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Waiting for Sputnik

December 17th, 2010
By Brian K. Fitzgerald, Executive Director, BHEF

Last week, the Lumina Foundation convened a wide array of education policy leaders and practitioners to explore the challenges of meeting the foundation’s “Big Goal” of increasing the proportion of Americans holding high-quality certificates and degrees to 60% in 15 years.  In the opening session of the meeting, several participants stated that “we need a Sputnik moment” —some catalyst to provoke change.

However, in the breakout session on “Higher Education as Job Creation,” for which I served as a discussant, the mood among the two dozen participants was remarkably post-Sputnik and a clear consensus rapidly emerged.  The group very quickly agreed that we are “beyond a crisis” and that we need concerted action to increase both the numbers of certificates and degrees as well as the skills required in a 21st century workplace.  At the heart of the consensus was a recognition that states and regions suffer from structural misalignments, which inhibit effective connections among economic and workforce planning, students’ career interest, and educational preparation for those high market-value careers. Fundamental misalignments across P-12 education, higher education, and the workforce threaten our ability to meet this country’s 21st century education and workforce needs, especially in the highest-demand careers. 

This insight is strikingly similar to a key insight from BHEF’s recent Cities for Success National Leadership Summit. That summit, part of BHEF’s College Readiness, Access, and Success Initiative, brought together BHEF member-led teams of mayors, school superintendents, CEOs, college presidents, and community and foundation leaders to share strategies for systemic education improvement in their regions. Summit participants agreed that addressing workforce challenges in their regions would require strong leadership committed to convening those diverse stakeholders with the ability to tackle the significant misalignments in the system.  These misalignments create inefficiencies in the education-workforce linkages--the supply and demand sides of the workforce equation--that result in students being trained for careers for which demand and market value are low, while other high demand/ high value jobs go unfilled.

Addressing this is not simply a matter of improving the path to community colleges and four-year colleges or universities. Rather, more must be done to connect students with these high-growth careers and ensure that they are prepared adequately in high school and postsecondary education to join the 21st century workplace.

BHEF’s analytic work across several states and regions suggests that efforts to link education and workforce goals are far more likely to be achieved if they are derived from an aspirational vision for the community that enjoys broad support. BHEF’s work in cities like Louisville, Des Moines, and Oklahoma City is focused on addressing exactly this misalignment, building consensus around a vision, and equipping leaders with the information, tools, and professional networks they need to achieve their communities’ economic vision for the future.


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