Janet Murumba wasn’t always handy with a power drill. The Kenyan immigrant arrived in Seattle at age 30 with a high school education and no skills to speak of. What she did have was ambition. After a couple of years toiling in nursing homes, she set her sights on Boeing. Last year she enrolled in a certificate program in industrial engineering at South Seattle College, which combines vocational education with academics. “In class,” she says, “I could drill for the first time, and it was like, ‘Oh God, it’s happening, it’s real.’ ”
Murumba was lucky to find her way to a college at the forefront of an important trend in American education—close collaboration with business. Employers, schools, and government agencies are learning to work together to fill jobs requiring “middle” skills—more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree. The best community colleges and other training programs are preparing students for the jobs of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. They’re imparting education when and where students are most likely to absorb it, in keeping with a maxim of Lou Mobley, who started executive education at IBM: “Education is effective only at the time of felt need and clear relevance.” And employers are recognizing certificates like Murumba’s that attest to mastery of specific skills, sometimes in lieu of insisting on a two- or four-year diploma.
When it comes to getting people jobs, this isn’t the whole ball of wax, to be sure. Economic growth is essential. And career training is no substitute for general knowledge of the arts and sciences: cosmetology ain’t cosmology. But if this initiative succeeds, it will produce a stronger middle class and a more competitive U.S. economy. It could even help divided places such as Ferguson, Mo., which is seething over the Aug. 9 police shooting of an unarmed black teen. “There are very few problems in life that a good job can’t fix,” says Michael McMillan, chief executive officer of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, which runs workforce development in Ferguson and other towns.
For now, the gulf between what companies need and what workers have to offer remains huge. In most fields, companies have steadily reduced the amount of on-the-job training they provide, says Chauncy Lennon, who leads a $250 million New Skills at Work project for the charitable arm of JPMorgan Chase. “We can’t turn the clock back on that,” he says. In 2011, an Accenture survey of U.S. employees found that only 21 percent had received employer-provided formal training in the previous five years. “A lot of small businesses have this fear that ‘If I train my people, I’ll lose them to ExxonMobil.’ Our research shows the opposite. If you don’t train people, you’re definitely going to lose them,” says Emad Rizkalla, founder and CEO of Bluedrop Performance Learning, an online education company.
Penny-pinching employers have been counting on schools to supply ready-to-go workers, but they’ve been disappointed. While 56 percent of college provosts say their schools are “very effective” at preparing students for work, just 11 percent of business leaders strongly agree that today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies that their companies need, according to separate Gallup polls last year for Inside Higher Ed and the Lumina Foundation. Government hasn’t been filling the gap, either. Inflation-adjusted federal spending on employment and training fell 14 percent over the past decade. The result is that Americans who are desperate for work aren’t equipped for the jobs that employers need to fill. In September there were close to 5 million unfilled job openings in the U.S., even though more than 9 million people were unemployed and looking for work.
There are inklings of progress. “I’m quite optimistic, and the reason I am is going to sound perverse,” says Joe Fuller, a Harvard Business School senior lecturer who co-led a recent project on the middle-skills gap. The reason, he says, is that the situation is intolerable. “There’s a real understanding that what’s happening in the labor market is not good for the country. We’ve got to try something new.”
A cause for optimism is that this summer Congress, after 11 years of bickering, reauthorized the Workforce Investment Act, which covers a range of federal job-training programs. Now called the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, it takes effect next year and will reduce bureaucracy and smooth the way for collaboration. It encourages companies in a region to cooperate on developing a detailed list of skills they require so local colleges know what to teach. The list will evolve, of course, and requirements specific to one or two companies won’t be covered. The goal is to get students onto clearly marked “career pathways” that will lead to success, not pointless courses and indebted unemployment.
For companies that supply adjunct faculty, equipment, money, and the focus of management, collaboration with schools is costly yet indispensable. “In an earlier era, [employers] didn’t have to have a deep and sustained partnership to do pretty well,” says John Melville, president of Collaborative Economics, a consulting firm in San Mateo, Calif. “Now things are moving so quickly that there’s no substitute for having that continuous conversation, to work together and adapt.”
The coolest new idea in workforce development is helping job applicants demonstrate their employability with something other than a bachelor’s degree. Too many employers insist on a four-year degree even when the job doesn’t demand it, using it “as a rough rule-of-thumb screening system to recruit better workers,” says a September report by Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based company that parses millions of job listings a week to help employers understand market conditions. For example, 65 percent of the listings it reviews for executive secretaries and executive assistants require a bachelor’s degree, even though only 19 percent of people in those jobs now have a bachelor’s. That overcautiousness hurts applicants and, in the long run, employers.
Burning Glass discovered that demands for unneeded degrees are less common in fields with strong certification or licensing standards, or some other clear measure of job readiness. One new way to demonstrate competence is with “stackable credentials,” which are promulgated by industry groups and granted by schools. Each skill level of the stack builds on what came before. Cisco Systems offers credentials through the Cisco Networking Academy, which takes on 1 million students a year through 9,000 academies in 170 countries.
Using stackable credentials for career advancement is spreading from tech to health care, manufacturing, and logistics. Apprenticeships, which once were largely for union positions in construction, are coming to other fields and are no longer just for union jobs. The Obama administration says 87 percent of apprentices are employed after completing their programs, and the average starting wage for apprenticeship graduates is more than $50,000. In the community colleges that get it, there’s no shame in collaborating closely with local industries. Des Moines Area Community College may not boast of Rhodes Scholars, but it does produce Accumold Scholars and Vermeer Scholars, who, as the names suggest, are equipped to work at two leading Des Moines-area manufacturers. “I’m very excited about this,” says Rob Denson, president of the college. “It’s high maintenance and hard work, but the payoff is magnificent.”
I interviewed Murumba last spring shortly after she earned her industrial manufacturing certificate. In September, I got an e-mail from Leslie Haynes, director of the Seattle Colleges’ Pathways to Careers initiative. She wrote, “I’m thrilled to report that Janet Murumba completed a second certificate in composites and was just hired by Boeing to work on the Triple Seven at the plant here in Seattle: a dream realized.” That’s what the new wave of education has the potential to deliver.