Following last year’s U.S. Presidential election, it’s crystal clear that the unfettered globalizing forces of the past 30+ years may have produced more wealth in aggregate, but have dislocated workers in less competitive industries. Dislocated workers have now become disgruntled voters. And critically, a large number of Americans voting for change have not earned the sine qua non of today’s labor market (i.e., bachelor’s degrees), do not work in knowledge-intensive sectors of the economy, and do not live in the fastest-growing regions.
It could get a lot worse for these workers before it gets better. Studies project anywhere from 10 to 47 percent of current jobs are at risk of being eliminated by technology. The good news is that there are jobs to be had, particularly in the middle-skill sector led by manufacturing, skilled trades, healthcare, transportation and large, front-line focused sectors such as retail and hospitality.
It’s clear that leaving the economy prostrate to global forces while failing to retrain and reskill workers who have been left behind is no longer a sustainable approach. The question becomes how to accomplish this massive retraining.
The traditional solution to retraining and reskilling is vocational education, including community colleges, career colleges and some traditional four-year institutions, complemented by local Workforce Boards and community-based organizations. But based on the growing skills gap, it’s reasonable to conclude that these institutions will only fulfill a fraction of marketplace needs and that new and different solutions are required.
The fundamental problem is that our workforce development system is not actually a system, but rather a variety of independent institutions and organizations making well-meaning efforts to address workforce needs in their communities. While these efforts are laudable, they are highly fragmented and lack the depth and scope needed to develop and leverage economies of scale and best education practices and technologies. In the meantime, colleges and universities remain rooted in an academic model; even community colleges remain focused on providing associate’s degrees and inexpensive pathways to bachelor’s degrees.