America's Education Gap And What CIOs Can Do About It

By Gary Beach, The Wall Street Journal

ECMC Foundation President and Zenith Education Group CEO Peter J. Taylor comments on the topic of America's education and skills gaps.

05/24/17

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The "skills" gap cited by chief information officers as one of their most vexing issues is a facet of a larger, systematic failure in our schooling system. Work to reduce this "education" gap will take a generation and involve the help of educators and politicians, but also business leaders, including CIOs, vested in maintaining the country's competitive edge.

America's "education" gap has two primary crevices: 1) workers who need more education to attain the skills needed for employment in the 21st century and 2) overqualified workers whose education is not valued in the jobs they hold. There is no "one-size-fits-all" education gap in our country. It varies by regions. The education gap in the Midwest might be wider than the education gap in the Northeast.

Accenture's 2017 U.S. College Graduate Employment Study offers the latest evidence, forecasting that only 15% of 2017′s 1.9 million college seniors will leave campus this month with a diploma and a job.

Intrigued by the findings, I asked a group of tech executives in Atlanta, where I was on a speaking assignment, if they knew how many graduates had job offers before or upon graduation. The audience consensus was about 50%. Most were startled when I told them Accenture's forecast. That percentage is consistent with prior Accenture research on this topic even though Korn Ferry, an executive search firm, says starting salaries for 2017 graduates will average $49,785, the highest since 2007.

Flip Accenture's 15% prediction, and the most ominous finding of the Accenture study emerges: after 17 years of formal education, 85% of college graduates march from the commencement line to the unemployment line. Some will offer this counterpoint: within a year of graduation, most college graduates find jobs. The unemployment rate for college degree holders is 2.5%. But Accenture notes that even after they find work, 54% of college grads believe they are "underemployed," working "in a job that doesn't require my college degree." Only 46% believe their diploma is needed to do their job.

The Accenture report is the latest warning that America's education system is systemically broken. The first crack in our nation's "education gap" occurred in March 1942 when the U.S. War Department launched the "Army General Classification Test" to "minimize the impact of public schooling" on men and women who sought to enlist. Over the next seven decades, reports like A Nation at Risk, America's Choice: High Skills or Low Wages and Rising Above the Gathering Storm have warned that our nation's education gap continues to widen.

Are you surprised only 15% of college seniors graduate with jobs? Who is responsible for this dismal outcome? Entitled Generation Z students, coddled by parents since birth, who would rather party than prepare for securing a job in senior year? Self-centered college administrators more focused on increasing the college endowment? Tenured professors who often rely on outdated curriculum and making money via paid speaking gigs? What about business leaders, chief information officers included, who often seem content to critique public education, yet unwilling to offer solutions. My assessment: all of the above share blame.

In a Dec. 1, 2008 Wall Street Journal editorial, Louis V. Gerstner Jr., former chairman of International Business Machines Corp., offered this observation:

"I believe the problem lies with the structure and governance of our public schools. We have over 15,000 school districts in America; each of them, in its own way, is involved in standards, curriculum, teacher selection and so on. This unbelievably unwieldy structure is incapable of executing fundamental, systemic change."

The current public education system has many faults. But there are many ways too in which chief information officers and other interested parties can affect change.

Here is one idea: Engage with administrators and departmental heads at local K-12 schools. Share information about the employment skills you need at your company. After visiting a high school on Cape Cod, one chief information officer implemented an "externship" program where she lends a software developer, one full day a week, to the local high school to help faculty teach relevant skills needed at her oceanography firm.

Here's another suggestion: Implement internship programs, both paid and non-paid, with middle school, high school and college students. If your firm relies on specialty skills, start an apprenticeship program. Put pressure on higher education institutions to embrace project-based learning.

For chief information officers planning to hire a recent college graduate, here's a tip: Ignore the candidate's GPA. Focus instead on these five skills, which according to research from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, constitute the most egregious education gaps among college graduates: 1) critical/analytical thinking, 2)written communication, 3)locating/organizing/evaluating information, 4)oral communication and 5) working with others in teams.

Solving America's education gap is going to take a generation. Maybe more. Peter Taylor, CEO, of Zenith Education Group, a non-profit provider of career school training, says business leaders must take the lead and form a "national coalition to raise public awareness that America's future economic outlook is directly tied to a skilled workforce." Good call to action, but that coalition must also include politicians, academia, parents, students and the teacher unions.

Perhaps the most remarkable finding in the Accenture survey is that despite the byzantine structure of the American public education system, 15% of this year's college graduates didn't let "schooling" interfere with their ability to graduate and find a job. That's worth giving the mortar board cap a good fling at graduation.

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