In­side the train­ing revo­lu­tion

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

A highly trained work­force is a public good, cru­cial not only to the pros­per­ity of work­ers them­selves, but also to the strength of the en­tire econ­omy. And, as with most public goods, the United States has been un­der­in­vest­ing in it for decades, leav­ing many Amer­i­can work­ers with­out the skills they need to get well-pay­ing jobs.

For­tu­nately, there are signs of im­prove­ment. As the Amer­i­can labour mar­ket tight­ens and a grow­ing cho­rus of com­pa­nies com­plains that they can­not find skilled work­ers, in­no­va­tive part­ner­ships be­tween gov­ern­ments, em­ploy­ers, and ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions are be­gin­ning to fill the void.

Gov­ern­ments bear the pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity for fund­ing work­force train­ing. But ef­fec­tive pro­grammes re­quire more than just money; they need em­ploy­ers and ed­u­ca­tors who can iden­tify the nec­es­sary skills, cre­ate the struc­tures to teach them, and match trained work­ers with avail­able jobs. To be suc­cess­ful in achiev­ing th­ese goals, train­ing pro­grammes must keep pace with rapid changes in tech­nol­ogy and the con­se­quent evo­lu­tion in the labour mar­ket.

In short, work­force train­ing re­quires both more in­vest­ment and more in­no­va­tion through new kinds of public-pri­vate part­ner­ships, de­gree-grant­ing in­sti­tu­tions, and ap­proaches to life-long learn­ing and re-skilling. In­no­va­tive ap­proaches can pop up al­most any­where, and gov­ern­ment has a crit­i­cal role to play in pro­mot­ing them: rig­or­ously eval­u­at­ing pro­grams, scal­ing up those that work, and with­draw­ing fund­ing from those that do not.

In the US, com­mu­nity col­leges pro­vide the first step to­ward a good job for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. Th­ese in­sti­tu­tions are es­pe­cially im­por­tant for stu­dents from less-ad­van­taged back­grounds and for dis­placed work­ers seek­ing new op­por­tu­ni­ties. Around the coun­try, com­mu­nity col­leges are work­ing with busi­nesses and ex­per­i­ment­ing with ways to pro­vide prac­ti­cal train­ing for high-de­mand oc­cu­pa­tions and to fill spe­cialised needs.

Recog­nis­ing their im­por­tance, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has pro­posed mak­ing two years of com­mu­nity col­lege tu­ition-free. The pro­posal would ben­e­fit the roughly 9 mil­lion stu­dents at­tend­ing com­mu­nity col­lege at least half-time, mak­ing steady progress, and main­tain­ing pass­ing grades.

By one care­ful reckoning, com­mu­nity col­leges are an ex­tremely good in­vest­ment. For ev­ery dollar a stu­dent pays or gives up to at­tend school, his or her fu­ture in­come rises by about $4.80. For tax­pay­ers, the life­time re­turn on in­vest­ment is bet­ter than six to one.

Com­mu­nity col­leges are a clas­sic ex­am­ple of how US states op­er­ate as “lab­o­ra­to­ries of democ­racy.” Obama based his pro­posal in part on the free-tu­ition pro­grammes launched by Ten­nessee and the city of Chicago. Drawing on the suc­cess of the Ten­nessee Tech Pro­gramme, he has also pro­posed a $200 mln fed­eral fund to ex­pand com­mu­nity col­lege pro­grammes based on their ef­fec­tive­ness, which is to be mea­sured by em­ployer part­ner­ships, work-based learn­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties, and stu­dent grad­u­a­tion and job place­ment rates. Sim­i­larly, Cal­i­for­nia, which boasts a long tra­di­tion of ex­cel­lence in public higher ed­u­ca­tion, re­cently in­tro­duced a $50 mln fund to foster in­no­va­tive ap­proaches in the sec­tor, with an em­pha­sis on public-pri­vate col­lab­o­ra­tions that have demon­strated their abil­ity to de­liver the skills that em­ploy­ers need.

Com­mu­nity col­leges are just one part of the rapidly chang­ing train­ing land­scape. The pur­pose of higher ed­u­ca­tion is evolv­ing. In ad­di­tion to tra­di­tional ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion, train­ing in­sti­tu­tions are of­fer­ing tar­geted mod­ules, cer­ti­fied by pro­fes­sional in­dus­try groups. The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, for ex­am­ple, co­op­er­ated with an arm of the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Man­u­fac­tur­ers to launch a man­u­fac­tur­ing skills cer­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tem based on stan­dards es­tab­lished by in­dus­try groups. That pro­gramme is now op­er­at­ing at 163 col­leges and in­sti­tutes.

Nu­mer­ous col­lab­o­ra­tions among the public sec­tor, non­profit phi­lan­thropies, and busi­nesses are of­fer­ing in­no­va­tions in worker ed­u­ca­tion. For ex­am­ple, West­ern Gov­er­nors Uni­ver­sity, a non­profit on­line in­sti­tu­tion, of­fers ac­cred­ited col­lege-de­gree pro­grammes in teach­ing, nurs­ing, health-care in­for­mat­ics, and busi­ness. It gets fi­nan­cial sup­port from more than 20 cor­po­ra­tions and phi­lan­thropies, in­clud­ing the Gates Foun­da­tion, along with $10 mln from the US Depart­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion. Ad­vance­ment is based not on how long stu­dents sit in a class­room, but on their com­pe­tence in the top­ics they are study­ing. The cost for six months, re­gard­less of how many cour­ses a per­son takes, is $2,890 (in­clud­ing books and a men­tor) – a bar­gain, com­pared to most state uni­ver­si­ties.

The Nanode­gree pro­gramme at AT&T (where I am a board mem­ber) is an­other ex­am­ple. The pro­gramme, a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween AT&T and Udac­ity, a for-profit provider of on­line cour­ses, of­fers cour­ses and mini-de­grees in spe­cialised fields such as front-end web­site devel­op­ment. It is a com­po­nent of AT&T’s in-house train­ing pro­gramme, but it is open to any­one with a broad­band con­nec­tion. A typ­i­cal course, the con­tent of which is de­signed by AT&T and other high-tech com­pa­nies, costs about $200 a month and takes 6-12 months to com­plete. AT&T of­fers schol­ar­ships through part­ner non-profit in­sti­tu­tions and pro­vides paid in­tern­ships for up to 100 grad­u­ates.

LearnUp, a San Fran­cisco startup that has at­tracted fund­ing from some of the big­gest ven­ture cap­i­tal firms in Sil­i­con Val­ley, es­tab­lishes part­ner­ships with em­ploy­ers to of­fer on­line train­ing mod­ules that connect job seek­ers to spe­cific jobs, pri­mar­ily en­try-level po­si­tions that do not re­quire col­lege de­grees. Em­ploy­ers foot the bill, with the ex­pec­ta­tion that LearnUp will help them re­cruit higher-qual­ity ap­pli­cants. And, in­deed, once can­di­dates have com­pleted the train­ing, LearnUp helps them to se­cure in­ter­views with prospec­tive em­ploy­ers, which al­ready in­cludes sev­eral large com­pa­nies. The Cal­i­for­nia com­mu­nity col­lege sys­tem is al­ready work­ing with LearnUp to give stu­dents ac­cess to the skills re­quired to fill avail­able lo­cal jobs.

As th­ese ex­am­ples il­lus­trate, though work­force train­ing is a public good, no sin­gle in­sti­tu­tion or arm of gov­ern­ment has all of the an­swers con­cern­ing how best to pro­vide it. Col­lab­o­ra­tion among gov­ern­ment agen­cies, com­pa­nies and trade as­so­ci­a­tions, ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions, and non-prof­its can give birth to ef­fec­tive strate­gies that can be scaled with public fund­ing. Only by work­ing to­gether will they be able to iden­tify the best recipes for suc­cess.

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