New England’s economy has improved, but economic opportunity and skills gaps contribute to slower growth in employment, income and social mobility than experienced in previous recoveries from recessions. With an aging population and relatively slow natural growth rates in the labor force, these gaps put the future of the New England economy at greater risk than that of other regions.
There are ways to overcome these gaps. Stronger bridges between education and employment (“E-to-E”) and specifically between the region’s employers and community colleges can be built, which would benefit the regional economy and individuals and their families across New England.
The data is strong on the benefits for state economies and for individuals from advancing higher educational attainment. In New Hampshire, for example, moving the percentage of working-age adults with college attainment from its current level of approximately 50% to 65% would mean a $1,400 increase in per-capita personal income and an increase of about $130 million in state revenue annually, according to the National Center on Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS).
For individuals in New Hampshire, the increase in average weekly earnings from high school graduate to associate degree is over 21% and, for bachelor’s and higher, over 50%. Even with the strong returns to higher education, the percentage of working-age adults with a college degree is not rising fast enough to keep New Hampshire among the top states in educational attainment and make up for the retirement of the state’s aging, highly educated baby boomers. Nationwide, from 2008 through 2012, the percentage of U.S. adults with an associate degree or higher increased by 1.5%, while New Hampshire’s percentage increased by less than half that—just 0.7 percent. This is occurring while increasing numbers of employers are bemoaning the lack of available skilled workers and many New Hampshire working families are struggling financially.
Currently many high school graduates in New England, particularly from low-income families, are going directly into the labor market and taking jobs in relatively low-paying positions in retailing and services with very limited advancement prospects. They will very likely be the “working poor” for an entire generation. They will receive low pay and be the first to lose their jobs during the next economic downturn. The challenge and the opportunity is to inform these young people and their parents of the benefits of going to college and working in the region—and the consequences of not going to college. Business and education leaders have to provide guided, supportive and affordable pathways to college completion and into fruitful employment in New England.
The lack of skilled workers while many residents remain marginally employed might be best characterized as an education-to-employment gap—an E-to-E disconnect. Individuals without postsecondary education or an applied higher education skillset are not as successful as those with higher education and with their education aligned with the needs of companies that are hiring for well-paying positions. In New England, the employer needs are increasingly complicated and specialized. Employers need workers with the so-called “soft skills” of communication and teamwork, plus the ability to problem-solve and think critically—and they increasingly require workers with domain expertise in a field that they can apply, for example, marketing, industrial design, machining or coding.
But fixing the problems in the labor market and economy is more complicated than advocating for “advanced education.” In Future of the Professions, Oxford University economist Daniel Susskind talks about 130 licensed professionals, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics uses a Standard Occupational Classification to define 840 different occupations. It used to be employment was as simple as medical school for a doctor, law school for an attorney, business school for an accountant, engineering school to be a civil engineer, or a community college for welder.
Those examples—medical, accounting, welding, engineering programs—suggest the value of an “apprentice-type” model with education aligned with and drawing on work experience and tied to employment after credential obtainment. And there are many examples of programs at the doctoral, bachelor's and certificate levels that continue to be effective at education-to-employment progression and are based on apprenticeship-like approaches. But what we need now are more programs developing student skillsets for which there are rising numbers of unmet jobs. In many of these, a credential alone will not complete a graduate’s training, but will be part of their E-to-E journey. This gets more pronounced as the economy becomes more complicated.
Because E-to-E is traditionally decoupled and new jobs are being created outside standard progressions, too small portion of the population can fill these jobs—and that is slowing the growth of the economy. There are many fields and job classifications that have no well-defined program or progression. Education institutions and business organizations need to partner more than ever to create the bridge from education to employment to close the skill gap and the opportunity gap.
We can point to several places where building that E-to-E bridge from education to employment has been successful in New Hampshire. In each of these cases, N.H. community colleges have been a catalyst for creating on-ramps to economic opportunity and employment. Great Bay Community College (GBCC) in Portsmouth and Rochester, and Nashua Community College are partnering with suppliers to the global aerospace industry, Albany International, Safran and GE to train workers in advanced composite materials manufacturing and CNC machining. In these programs, college faculty worked closely with company engineers, management and frontline workers to design curriculum. Students’ program work includes on-the-job experience and students have internship opportunities and virtually guaranteed employment after successful program completion.
Given the context of the opportunity and skills gaps we face, it’s clear that we need to cross the chasms. If we can tap that potential, we can unleash another wave of growth and enhance the competitiveness of the region. How can we broaden work-based education and training models beyond traditional Department of Labor strategies and other traditional apprenticeship practices to have them span K-12, postsecondary education and the workforce with a larger number of employers and industries, including in the fields of health, IT and financial services.
One of our previous education solutions was a general purpose “high school” education. The rise of high school education began with the Committee of Ten in the late 19th century, and high schools became ubiquitous during the early 20th century. This has been a great success as we are able to reach the entire population. The high school systems have become built up, standardized and, now unfortunately, too often exist in discipline silos and divorced from 21st century workforce requirements. To confront our new challenges, we need to partner, collaborate and adapt. Where we all have fallen short is that our high schools, community technical education, community colleges and industry do not collaborate enough in the areas of high employment need.
The mental model is nothing new but it’s essentially a dual-education system that combines theory and practice (which happens to be the motto of Jeremy’s alma mater, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute).
NHTI (Concord’s community college) and Manchester Community College IT graduates comprise over 10% of the workforce for Dyn Inc, the fastest-growing IT company in New Hampshire. GBCC and River Valley Community College in Claremont and Lebanon are partnering with Exeter Hospital and Dartmouth-Hitchcock respectively on training medical technicians. All these programs provide guided pathways from general education, to job-specific employment skills in occupations that pay greater than average wages for associate degree holders and have promotion and career opportunities. All these programs provide work-based learning opportunities such as internships and job placement And students can enter all these programs while still in high school through dual-enrollment (Running Start) courses that the Community College System of New Hampshire has with virtually every high school (over 90) in the state.
These programs are not educating professional engineers or doctors but rather “middle-skilled” professionals, desperately needed by employers as evidenced by the thousands of openings in these fields. In essence, we expanded the high-skilled talent pool by bridging the education to economy divide by establishing educational pathways to regional employment and, in doing this, we are addressing the opportunity and skills gaps in New Hampshire.
What is required is that community college and other educators work alongside employers from industry in the design and delivery of the guided-pathway programs and that these programs are focused on 21st century skills—those with high future need and strong career prospects. We in workforce development and higher education need to do what hockey great Wayne Gretzky attributed his success to: skating “to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.” Industry and community college leaders have to work together to build bridges and guided pathways that support economic opportunity, employment and income growth, and a strong future for the New England regional economy. We can help to address the opportunity and skill gaps by building stronger connections of E-to-E: education-to-employment.
Ross Gittell is chancellor of the Community College System of New Hampshire. Jeremy Hitchcock is the founder of Dyn, a New Hampshire-based internet performance management company.