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  • Writer's pictureMarie Cini

Education Should not be a Hot Potato

Oh, what a difference a pandemic makes.

Just three months ago when the U.S. was experiencing “full employment,” pundits were lauding employer-led training and education initiatives. Amazon came on strong with a “train your own” model and discussions centered around the end of Universities.

Fast forward to the end of April, and Ryan Craig was warning us that “if you thought employers were going to close the skills gap, think again.” We’ve come full circle in just three months. In good times, employers decide they can do better than colleges and Universities. In a downturn, employers pull back from investing in their human capital.

Meanwhile, the impact of recessions on higher ed is just the opposite: in tough times people return to the educational system to prepare for a better future. The Great Recession of 2008 showcased the strength and resilience of community colleges and those who serve adult learners through increased enrollments and federal grants to support workforce education. Philanthropists were also generous in their support of new models for postsecondary education to better serve America’s learners.

It's as though education is a hot potato. Employers toss it back to higher ed when things get too hot.

We have seen this tension play out many times before. In each recession we have experienced in this country, employer training and development budgets have taken a hit. Community college enrollments, however, tend to increase. And once a recession is over, employers collectively “discover” the need to invest in human capital, and training and development benefits come back strong, while college enrollments for working learners fade again.

The difference now is the sheer speed of the cycle. A recession that once took many months or even years before employers felt the full economic impact now occurs in a month or two, thanks to our globally interconnected systems where decisions occur and are communicated in real-time. In late February, we were talking about the need for employers to upskill workers internally since the demand far outstripped the supply of talent; in early May, we are wondering how colleges and universities will reskill the millions of unemployed workers for jobs we can’t be sure will exist anytime soon.

As a nation, we must come to terms with this “hot potato” cycle. In good times, higher education is bashed as too traditional, too slow, and out-of-date for employers’ needs. In moments of hubris, employers become convinced they can do better on their own. In bad times, employers circle the wagons and throw the responsibility for upskilling or reskilling to workforce boards, colleges and Universities.

Employers have so far not been willing to take on the education imperative during both good times and bad. Colleges and universities cannot be expected gear up when the economy takes a downturn, after years of underfunding. It's time for a new collective national model to harmonize efforts between postsecondary education and employers to continually upskill and educate learners for longer careers, careers that will inevitably include several disruptions akin to COVID19.

I’ll devote my next blog to this new model and hope you will join us in building it.

Until then, stay safe and keep learning.

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