Human history is, among other things, a story of divides. It is a story of disparities in income, health, commerce and education. For the most part, the story is about crossing those divides and closing — or at least narrowing — those gaps. That’s what we call progress.
Careful, though. Although the education gap has been narrowing for centuries (especially in the 20th), there is — unless you are aware of it and are prepared to take concrete steps — a possibility that this divide will widen. Although 63 percent of all job openings by 2018 will require workers with at least some college education (source: Projection of Jobs and Education Requirements Through 2018, Georgetown University, 2010), public support of education is down in 48 states and, at the same time, employers are cutting back (or at least not expanding) their training programs. They are, in essence, expecting candidates to show up fully qualified.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that total employment is expected to increase by 20.5 million jobs from 2010 to 2020, with 88 percent of detailed occupations projected to experience employment growth. In the midst of all this, jobs requiring a master’s degree are expected to grow the fastest, while those requiring a high school diploma will experience the slowest growth over the 2010- 20 time frame.
Further, the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Population Survey, which tracks data for full-time wage and salary earners age 25 and over, shows that there are strong correlations among educational attainment, income and unemployment.
With the unemployment rate for people 25 and older at 7.1 percent (lower than the total population because of high unemployment of those under 25), the unemployment rates by education level in 2012 are as follows: less than a high school diploma, 12.4; high school diploma, 8.3; some college but no degree, 7.7; associate degree, 6.2; bachelor’s degree, 4.5; master’s degree, 3.5; doctoral degree, 2.5; and professional degree, 2.1.
A straight line, if ever there was one.
Concurrently, median weekly earnings for the same categories are: less than a high school diploma, $471; high school diploma, $652; some college but no degree, $727; associate degree, $785; bachelor’s degree, $1,066; master’s degree, $1,300; doctoral degree, $1,624; and professional degree, $1,735.
Another straight line.
All signs pointing the same way
Alongside the above clear and compelling data, consider the increased emphasis on teaching STEM curricula — science, technology, engineering and math — all of which require higher educational attainment levels.
The National Science Foundation broadly defines STEM degrees to include chemistry, computer technology and information science, engineering, geosciences, life sciences, mathematical sciences, physics and astronomy, psychology, social sciences, and education and research.
Just the mention of these areas is enough to justify the effort, but the urgency is further underscored by Teach for America, for example. On its website, the organization states: “American students lag far behind their international peers in science, technology, engineering and math. Currently, the United States ranks 25th in math and 17th in science among developed nations. Teach for America is addressing the urgent need to improve math and science education by recruiting, training and supporting outstanding corps members (teachers) to become effective leaders in STEM education in low-income urban and rural communities.”
Teach for America reports that the number of incoming secondary STEM corps members (first-year teachers) increased from 630 in 2006 to 1,640 in 2011, and that the number of students affected by these teachers rose from more than 50,000 to more than 120,000.
Today, more than 3,200 first- and second-year STEM corps members are teaching math and science, making Teach for America one of the largest providers of math and science teachers in the country.
More than STEM: hard and soft skills
The above makes it clear that technology skills are crucial — to the individual, the employer and to the nation. These are called “hard skills.”
However, there has always been a need for what is known as “soft skills,” such as communication, team building, problem solving, decision making, creative thinking and general interpersonal skills — skills that are transferable across industries and occupations. Surveys abound that show that employers are equally concerned with finding job candidates with soft skills that complement their hard skills.
Who’s got skin in the game?
Teach for America is only one example of an organization that has revved up the drive to teach STEM courses. Four-year colleges and universities are developing focused curricula and, with the collaboration of their career centers, are meeting the demands of employers. In the process, they are placing outstandingly high amounts of graduates.
Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport, for example, boasts that 70 percent of its students have job offers in hand by graduation day, compared with a little more than 40 percent among all schools nationwide (based on data supplied by the National Association of Colleges and Employers). Further, 95 percent of its graduates secure jobs within six months of graduation.
While emphasizing STEM curricula, Penn College of Technology places equal emphasis on developing soft skills, thereby producing graduates capable of filling higher-level jobs and of continuing their own self-learning.
The Penn College of Technology is not alone. Not only do many other four-year higher education institutions follow the same path, community colleges are at the forefront as well. The American Association of Community Colleges reports on its website that the Advanced Technological Education program “focuses on preparing technicians for careers in high-tech fields that drive the nation’s economy.” The website also mentions: “Grants support technician education and faculty professional development.”
Community colleges typically offer hundreds of courses (if not more) that prepare workers for 21st century jobs and do it at affordable cost and with flexible scheduling, including self-paced online courses. As a result, according to the community college associaton, “Community colleges serve close to half the undergraduate students in the United States.”
Further, it reports, “Community colleges also provide access to education for many nontraditional students, such as adults who are working while enrolled. The average age of a community college student is 29, and two-thirds of community college students attend part time.”
In other words, the group states that “Community colleges are diverse institutions that serve a wide variety of needs. These include the students who attend to upgrade their skills for a particular job, students who are pursuing an associate degree to transfer to a four-year institution and students who attend to pursue a hobby (such as learning a language).”
Getting there from here in five steps
Success in the 21st century workplace and, more immediately, this decade — for the individual, the employer and the nation — depends on narrowing the educational divide. For those looking for jobs and, more long term, planning careers, a five-step approach is vital.
First, identify those skill sets that are in demand and that you are willing to pursue. Second, assess your skill sets to define — clearly and honestly — where the divide is. Third, identify the institution(s) that can help you develop those skills. Fourth, put together your plan to “get there from here.” And fifth, execute that plan.
Career success requires a plan, of course, but also the will and perseverance to follow it through.