Why the U.S. Is Bringing Colleges and Nontraditional Educators Closer Together

GE Vice Chair Beth Comstock (Photograph by Stuart Isett/Fortune Global Forum)

By Jon Leckie

We expect a lot from our higher education system: It should turn young people into young adults. It should promote a diverse, open-minded, and informed citizenry. And it should train our workforce to meet the needs of the future economy. Oh, and it should do all of this without burdening students with a mountain of debt to pay off after graduation.

As advances in technology reshape our world faster than we can reshape ourselves, ensuring that college courses help students develop the skills the labor market will need has become an uphill battle for universities and employers alike. A host of new programs has been introduced to fill this void. One such program is a federal initiative called EQUIP, which stands for Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships.

EQUIP connects universities with for-profit schools and corporations to develop programs to train the kind of workers the economy will need most in the coming years. The first partnerships, announced by the Education Department on August 16, involve institutions like the University of Texas-Austin, SUNY Empire State College, and Merylhurst University in Oregon, along with for-profit coding academies like MakerSquare, The Flatiron School, and Epicodus. The organizations will focus on giving students certificates in web development. Thomas Edison State University and the Dallas Community College System, meanwhile, will team up with Study.com and StraighterLine to offer bachelors and associates degrees in business and liberal arts through self-paced online courses. And Colorado State University’s Global Campus and Guild Education plans to offer certificates in leadership and management through a combination of online and on-campus classes.

“Colleges, especially community colleges, partner with the for-profit sector regularly and have for decades,” Andrew Hanson, an economics researcher at Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said. “What makes this different is that the for-profit companies are providing training directly as opposed to supplementing college program coursework.”

Most of EQUIP’s eight pilot programs focus on developing students’ tech skills or delivering coursework online. But General Electric’s aviation unit and Northeastern University plan to offer something different. The two organizations will launch an accelerated bachelors degree in advanced manufacturing. It’s a novel attempt at assisting a part of the U.S. economy that has struggled to find talent over the past few decades.

A joint study by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte found that, over the next 10 years, more than 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be created in the United States. But with fewer people coming out of university programs with the skills manufacturers are looking for, researchers estimate that 2 million of those jobs will go unfilled.

Part of the challenge is that both globalization and automation have raised the skill requirements for entry-level manufacturing jobs. Beth Comstock, GE’s vice chair and previously its chief marketing and commercial officer, clearly articulated this point at the Next New World Conference in June 2014, saying that the industrial giant needs employees who are able to operate complicated machinery and tools, write code, think critically, and work collaboratively. They need to focus on developing both their technical and their soft skills.

But, according to Hanson, teaching these skills to students requires a cross-disciplinary approach that universities have, so far, not excelled at. “Universities are about training good citizens,” he said. “College presidents don’t think it’s their job to” prepare students for the labor market. “If we could connect those systems, we could make education more efficient and targeted … which would bring benefits in cost and also improve the outcomes of the programs.”

In the past, companies relied on universities to prepare students for entry-level jobs, Hanson said. But as the list of necessary skills for entry-level jobs continues to grow in number and in specificity, traditional university programs haven’t kept pace. This is where the private sector may be able to help.

“Companies have a responsibility to invest in education — to partner with educators to educate and train their employees,” Hanson added. “Universities have a responsibility to ensure their curricula are relevant and up-to-date, which is admittedly challenging when standards in career fields are changing rapidly.”

With EQUIP, the federal government is betting that non-traditional educators will be able to provide the flexibility and expediency to keep up with industry demands, all while being backed by long-standing institutions.

How we train our future workforce will largely determine our ability to keep pace with the rest of world. If American companies can’t find properly trained workers here, they’ll either import talent from elsewhere, cease operations, or simply move to where the talent is. All three could cause irreparable damage to a U.S. economy growing progressively dependent on homegrown innovation.

“So many innovations come from engineers and workers who are actually handling the product, seeing what goes wrong, and anticipating the next breakthrough improvement,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Johns Hopkins Professor Michael Mandelbaum observed in their 2011 book, That Used to Be Us. “We need to understand that, particularly for the high end of manufacturing, when a factory moves offshore now it takes with it not just the jobs of today but also, perhaps, the jobs of tomorrow.”

This post was originally published on How Is the Answer.

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