WARWICK, R.I. — Angel Gavidia worked as a construction worker, an auto detailer and a taxi dispatcher before he found his calling as a computer-networking engineer, a high-paying job for which employers are desperately short of workers even at a time of stubborn unemployment.
He found his way in spite of community-college advisors who at first steered him into other fields of so little interest to him that he quit school. Then Gavidia was accepted to a program in which an IT-services company called Atrion collaborates with the Community College of Rhode Island to help students get both a classroom education and on-the-job training.
The model, under which Gavidia worked as an apprentice at the company while taking on-campus courses, gave him a huge head start to a job by teaching him the real-world skills employers want but say they often can’t find in college graduates.
“I came into this position feeling like, we didn’t learn this in school, and we should have,” said Gavidia, who, at 26, now works full time at Atrion as an associate engineer.
It’s a rare example of a successful partnership between business and higher education, which otherwise often bicker about how to help the nation’s economy recover by better matching graduates’ skills with workplace needs.
Business officials complain that too many college students aren’t learning what they need to get jobs. Academics retort that their job is to provide knowledge, not vocational training—and that what future workers really need isn’t job-specific preparation, but the ability to think critically that comes from a well-rounded education.
“There’s been something of a rupture,” said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. “On the higher-education side, we have sometimes not thought enough about how best to prepare our students for the jobs that will be available when they graduate. And employers haven’t always communicated clearly enough to universities what skills employees need.”
It’s not for lack of prodding.
“I hear from business leaders all the time who want to hire in the United States, but at the moment, they cannot always find workers with the right skills,” President Barack Obama told an audience at a community college in February. “Companies looking to hire should be able to count on these schools to provide them with a steady stream of workers qualified to fill those specific jobs.”
Despite high unemployment, however, the nation is surprisingly short of workers with the right educations. As of July, the most recent period for which the figure is available, an estimated 3.66 million jobs were vacant, and employers say they can’t find the people they need to do them.
Some economists question whether the figure is actually that high, saying companies are simply taking their time hiring. But most agree that there’s a significant mismatch.
In the IT industry alone, 93 percent of employers surveyed by the Computing Technology Industry Association said they couldn’t find workers with the right educations, and 80 percent said this affects productivity and customer service.
“There’s just a shortage of supply,” said Ryan Hoyle, whose job is to hire engineers and other skilled employees for the Detroit branch of an IT company called GalaxE Solutions, which, together with two neighboring tech companies, has 500 openings he said they can’t fill.
Before it teamed up with the Community College of Rhode Island, Atrion “found it very difficult to find the right combination of skills and talent, and frankly it was often at a cost,” driving up entry-level salaries and forcing the company to spend more and more money hunting for qualified prospects, said Patrick Halpin, its talent recruiter.
Yet even as demand for college degree-holders goes up, their numbers are leveling off. Enrollment appears to be flat or falling, even at community colleges that had been growing at double-digit rates. Once they are enrolled, only about half of students in four-year universities graduate within even six years, and fewer than 20 percent at two-year community colleges do so within three, according to the organization Complete College America.
“If you take a longer economic view, it’s clear that, unless something changes, higher education is not going to provide the kind of workforce we need 20 and 30 years down the road,” said Rosenberg, who is part of a business-higher education initiative in Minnesota looking for solutions to this problem there.
There are some models emerging of college and corporate collaborations like the one in Rhode Island. They’re broadly known as “learn and earn”—or, among educators, as “programs of study” that line up courses to lead to a specific job.
But most business leaders surveyed by Public Agenda and the Committee for Economic Development said they think American higher education is unable or unwilling to adapt to economic demands and lacks accountability, contributing to a shortage of qualified workers.
“There are growing and grave concerns about the system’s ability to remain a leader and produce the workforce our future economy demands,” said Steve Farkas, lead author of the Public Agenda report.
Business and higher education have traditionally spoken different languages, and they work at vastly different speeds, people in both camps acknowledge.
“There is this mismatch,” said Lee Todd Jr., former president of the University of Kentucky, who founded two high-tech companies before that. “In academics, you’ve got seven years to make tenure. In business, if you don’t have the next product ready by the next quarter, you’re in trouble.”
Even when they do try to satisfy marketplace needs, colleges and universities have trouble keeping up with them, said John Dorrer, a program director at the nonprofit organization Jobs for the Future.
“Sometimes you have this phenomenon of higher education being divorced from the reality, with faculty not spending enough time looking at developments in industry,” Dorrer said. “Technology is moving faster, the world is moving faster, markets are more unstable, and that instability and the pace of technological change [are] not well-aligned with what happens in institutions.”
“What I hear from business leaders who come to us is that the universities place before them all kinds of excuses,” said Padrón, who works extensively with business. “They want to take three years to put a program together, and then they have all these excuses for not doing it the right way. It’s part of a tradition that’s not changing with time.”
Frustrations have reached such a level that major corporations have started their own college-level training and education programs. There really is, for instance, a University of Farmers, run by the Farmers Insurance Group. Corporations from Dunkin’ Donuts to Walt Disney World also offer college-level educations to workers, prospective workers, and even employees of other companies.
“If they can do it,” asked Brent Weil, senior vice president of the Manufacturing Institute, “why can’t colleges do it?”
But colleges and universities fire back that there’s plenty of blame to go around. They complain that what industry means by “job skills” is often vague. Surveys of company executives find that what they really seek in their employees isn’t a knack for widget-making, but such characteristics as critical thinking, innovation, and an ability to write and speak well.
“Those CEOs have to be more clear about the kinds of workers that they want,” said Rosenberg. “I’m not sure it always filters down even to their own HR departments.”
Nearly 90 percent of employers think colleges should place more emphasis on producing graduates who can communicate effectively, according to a 2009 survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Seventy-five percent say colleges should emphasize ethical decision-making more, while 70 percent want colleges to stress among students the ability to innovate and be creative.
Higher-education officials point out that the same companies talking about the value of employee education have been cutting back on their own professional-development and tuition-reimbursement benefits, shifting the burden of workforce training onto the very higher-education system that it’s criticizing.
In 1979, workers new to a job got an average of two and a half weeks per year of professional development, according to the consulting firm Accenture; now, Accenture says, at a time when people change jobs much more often, only about a fifth of employees surveyed reported receiving any training at all over the previous five years.
Meanwhile, the proportion of employers who provide tuition reimbursement has fallen from nearly 70 percent to under 60 percent in the last five years, reports the Society for Human Resource Management.
“Too many businesses pay lip service to education, especially higher education, but often are not willing to go the extra mile to make significant partnerships happen,” said Padrón.
While the two sides argue over who’s at fault, a new force is pushing them to pool their efforts: students and their parents, who want to know what career payoff to expect from spiraling tuition.
In an annual survey of first-year college students by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, 86 percent said they enrolled “to be able to get a better job”—the top reason, above “to learn about things that interest me.”
It’s community colleges that have been most in the workforce-development spotlight. That’s because so many job vacancies turn out to be in “middle-skills” occupations for which an associate degree is often adequate, such as lab technicians, early-childhood educators, radiation therapists, paralegals and machinists. Almost half of all jobs now require an associate degree—a greater proportion than call for a bachelor’s degree.
Which raises yet another, more surprising, problem: Few corporate CEOs—or, for that matter, policymakers—went to community colleges, or send their kids there.
“We have to get business leaders to pay more attention to the institutions that are going to serve the populations that right now are not reaching the levels of attainment that we need,” said Joseph Minarik, senior vice president of the Committee for Economic Development.
“Educators understand that the world needs poets,” said Minarik, who was chief economist of the Office of Management and Budget during the Clinton administration. “Business leaders need to know that, too. And business leaders and educators also need to know that the world needs people who can work with sophisticated control systems on a factory floor.”
This story also appeared on Time.com on October 18, 2012 as part of an exclusive collaboration. Reproduction is not allowed.