Our old way of training Americans for ‘good jobs’ is past its sell-by date

We’re at a pivot point in education and workforce development. Employers in the U.S. and its allies have an opportunity to accelerate their economies by collaborating to scale new pathways to prosperity. They need to seize that opportunity, writes JB Holston, former CEO of the Greater Washington Partnership.

The country is at a pivot point. COVID’s acceleration of remote work and training; an increased dedication to inclusion, equity, and diversity since the murder of George Floyd; the inexorable pace of technological change; and America’s new, well-funded industrial policy have created an opportunity for the most significant re-set in the relationship between employers and our education systems in the last 150 years.

JB Holston, former CEO of Greater Washington Partnership

The old path to family-supporting career positions—which depended on large employers recruiting graduates from a small universe of ranked colleges whose education stopped with that degree—is past its sell-by date.

This is as true for high-tech sectors as for other industries. For example, the recently-passed CHIPS Act, designed to reinvigorate the semiconductor sector in the U.S., will succeed or fail in no small part due to the country’s ability to find and train the necessary workers. 

About 6 in 10 won’t need a bachelor’s degree, according to the Brookings Institution, but they will need advanced training. Success, scholars at the institution wrote, “depends on what might be one of the hardest transformations for the U.S. to achieve in the semiconductor field: a major surge of national, state, and local actions to expand, train, and diversify regional workforces to ensure more workers can participate in the industry’s growth.”

That observation applies equally to all of the $80 billion in place-based funding that has been approved and appropriated for distribution across the states. And a growing chorus is getting behind the idea of creating new, non-college pathways to prosperity. President Obama recently threw his weight behind the idea, as did The New York Times editorial board, calling on companies to “see workers as workers, not as a college credential.” 

That comes amid a national campaign, led by Opportunity@Work, to get more employers to drop bachelor’s degree requirements for all but jobs in which they are strictly necessary. Five states have already dropped degree requirements for most jobs, and many employers are at least loosening them. If this ‘degree reset’ continues, an additional 1.4 million jobs would be opened to workers without college degrees over the next five years, according to research by the Burning Glass Institute.

This isn’t just, or primarily, an opportunity for America’s cities. Opportunity@Work estimates that more than 70 million adults in the U.S. are “skilled through alternative routes,” such two-year degrees, workforce training, military service, and on the job learning. “No part of the country is more disadvantaged by degree screening than rural America,” says Byron Auguste, the founder of Opportunity@Work.

That’s one reason alternative pathways are politically popular across the aisle—with both Republican and Democratic governors in states like Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Alaska dropping degree requirements and moving to skills-based hiring for most state jobs. 

The pace of technological change today also requires learning to be lifelong. This is an added opportunity for employers—and also for traditional education providers. Lifelong upskilling provides particularly valuable career advancement connective tissue today, as corporate culture frays in our post-COVID world of remote work. As the Aspen Institute’s UpSkill America says:

“Employers will see returns from investing in employees’ education in the form of reduced attrition, increased promotions, improved engagement, and more robust and diverse talent pipelines.”

However, America’s pace along this new pathway to prosperity is far too slow. Traditional institutions, and their interactions with one another, aren’t getting it done. 

As Allison Gerber, the director of employment, education, and training at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, recently told The Chronicle of Higher Education, employers and colleges don’t interact as often as they should in part because most employers are small to medium-sized and don’t have the staff to maintain a relationship with local colleges. “The same goes for the education side,” she adds. “Colleges need people who have deep industry knowledge to sustain relationships.”

Time to learn fast, experiment, and scale new pathways to prosperity.

As it happens, the U.S. can rapidly learn a great deal from its long-standing allies, many of whom have been doing some of this well for decades.  Germany’s 20,000-firm strong mittelstand —what the U.S. calls small to medium-sized businesses, or SMBs—is core to that economy, and has thrived in large part due to the country’s apprentice system. 

Europe is moving fast to accelerate skills-based hiring and lifelong learning—2023 is the “European Year of Skills”, with big goals. The initiative aims to provide new momentum to reach the European Union’s 2030 social targets of at least 60% of adults in training every year, and at least 78% in employment. The year-long effort will focus heavily on digital skills, helping to achieve the 2030 Digital Compass targets of at least 80% of adults with basic digital skills and 20 million employed ICT specialists, which are like IT specialists in the U.S.

The World Economic Forum worked with PwC to launch a global ‘reskilling revolution’ this year, after conducting research showing that investments in reskilling and upskilling the current global workforce have the potential to boost GDP by $6.5 trillion by 2030.

The U.S. hasn’t articulated such bold goals—yet. One promising initiative to accelerate learning, and scale best practices fast across allies is the new U.S./EU Talent for Growth Task Force.

U.S.-based firms can learn a great deal about supporting the whole employee from their EU counterparts. Providing top career STEM opportunities to women, and family-sustaining lifelong technology careers to folks from underestimated populations, means embracing the whole person—providing everything from child care, mental health, and leave and work-from-home policies to tight social networking opportunities that were historically off limits to anyone who wasn’t white, male, and from the ‘right school’.

American firms are leaning in on flexible work-from-home policies, which lag in some European countries. U.S. tech firms are leading the charge in lifelong, certified upskilling for their employees. Provincial and mayoral leaders with large immigrant populations in the EU can learn from governors in states that have done away with four-year degree requirements for hiring and from U.S.-based programs focusing on pathways for underestimated populations, like Opportunity@Work and OneTen.

Both sides of the Atlantic have constraints: While difficult, joint efforts on standards for skill certification and outcome measurements are needed. NIST in the U.S. and the OECD in Europe could productively tackle this over the medium term. Upskilling efforts are too company-specific—such as we see with Google vs. Cisco vs. Amazon certifications. A verified catalog of proven successful initiatives outside of traditional postsecondary education, and a tight network of employers to move those rapidly across allies, will be highly helpful for everyone.

Traditional higher education institutions everywhere have a huge opportunity, but need to engage. 

The winning strategy for this decade will be skills-based, plug-n-play, lifelong learning—with an emphasis on opportunity for underestimated populations. And it must come in forms that both employers and learners can trust.

Employers—and allies—who learn and move fast and at scale will accelerate ahead.

JB Holston is an entrepreneur and higher education leader, who has spent three decades focused on the global scale-up of private and public organizations. He most recently served as CEO of the Great Washington Partnership.

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