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Shifting to skill-based education may be a misstep

A recently released report by the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning indicates that the overwhelming majority of higher education faculty and staff believe that academic programs must incorporate building specific skills, but only about 1 in 5 colleges and universities have taken measures to address that. It’s an interesting finding, given that community colleges, which offer a heavy complement of skill-based education, own the lowest paid post-secondary graduates in the country.

The ticket to the middle class is a bachelor’s degree. Again and again, the data show that workers with a bachelor’s degree out earn less educated workers throughout their careers. Further, more employers – not fewer – have moved toward the position that their open jobs – even those that typically command lower salaries – increasingly require a bachelor’s degree. It seems as though the labor market sharply disagrees about the value of skill-based education.

The trouble with skill-based education is that most skills come with an expiration date. If workers are not willing to reskill, upskill, or develop complementary skills continuously, they will soon find themselves out of date and shortly thereafter, out of work.

The real value in a bachelor’s degree is that it demonstrates commitment to learning the employer’s field of operation; work ethic; commitment to self-improvement; critical thinking skills; and the accumulation of both skills and knowledge that the employer will value. Employers in high-value fields don’t need employees who can simply perform mindless work. Minimally trained employees with a limited range of skills may allow a business to maintain its competitive position for a time, but they will not allow the business to gain a competitive advantage over its rivals, or even remain competitive over the long run.

Skill-based education has some serious pitfalls

This is the classic problem with community college degrees. Skill-based education requires a long-term commitment to training because skills become obsolete quickly. Some skills remain viable for a very long time; the demand for other skills can evaporate in a short period of time.

For example, in 1994, Carol Kleiman, a writer for the Chicago Tribune, wrote a book in which she identified the 100 best jobs for the 1990s. Among her picks for high-demand employment were computer operators, peripheral electronic data processing equipment operators, employment interviewers, appliance/ power tool repairers, office/business machine repairers, radio/TV service technicians, radio/TV news reporters, and correspondents.

If you spin the dial back to the 1980’s, video store clerks, data entry operators, telephone and switchboard operators, factory workers, department store clerks, file clerks, telephone repairers, typists and stenographers, and photo lab technicians were all considered skilled workers and were in noticeable demand.

Community colleges have gone the skill-based education route, and they struggle to maintain enrollment because there’s not enough economic return in it. If anything, community colleges should shift or expand their programs to help students develop more critical thinking skills – something unlikely to go out of vogue anytime soon.

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