strategies.

In Preparing Today’s Students for Tomorrow’s Jobs in Metropolitan America, my colleagues and I offer several concrete recommendations for addressing this mismatch: everything from fostering collaboration between education institutions and employers, to improving the quality of educational opportunities. As we move forward, institutional leaders and policy makers have the opportunity—and the mandate— to consider new strategies that address this critical issue.

Laura Perna, Professor of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, is editor of "Preparing Today's Students for Tomorrow's Jobs in Metropolitan America".

Urban Link February 2013 (Volume 2013, Issue 2) »

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