US debate heats up: just the job, or skills for life?

Technology posts go unfilled as academy restates the value of liberal arts degrees. Jon Marcus writes

May 17, 2012

Ryan Hoyle has one of the toughest tasks in Detroit. His job is to hire engineers and other skilled employees for an information technology company called GalaxE Solutions.

Yet in the midst of high unemployment, and in a state where joblessness has long been above the national average, his and two neighbouring tech companies have a total of 500 openings they cannot fill.

"There's just a shortage of supply," Mr Hoyle said. "I don't think you'll find a technology recruiter who would say we're in a recession right now."

As many as 3.9 million high-skilled positions are vacant across the US at a time when nearly 13 million Americans are unemployed.

Now President Barack Obama - who has called the situation "inexcusable" - and employers are pressing higher education to do a better job of matching graduates' skills to the needs of industry.

They claim that universities are not producing workers with the right skills, are too slow to respond to labour trends, and do not keep up with vocational requirements.

As tuition fees rise, students and parents are also demanding to know what jobs they are likely to get for their investment.

It is a high-stakes confrontation over the very purpose of higher education - knowledge or vocation? And universities are returning fire by saying that what employers really want from workers are the things they already teach, such as innovation, creativity and the ability to write and speak well.

"This notion that it either has to be a focus on knowledge or a focus on vocation is a false dichotomy," said Ronald Crutcher, president of Wheaton College and co-chair of a campaign called Liberal Education and America's Promise, or LEAP, which is trying to promote the value of a liberal-arts education.

"You have to be able to think critically, and narrow training for a specific job doesn't do that."

Universities say that what they provide is the capacity to adapt - something more important than ever, since employers' needs have never changed so quickly.

Data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that the average university graduate will change jobs 11 times by the time he or she is 38.

"You don't get a degree for a job. You get a degree for a lifetime," said Jay Halfond, dean of Boston University's Metropolitan College and Extended Education, which teaches adult learners returning to college to retrain in search of new jobs.

"It's short-sighted of students to think that a degree is really for that next rung."

But Lisa Baragar Katz, director of the Detroit-area Workforce Intelligence Network, said the shortage of skilled workers showed every sign of getting worse, not better.

"The urgency around having workers who are ready to (be employed) now is only going to increase," she said.

"So there is going to be increased tension between what our academic institutions think they should provide and what the employers said they need."

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