Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Can Higher Ed Help Build Workforce Skills?

Watch the short animated film “Slope of the Curve” from, and you might feel like the robots are coming. Actually, they’re already here. Automation is just happening at a faster and faster pace. And not just in blue collar jobs, but also high-skill jobs, such as the medical and legal fields.

The year “’83 is when the robots started taking over,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Since then, this pressure from automation and other forces has made workforce training a hot topic in higher education as experts and educators try to align what’s going on in the classroom to what’s going on in the labor market.

In the session “Higher Education, Skills and the Workforce” at the Education Writers Association’s national conference this month, Carnevale and Mary Alice McCarthy of New America’s Center on Education and Skills delved into the history of workforce training in the United States, as well as emerging solutions and questions for reporters.

Before the 1970s, the U.S. economy was very stable and two-thirds of workers had a high school education or less, explained Carnevale. That put most of workers in the middle class with a lot of upward mobility. But the recession in the ‘70s sparked inflation and fear among investors, plus a deeper fear that the U.S. economy may not be able keep up in a post-Cold War world.

To stop the recession, the U.S. government effectively crashed the American economy and took money from people’s pockets so they couldn’t buy stuff. After that, in 1983, computer-based technology started to drive production, requiring fewer workers in manufacturing, mining and other industries.

This change in the labor market also affected education. It increased the value of higher education, making degrees or other training after high school more attractive to employers who felt they needed higher-skilled workers. That emphasis on college also led to vocational education being largely removed from the American high school. The rate of U.S. students taking college-prep classes rose from 35 percent to almost 80 percent, Carnevale said.

“The lesson learned was ‘college for all,’” he said.

Now vocational education has made something of a comeback in high schools, to the extent that there are increased efforts to exposes young people to the idea of “work.” But the label has changed: Now it’s called career and technical education.

Youth Apprenticeships on Rise

But the real push for workforce training – and the most meaningful effort – currently is taking place in postsecondary education, according to McCarthy. She emphasized that how we choose to respond and adapt to the educational demands of the job market is within our power.

She highlighted youth apprenticeships as one innovation. These give young people concrete work experience in a real-world work environment. For example, in Colorado, the governor has pushed for apprenticeships in a statewide pilot, recruiting IT and biomedical firms in the Denver area to work with youth several days of the week at a worksite. McCarthy said the idea is to start the apprentice work in high school for two years, then continue two years in postsecondary. “Hopefully, that will translate into a degree,” she said.

Other states moving into youth apprenticeships include Wisconsin and both of the Carolinas.

Of course, this renewed focus on career and technical education has detractors, especially among college educators. If the purpose of education is to get a job, what does that mean for education itself? “Educators aren’t interested in this. They believe in Shakespeare, with good reason,” Carnevale said.

Key Challenges: Money, Applying Academic Concepts

Some big questions remain. One is money. Who will pay for the lifelong learning required in an ever-changing economy? That leads into issues of for-profit education and how adults access retraining, Carnevale said.

Another big question is how can educators contextualize academic work – like literacy and math skills – in the workforce setting? That is, how well can a teenager learn algebra II through the lens of applied engineering or a machining class?

“There’s no reason you can’t do both at the same time,” said McCarthy.

There are other issues for reporters to keep in mind while covering workforce training in higher ed.

One is whether schools are preparing kids for new jobs in a new economy, or are they preparing kids for a world with fewer jobs? Carnevale said that we don’t know quite yet, but we do know that automation doesn’t eliminate the number of jobs. It may eliminate and/or change people’s tasks, but not the job itself. The actual elimination of jobs is small, he said, pointing to a study from McKinsey.

The second argument is that this is all good news, along the lines of “if robots do all the work, we don’t have to.”

“The only issue is it’ll be a hell of a fight of who gets the money,” Carnevale said.