Forget the skills gap—colleges and industry have to tackle the opportunity gap

Community colleges and employers have to build an entirely new kind of relationship if we want education and work to lead to economic stability and upward mobility for more Americans.

Many economists and business leaders argue that the underlying problem with our workforce is a “skills gap”—the failure of education and training systems to ensure that workers are getting the skills they need to fill emerging jobs that pay.

Karen A. Stout, president and CEO
of Achieving the Dream

Employers often see this problem as primarily a one-way street. The Business Roundtable, for example, suggests that the bulk of the skills gap is “the result of an educational system that hasn’t kept pace with the evolving economy.” This gap, they report, has continued to widen, thus hurting prospective workers, businesses, and the economy.

However, researchers at the Brookings Institution point out that we are facing an opportunity gap, not a skills gap. “The narrative that the skills gap holds back our economy is outdated,” they write. “Our economy is constrained by an opportunity gap: systematic social exclusion of diverse talent from access to education, economic security, quality jobs, and career mobility over a lifetime.”

Seen through this lens, the big question today is how community colleges can help both our students and the communities we serve cut down that opportunity gap. I have argued that if community colleges are going to remain relevant, we must no longer see our role as lifelong learning institutions but as lifelong career-matching institutions—catalysts for building equitable, prosperous, and vibrant communities that connect workers to lucrative career pathways to high-wage jobs and the middle class.

Making this change requires that community colleges build an entirely new relationship with employers across industry sectors: One that is built on the idea that business and postsecondary education are equal partners in preparing people for careers and that each has an equal responsibility to initiate partnerships.

The recent report “The Partnership Imperative” from the Managing the Future of Work project at Harvard’s Business School suggests that we have a long way to go to make this happen. Data from the project shows that an overwhelming 81% of the community college leaders surveyed believed that the burden of initiating business partnerships rests on them. However, the experience of the past two decades has shown that “the system will never provide workers with 21st-century skills unless the playing field between local employers and local educators is made level.”

The point here is not to shift blame onto employers but to get past the “cross talk” that exists between community college leaders and employers to jointly address this challenge in new ways. There is plenty of work to be done by all. For our part, we need to:

  • Build a more dynamic understanding of our local labor markets by developing better data and stronger relationships with employers.
  • Embed our students’ relationship to work—their experiences, current positions, and career aspirations—into support systems rather than seeing institutions as just an academic thruway or forcing students into either/or choices between work and education.
  • Enlist the community college sector to work together at scale to respond to the growing needs of large, national employers.
  • Encourage individual colleges to support small and medium-sized employers through industry sector or skills/knowledge cluster consortia.

But fundamental to all of that is the need to develop strategies that are born out of active and collaborative partnerships with the private sector. We cannot merely look within our own spheres at a particular program or employer need. We must determine what is best for all stakeholders in the future as well as the short term.

There are examples across the Achieving the Dream network that are not separate and siloed but instead have emerged as a crucial part of each institution’s student success agenda.

For example, at MiraCosta College in San Diego, college leaders learned from biotech industry partners, such as Pfizer and Abbott Labs, that the sector needs more employees with a bachelor’s degree in biomanufacturing production. After coordinating with four-year college partners to ensure they were not duplicating efforts, MiraCosta created the first ever community college biomanufacturing bachelor’s degree program. 

The program, as Shalin Jyotishi writes, has significant employer buy-in, a 93%completion rate, and is diversifying the field. Today, about two-thirds of MiraCosta’s graduates in the program are women (62%), two-thirds are non-white (64%), and 20% are the first in their families to attend college. The college is clearly meeting an employer need, employers are engaged, and, together, they have created a pathway to good paying jobs in an expensive region.

Such collaborations also benefit from a strong connection to K-12 systems. In northwest Ohio advanced manufacturers like Automatic Feed Company wanted to attract and retain more middle-skills employees and engineers in their rural northwest Ohio location. Northwest State Community College, in collaboration with local high schools and the Ohio College Credit Plus program, created a new STEM learning program to introduce local students to engineering and provide early exposure to careers in advanced manufacturing.

One student, Sabra, thought she was going to study nutrition until advisors helped her explore a more lucrative electromechanical engineering pathway that helps pay for her bachelor’s degree and will allow her to remain in the community. The program helps to fill an opportunity gap for students, employers, and the community rather than seeing this as merely a “skills gap.”

The motivation behind the Sustaining Future Farms in Louisiana program at Louisiana State University-Eunice is similar. The institution is the only comprehensive, two-year college within the LSU system and a partner in ATD’s Building Resiliency in Rural Communities for the Future of Work initiative. LSU-Eunice’s farms program is a free technology-based ag program designed to reinvigorate an aging farmer population—and also to better serve rural communities that have been in distress for years. The program expands access to education opportunities for rural youth interested in the agriculture industry, targets unemployment stress due to recent declines in the oil and energy sector, and aims to bolster the economic stability of specific rural areas. 

We also need to ensure that students don’t end up in programs that serve others without also serving them. For example, ATD’s new Accelerating and Diversifying Nursing Pathways at Community Colleges seeks to address the nursing shortage in this country and undo the systemic inequities that Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color experience in nursing pathways, particularly in higher-paid positions and occupations. Kingsborough Community College in New York City, for example, is working with two predominantly BIPOC high schools to create licensed practical nurse to registered nurse pathways where students earn an LPN in high school, putting a diverse group of student on an accelerated path to the RN and higher wages.

Working as equal partners with industry, colleges can create equity-centered workforce development strategies—not divisions—that run through our entire institutions and inform the development of pathways from short-term credentials to transfer degrees. Community colleges have a unique role to play in narrowing the opportunity gap and helping more local communities thrive. But we can’t go it alone.

Karen A. Stout is president and CEO of Achieving the Dream.

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