This post was contributed by Donna Klein, Executive Chair and CEO of Corporate Voices for Working Families. It was originally published in the Huffington Post.
As anxiety about sluggish economic growth mounts and as calls for job creation become more urgent across the country, policymakers are looking to regional solutions to offer insight into national plans for a way forward.
The U.S. House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training held a field hearing in Greenville, South Carolina last week titled, “Reviving Our Economy: The Role of Higher Education in Job Growth and Development.” Educators, business leaders and public officials gathered at the hearing to discuss the challenges facing the regional economy, and the innovative partnerships colleges have created with businesses to meet industry needs and to strengthen the quality of the local workforce.
The hearing was held at Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research (CU-ICAR), and was very timely. The regional unemployment rate in the Carolinas remains around 10 percent, which is well above the national average. People are struggling to find jobs, even while businesses face challenges finding local workers with the appropriate skills they need, especially in the manufacturing and high-tech sectors.
Seeing the national issue of the skills gap exemplified on a local level is significant for me, as a new resident to South Carolina, having spent over twenty years in the Washington, D.C. metro area overseeing diversity and work-life initiatives for Marriott International, Inc., and then founding Corporate Voices for Working Families. Corporate Voices is a national, nonprofit business membership organization that creates and advances innovative corporate and policy solutions that help improve the lives of working families. It has identified the skills gap as one of the most pressing issues facing business competitiveness and the economic security of working families today.
According to “Across the Great Divide,” a report Corporate Voices published earlier this year in partnership with Civic Enterprises, more than half (53 percent) of business leaders say their companies face a challenge recruiting employees with the education and training their company needs.
Through its Learn and Earn initiative, Corporate Voices seeks to close this skills gap, which threatens our nation’s future economic prosperity. This initiative identifies, promotes and encourages innovative partnerships between employers and higher education institutions that help people complete their postsecondary education.
Partnerships like these are critical to strengthening the quality of our workforce. As James Barker, President of Clemson University said during the hearing,
“Today, more than ever, higher education needs to work closely with government and private industry to ensure that our graduates are well-prepared for the immediate job market and for their future roles as leaders of our companies and our communities.”
Two specific examples of partnerships between education and industry discussed at the hearing were Clemson University’s International Center for Automotive Research and its collaboration with BMW and Michelin in South Carolina, as well as Forsyth Tech’s collaboration with the National Association of Manufacturers in North Carolina.
These partnerships and what they result in—a better prepared workforce and educational systems that are responsive to the needs of employers—echo the findings of Corporate Voices’ series of Learn and Earn micro business cases. Partnerships like the Health Careers Collaborative, and those supported by Bison Gear and Engineering Corporation, the Western Association of Food Chains and UPS show that across industries and companies of different sizes, employers and colleges are discovering that collaborations to help workers complete their education while working make business sense and help workers maintain a competitive edge in the economy.
This is even more critical at a time when so many working learners—often low-income young adults—face significant barriers to completing their higher education. Challenges balancing work and school, along with the rising costs of college tuition, make educational and work-life supports a powerful part of employer efforts to strengthen their talent pipeline, while helping workers achieve economic security.
If we are to meet President Obama’s challenge of having America lead the world in college completion by 2020, we need to cast a spotlight on successful partnerships like those in the Carolinas and those documented in Corporate Voices’ Learn and Earn series. Scaling and replicating these partnerships across the nation will help close the skills gap, and put us on a firmer footing for long-term economic growth and development.
Donna Klein is the Executive Chair and CEO of Corporate Voices for Working Families. She currently lives in St. Helena Island, South Carolina.