- - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

While speculation rages about who will win the presidency, there is no mystery over what will define the 2012 election. The candidate who makes the best case for putting people back to work and creating jobs will triumph, period.

As someone who has gone from public assistance and food stamps to tenured university professor and department chairman to CEO of one of the largest corporate employers in America, I’ve felt the pressure both to get a job and to create jobs. As I see it, America needs to get out of its own way.

We boast some of the best higher education institutions in the world, yet they are not turning out graduates with the skills our economy needs. We rank 27th among 42 developed nations in the proportion of students with undergraduate degrees in science and engineering. More than 2 million jobs are still going unfilled because companies say they can’t find qualified applicants.

But we can fix this situation. How?

Let go of campus nostalgia. First, we have to let go of our idealized view of the “traditional” American college experience and images of 18-year-old dependents spending four years in dorms and lecture halls before emerging as well-rounded scholars and taxpaying citizens.

Today’s college experience is vastly different from that of a generation ago. Nontraditional students - part-time and community college students, commuters and single parents - are the new majority. They shouldn’t have to choose between work, family and an opportunity for greater economic and social mobility based on an outdated education model. Yet too many of them are forced to make that choice, and it is the main reason they leave school before graduation.

To meet students’ needs and improve completion rates, programs must offer faster, more flexible and more affordable paths to a degree or postsecondary certificate. Students need access to targeted curricula with shorter terms, less time between terms, and year-round scheduling options. They need online courses, which can slash on-campus time. They need entrance exams that award credits - or allow students to advance - based on a demonstration of key competencies, thereby cutting completion time and boosting graduation rates.

In higher education, we need to give stronger focus and support for STEM specialties (science, technology, engineering, math) by forgiving loans, creating internships, providing extra funding to incentivize students to choose - and complete - programs that meet the demands of today’s job market.

Create more programs with earning power.Simply graduating more students is not enough. We also must forge better alignment between what postsecondary education produces and what businesses need. A recent Deloitte study showed that even with stubbornly high unemployment, 600,000 well-paying manufacturing jobs went unfilled in the United States last year. McKinsey & Co., a management consulting firm, estimates the nation needs to produce 1 million more graduates per year by 2020 to meet employer demand for skilled professionals.

This mismatch has maddened the long-term unemployed, stymied recruiters and frustrated companies. I recently met an auto parts supplier who said he had 25 jobs open for highly skilled technicians that pay more than $125,000 a year. But he couldn’t fill the jobs because our postsecondary system is not meeting the realities of today’s labor market.

To fix this problem, we must forge more business-education partnerships. The National Association of Manufacturers has created standardized training and tests to strengthen the skills of manufacturing workers, without requiring them to return to school for a bachelor’s degree. We know similar programs are making a difference. But we need to do more.

Demand accountability and a greater return on investment.There’s a good reason why “accountability” is a top buzzword in business. During the recession, business strategies were turned upside down, forecasts abandoned and leadership teams dismantled. Just as corporations are accountable to their investors, postsecondary institutions also must be accountable to theirs - students, taxpayers, governments and businesses.

Every degree program’s tuition, graduation rates and job-placement outcomes should be transparent so students can make informed decisions about which school to attend. We also should be willing to close state institutions that don’t have an adequate completion or job success rate.

Somehow, postsecondary education has been granted an exemption from the revolution that is raging around it. Our progress too often is thwarted by an outdated educational system that refuses to yield to the present reality. Adaptability is an imperative, not just a nice thing to have.

By 2018, two-thirds of the nation’s jobs will require some form of postsecondary education or training. To move the economy forward and sustain economic growth, American employers need ready access to the best-educated workforce in the world. It’s time we recommit to ensuring this workforce can be found on our own shores. If we don’t transform our system of higher education and ensure a deep bench of qualified workers, we will perpetuate the talent mismatch and high unemployment. If we transform postsecondary education, we can create new options and opportunities worthy of the 21st-century American dream.

Carl Camden is the CEO of Kelly Services Inc.

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