The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported the number of job openings in our country increased to 10.9 million, a record high. At the same time, the U.S. is experiencing a labor shortage of historic proportions. The need to connect Americans to career mobility has never been greater, and yet our country’s education and workforce systems have long lacked a true bridge between high school and upward career mobility after graduation, especially for students not immediately attending four-year universities.
As a result, many young adults – especially those from historically disadvantaged backgrounds – are facing an unfortunate dilemma: delay income and amass debt while working toward a traditional college degree, or put off education completely to take a low-paying job with limited chances for advancement.
But there is a way to address these enormous challenges – and now is the time to do so. Our country’s government, higher education and business leaders must invest in a “jobs-first” higher education model and the requisite policies needed to ensure residents throughout the country can access it.
A “jobs-first” higher education model positions young adults on a path toward prosperity quickly and affordably. Young adults complete an industry-recognized credential that generates college credit while receiving career training and support that equips them with the professional skills to obtain their job, persist in it, and pursue a plan for ongoing education and career advancement.
In six months and with just a Pell Grant, a young adult anywhere in the country could attain a living-wage job – all while earning college credits that can be stacked into degrees over time.
Early examples of this work exist. In Ohio, Lorain County Community College’s Fast-Track program offers short-term certificates that are tuition-free, generate credits that can lead to additional certificates or degrees, and come with a dedicated career coach and connectivity to employers.
Similarly, National Louis University – a nonprofit four-year college based in Chicago – is partnering with my nonprofit organization, Propel America, to blaze an even more ambitious trail, working to develop multiple credential-through-bachelor’s degree pathways that offer a viable career ladder for prospective students under one institution’s roof. These pathways – with one available now, and two more in 2022 – are not only Pell Grant-eligible, but ensure students have a seamless transition from credential to associate to bachelor’s degrees.
To ensure programs like these are readily available to all Americans, we need all relevant stakeholders to take action. The federal government has a significant opportunity to bring about much-needed systemic change through public policy and executive action. Leaders could, for example, increase the Pell Grant amount and ensure Pell funding is flexible for short-term programs; continue to provide state and federal funding to support training and offset the opportunity cost of pursuing education, which includes factors like transportation, technology, food and child care; and create incentives for employers to cover the cost of continued higher education. New stimulus dollars are just one way to provide a solid foundation for these long-term investments.
Higher education leaders, too, must innovate to develop “jobs-first” academic pathways that align to employer needs, allow credits to transfer between institutions and articulate credits into higher degree offerings.
Finally, employers have an opportunity to change the game altogether. A commitment from employers – from the C-suite to human resource departments – to build new and diverse pipelines of historically overlooked talent is the first step. Employers can then get to the core work of reevaluating the competencies needed for their most in-demand, upwardly mobile jobs, shifting toward a skills-based hiring model and investing in creative on-ramps into jobs that include internships, apprenticeships and other project-based capstone activities.
A “jobs-first” higher education model introduces a paradigm shift that can benefit tens of millions of Americans. This is a moment for our policy leaders to work with the business community, forward-thinking institutions and training partners to boldly reimagine higher credentialing and career preparation in a new era.
The nation’s economy and an entire generation of young people depend on it.