Will Higher Skill Levels Emerge from Today's Economic Gloom?

The numbers have become staggering. In November alone, the U.S. lost over half a million jobs, according to the Labor Department. The number of people on the unemployment benefit rolls rose to its highest level since 1982, at 4.4 million. And the times may get tougher yet.

But amid this crisis there is another, quieter one that is receiving less press: a deepening skills and education crisis. A study by the American Council on Education (2008) found that the current generation of U.S. adults aged 25-29 is less educated than their parents' generation. And a report by The Education Trust released in October 2008 entitled "Counting on Graduation: An Agenda for State Leadership" states that among industrialized nations, "the U.S. is the only country in which today's younger generation is less likely than their parents to have earned a high school diploma."

Some experts are now hoping that a reskilling trend will become something of a silver lining amid all this economic gloom. Enrollment in community and technical colleges, for example, is soaring as workers strive to upgrade their existing skill sets, learn new ones, and prepare for new careers in an uncertain economy. "Our enrollment strongly correlates to downturns in the economy," said Grace Truman, spokeswoman for Palm Beach Community College in Florida, which is experiencing a 16% jump in enrollment over last year ("The Community College," 2008).

"When the economy goes down and jobs are harder to find, students go back to college," said Janelle Runyon, spokeswoman for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, where Seattle's four community colleges have witnessed an 8.2% increase in enrollment over 2007 (Blankinship, 2008). Bryan Albrecht, president of Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, WI, observed that among the most popular courses are college prep, adult basic education and adult "boot camps" that teach technical skills such as welding and computer technology (Dresang, 2008).

But it's impossible to predict how much of an impact this back-to-school trend can really have, given the scope of the problem. The National Commission on Adult Literacy released its report "Reach Higher America: Overcoming Crisis in the U.S. Workforce" in June 2008; the report warns that the U.S. is losing ground in educational attainment. It concludes that the failure to address adult education and workforce skills needs is putting the U.S. "into great jeopardy and threatening our nation's standard of living and economic viability" ("Reach Higher," 2008).

The commission found that more than 88 million U.S. adults have either no high school diploma, no college experience, or English-as-a-second-language needs. One-third of all high school students drop out, but many who do graduate lack basic skills and job readiness. Anna Habash, policy analyst at the Education Trust and author of this report, believes that policymakers need to understand that skills and knowledge matter more than ever now, "not just for young people but for their states' economies, and even for our national security" (Habash, 2008).

Community and technical colleges are poised to lead in adult education because their tuition tends to be relatively low, they have the capacity to quickly modify their curricula and they are able to accommodate the needs of the local communities in which they exist.

In response to the growing concern about workforce readiness, many community colleges have begun customizing their curricula to address training challenges. Hocking College, a two-year school in Ohio, received a $1.6-million federal grant to build an Energy Institute, which will create a working laboratory for students to explore and create fuel cells, hybrid vehicles and other alternative-energy technologies. North Carolina's Alamance Community College is training high-skilled machinists and has created an apprenticeship program with local businesses (Katz, 2008a).

And many companies are taking the lead to actively help employees sharpen their skills and learn new ones. Cargill Meat Solutions teamed with Morgan Community College in Ft. Morgan, CO, to provide instruction in English as a second language, GED preparation and citizenship for its largely Hispanic workforce. When the program began, Hispanics made up 85% of the workers and had an average of a sixth-grade education. The program helped expand the pool of potential supervisors, with Hispanics now making up 45% of supervisors compared with 5% when the program started in 1993. This has led to greater employee engagement (Katz, 2008b).

The National Commission on Adult Literacy has issued challenges to business leaders and to the nonprofit sector to invest in the nation's workforce. It has called upon Congress to create an adult education and workforce skills system with the capacity to effectively service 20 million adults per year by 2020, and it recommends that states make postsecondary and workforce readiness a new goal for adult education.

Various experts argue that, even in difficult times (and some would say especially in difficult times), it's incumbent on the public and private sectors to invest in education, literacy and workforce skills. Such investments will likely strengthen the cornerstones of tomorrow's economy.

Documents used in the preparation of this TrendWatcher include the following:
  • American Council on Education. (2008, October 9). Generational gains in postsecondary education appear to have stalled, new ACE report finds.
  • Blankinship, D. G. (2008, October 7). Community college enrollment up across Washington. Bellingham Herald. Retrieved from bellinghamherald.com
  • The community college enrollment boom. (2008, August 8). Retrieved from insidehighered.com
  • Dresang, J. (2008, February 18). Technical colleges gain as economy suffers: Enrollment has become an employment yardstick. McClatchy - Tribune Business News. Retrieved from proquest.umi.com
  • Habash, A. (2008, October 23). Counting on education: An agenda for state leadership for the improvement of high school graduation rates. The Education Trust.
  • Katz, J. (2008a, June). Searching for talent in your own backyard. Industry Week, 14-16.
  • Katz, J. (2008b, August). Talent incubators. Industry Week, 14-16.
  • Labor Department, Bureau of Labor Statistics. The employment situation: November 2008. Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm
  • Linebaugh, K. (2008, October 13). Idle workers busy at Toyota. Wall Street Journal, pp. B1-3.
  • Measure for measure: Frank talk about metrics. (2008, May). HR Magazine, 10.
  • Reach higher America: Oncoming crisis in the U.S. workforce. (2008, June). Report of the National Commission on Adult Literacy.