Launching the Commission on Higher Education & Employability

By Stafford Peat

University System of New Hampshire Chancellor and NEBHE Chair Todd Leach, NEBHE President Michael K. Thomas, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo who is Commission chair, Rhode Island Acting Commissioner of Postsecondary Education Brenda Dann-Messier, and Gallup Executive Director of Education and Workforce Development Brandon Busteed discuss policy at the inaugural Commission on Higher Education & Employability meeting.

The Commission on Higher Education & Employability (Commission) held its opening event at the Rhode Island State House on Wednesday, April 12.  The Commission is a collaboration of the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) and Gov. Gina M. Raimondo of Rhode Island, who is serving as chair. The Commission membership includes business leaders, college presidents, chancellors, state legislators, secretaries of labor and workforce development and students.

The Commission will identify and recommend high-impact practices and institutional and state policies to improve the career readiness and employability of recent college graduates in New England.

NEBHE’s President and CEO, Michael K. Thomas cited a 2014 Gallup report, which found that the urgency of this work can be attributed to the polarization between employers and college academic leaders. While 96% of college representatives felt confident in their institution’s ability to prepare students for the workforce, only 11% of business leaders agree that today’s college graduates have the skills and competencies that business needs.” According to the Federal Reserve Board, more than 30% of young adults do not receive information about jobs and careers in college.”

Gov. Raimondo spoke about the rapid pace of technological change and the advancement of industrial robots, artificial intelligence and data analytics. The governor said, “Companies that get it right in the face of change will survive and grow, while the impact of acceleration could mean that well-paid jobs for blue-collar workers, such as trucking, will likely be obsolete in 15 years.” Moreover, she noted that Rhode Island has undergone difficult economic times the last 20 years and that this conversation is a game changer—everyday, employers tell her that they could grow faster if more skilled employees were available.

Providing testimony were Andreas Schleicher, director for the Directorate of Education and Skills at the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD), and Brandon Busteed, executive director of education and workforce development at Gallup.

Schleicher cautioned that while the older generation of U.S. adults’ literacy levels is among the highest in the world, the younger generation falls short. A Japanese high school graduate, for instance, has the same level of literacy as a U.S. college graduate. Busteed shared what skills employers were seeking in recent college graduates. Rising to Number One among employers is the need for recent graduates to have some type of internship or work experience.

Elsa Núñez, president of Eastern Connecticut State University, agreed and added that the quality of the internship matters, too.

Busteed spoke about the critical role career services plays in helping students to develop employability skills and the fact that more students were taking advantage of these services. Unfortunately, though, Gallup has found that many graduates reported that their career services office was not very helpful.

One common refrain heard from Commission members who are employers was that their states and the region are suffering from a skilled worker shortage. Judith West, senior vice president of human resources at the Maine Medical Center, called the situation a perfect storm. West pointed out: “In Maine, there are more deaths than babies being born and the incoming workforce lacks fundamental skills and needs retraining—contributing to the increasing growth in the cost of healthcare.”

Ross Gittell, chancellor of the New Hampshire Community College System, reminded the Commission to focus its strength in acting as a region and leveraging our collective efforts given that New England’s highly skilled workers and high-value added industries are highly mobile.

To help the Commission develop its report and recommendations, the membership is divided into three working groups, each focusing on two topics: 1) Effective Use of Labor Market Data and Intelligence and Planning, Advising and Career Services; 2) Work-Integrated Cooperative and Internship-based Learning and Targeted Higher Education/Industry Partnerships; and 3) Innovation, Technology and New Economy Skill Bundles and Emerging Credentialing Systems.

Looking ahead, the Commission will meet virtually in May and will reconvene in Providence the end of June.


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