Concerns of Long Island employers about a lack of educated and trained workers are relatively common. Still, this may be surprising to hear while area colleges and universities grant thousands of degrees a year. Clearly, there are discrepancies in the pipeline that should be serving the needs of business, industry and service institutions.
Our system is generally a contract between education and business. On the side of colleges and universities, support is provided to educate students for citizenship and work. On the side of business, the needs of the workforce are supported by educated graduates.
The economy values higher level skills and education than a generation ago, when a high school diploma could assure employment leading to middle-class life. Employers now require immediate productivity at a sophisticated level to compete in a fast-paced technological environment.
We in higher education, however, understand the need to provide education that serves students when the first job ends, as it usually does in the modern economy. We value education as a general good, and place high value on liberal arts and theoretical education as a sustainable value to students and as a benefit to society.
However, our economy has come largely to value education that leads directly to jobs. And students, their parents and many in society believe we are educating students solely for immediate work and careers. It is not surprising that many of them feel deceived when graduates are unable to find jobs. It is incumbent on higher education, and business and industry, to solve this problem.
First, many beginning students cannot identify a specific field of study or career direction, yet they should be challenged to explore. They should be tracked into programs and activities that match their interests as closely as possible — by default, if necessary, a mechanism we’ve learned from behavioral economics. Professors, whose guidance can have substantial impact on students’ motivation to explore, can design curricula for that purpose.
Second, discovering latent interests early in students’ college programs can often lead to decisions to enter without delay into applied fields. It is common for students to return to college to obtain second undergraduate degrees or certificates in fields that lead to jobs.
Third, internships offer advantages for both students and companies, which often discover and hire candidates after graduation. Higher education institutions that are not looking to expand internship opportunities are depriving their students of valuable experiences.
Fourth, employers must train their educated new employees in the specialized skills and operations of their enterprise. Colleges and universities can provide educated graduates, but in most cases can’t focus academic programs so narrowly that graduates’ skills are obsolete soon after taking their first job.
Fifth, small companies need assistance to provide training for employees. It’s an expensive challenge for the thousands of small businesses that form the base of Long Island’s economy to have employees for weeks on the payroll while training.
Sixth, employers should recognize the attributes that liberal arts graduates bring to the workplace. Employer surveys indicate the most valued skills for new hires are to be problem solvers, think critically, be able to write, reason quantitatively and speak clearly. These are the attributes of liberal arts graduates.
And finally, colleges and universities should develop business-industry advisory councils for academic programs. The problem of an educated and trained workforce can in part be solved through extended attention by institutions and employers.
W. Hubert Keen is president of Nassau Community College.