To Close the Skills Gap, Re-Value the Associate Degree

A number of economists, policymakers, elected officials and employers cite a “skills gap” as the reason the nation is not putting more people back to work. The problem, they reason, is that too many people have the wrong skills for today’s jobs, and colleges and universities are not doing enough to prepare people with the right skills.

The idea of a skills gap is tempting to buy into, and using higher education resources as a swift means of filling the gap seems to make some sense on the surface. However, before making radical changes to state systems of higher education to fix a short-term problem, it is worth taking a closer look at the nature of that problem, and at alternatives that might better serve everyone—students, job seekers, employers, colleges and state governments—in the long run.

Is there a skills gap?

There may be a skills gap but it’s probably not as severe as the one you’ve been hearing about. Even in a healthy economy, it can be difficult to identify just how many unfilled jobs actually exist, and where the greatest needs may lie.

One frequently cited source for employment figures is the Employment Trends Index, regularly compiled by the nonprofit Conference Board. A challenge to relying on information about job openings in the Index, however, is that the Conference Board relies on job postings for their report, not actual job openings—and yes, there is a difference.

Job postings may be counted more than once, and nearly half of those counted by the Conference Board in its reports over the last year have actually been part-time, temporary, or contract positions.

On top of that, many companies advertise “phantom” jobs—job openings that don’t really exist—to keep their name out in the public, particularly during lean economic times. As a result, the number of “unfilled” jobs cited by the Conference Board (and by those who rely on its research) is typically far less than reported.

So, it seems the skills gap has been exaggerated. The reality is that there are far fewer jobs going unfilled than have been reported, and that aligning skills with job openings isn’t going to be a simple fix. To turn this economy around and get more people employed, the focus must be on job creation—and perhaps on more creative solutions to filling real job openings.

Community colleges and workforce development

Community colleges have been at the center of the skills gap discussion, because they have traditionally provided the most accessible, flexible and affordable workforce training and education. However, in many areas—particularly in highly educated places like Massachusetts where large portions of the workforce have bachelor’s or master’s degrees—demand for students with community college credentials has not been increasing as a result.

A recent “Middle Skills Jobs Study” conducted by Middlesex and Northern Essex community colleges in Massachusetts highlights the dilemma. Using a combination of occupational projection data provided by Economic Modeling Specialists Inc. and a review of postings on job search engines, One-Stop Career Centers, temporary employment agencies, and industry council web sites, the colleges compiled a report on actual job availability across the Merrimack Valley in northeast Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire.

A few of the key findings:

  • In September 2012, there were hundreds of job openings in the Merrimack Valley, many with job titles that have been identified as requiring “middle skills.” But for the jobs that existed, less than 18% were open to applicants with just an associate degree or certificate (most required a bachelor’s or even a master’s degree.)
  • Of the 452 openings in the 17 medium to large companies representing the Merrimack Valley Computer Services, Information Technology, and Manufacturing/Machining sectors, 400, or 89% required a bachelor’s degree or higher. Just 24 openings (5%) required an associate degree.
  • Of the 375 openings advertised in the nine organizations reviewed in the Health Care sector, 115 (31%) required some college or an associate degree. Less than 30% of these jobs, however, were full-time. Overall, of the 375 positions in this sector, just 9% required some college or an associate degree and were full-time.

What can we do?

So, on the one hand, labor analysts, some employers and state officials insist there are large numbers of unfilled positions, especially in areas like the resurgent manufacturing industry; and all we need to do is train people differently (perhaps at community colleges) to fill those jobs.

And on the other hand, different labor analysts, employers and educational institutions (like ours) say that the issue is more complicated, and rather than just training people differently, employers and educators need to collaborate more, evaluating current needs and being open to creating new categories of jobs.

This problem actually provides an opportunity that may be unique to New England: It is time to re-value the associate degree in our part of the world.

Just because employers can require a bachelor’s degree or higher for a particular job does not mean they have to. Very often, an associate degree can provide important hands-on skilled training—especially for entry level or “middle skill” jobs—that bachelor’s degrees don’t provide.

And, when an employer is able to hire an associate degree-holder for a job that may have previously required a bachelor’s degree, they may save some labor costs and look forward to workers staying in their positions longer as they pursue additional education and training and move up the ladder.

Example from the life sciences

Northern Essex Community College’s partnership with Charm Sciences—a Lawrence, Mass. company that develops and manufactures biochemical diagnostic test kits for the food and beverage industries— is a perfect example of how this can work effectively.

Around 2007, the company was assessing its entry-level lab analyst positions, which, up until then, had required a bachelor’s degree.

To meet growing hiring needs, Charm Sciences decided to split the duties of some of its lab analysts and create a new category called a lab technician—an associate degree position.

To help Charm Sciences and other life science companies fill positions like this, science faculty at Northern Essex developed a new Laboratory Science Program (LSP), a hands-on program which included an internship. The primary goal of this program was to prepare students to join the workforce immediately after graduation.

The program launched in 2009, and its close alignment with industry needs was quickly recognized: In December 2010, the LSP received “Gold Endorsement” by the Massachusetts Life Science Education Consortium. The employer-driven consortium awards gold only to programs whose curriculum includes all competencies as mandated by the industry members.

This model is working well for Charm Sciences, which places students in externships and has hired two graduates for permanent jobs. Currently, seven of its approximately 40 entry-level laboratory positions are open to associate degree graduates.

Industry partners wanted

While Charm Sciences has discovered the benefits of hiring associate degree graduates, many companies continue to seek bachelor’s degree graduates for nearly all of their positions, a practice that is contributing to the skills gap. If more New England companies began to reconsider their hiring practices, creating new career opportunities for associate degree graduates, we can begin to close that gap.

This won’t be a simple fix. In many cases, community colleges will have to develop new programs which fit employers’ needs. And employers will need to reconsider hiring practices that have been in place for many years.

The good news is that faculty and staff at Northern Essex and other Massachusetts community colleges are eager to work with area employers to help assess employee needs and determine if there are opportunities for associate degree graduates.

If we successfully reevaluate the associate degree, we can begin to address the skills gap and build a stronger, more efficient and effective ladder of educational and career opportunity across New England.

Noemi Custodia-Lora is assistant dean of liberal arts and sciences and Lane A. Glenn is president at Northern Essex Community College. David R. Legg is vice president of quality assurance with Charm Sciences.



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