Not too long ago, The Chronicle of Higher Education referred to the “skills gap” as “the phrase that launched a thousand business plans.” We prefer to think of it as a phrase that can launch a new generation of collaborations, and put many thousands of people to work in meaningful careers.
There’s no doubt that our goals of materially reducing the workforce skills gap and increasing economic mobility are big and challenging, from both a business and a social outcomes perspective. We also believe that helping youth and working adults in the new skills economy is not a zero sum game.
Indeed, we see the market for supporting the aspirations of others as nearly infinite, and that the opportunity grows as more people succeed. It is the intersection of education and employment which affords all of us who are committed to helping youth and working adults the opportunity to make an impact on improving continued employability and enhancing workplace effectiveness.
The challenge is that a topography map of the nearly $300 Billion workforce development marketplace highlights that rather than an integrated system, it is actually a complex web of independent organizations. The constellation of players is vast from social-purpose organizations and Workforce Boards to leading employers, funders, government and education providers. All are seeking to contribute, but connecting and aligning interests requires high national and local market IQ and an ecosystem enablement platform oriented around employment outcomes.
Last year on this blog, Gerry Fernandez, founder and president of the Multicultural Foodservice and Hospitality Industry, and I wrote about our mutual work in that industry. One lesson we pointed out was that understanding key local employment market needs is essential, as is creating offerings tailored for specific sectors or even specific jobs. This work also typically requires many providers to partner to provide academic and training support coupled with social services and employment placement. This how outcomes are optimized, and it creates superior value for partners and, in the end, the workers we can upskill.
The manufacturing trades are also important to this country, as it is a sector that can provide high-growth opportunities, especially if the reshoring of U.S.-based manufacturing continues to grow. This opportunity is what drives us to work with leading automotive manufacturers in powering up scalable apprenticeship programs, while also successfully piloting a variety of customizable apprenticeship programs to fit the needs of leading trade unions.
With the demand dynamics created by an aging population and the growth in middle-skilled health careers, Penn Foster is also committed to training the next generation of medical support and technical staff. Today we offer more than 25 programs and serve 40,000 students annually, and just this month we introduced a new Home Health Aide program and additional competencies and credentials in this rapidly growing labor market sector.
While all of these programs are well and good, we also recognize there remain 40 million adults without a high school diploma – a rite of passage on the path to nearly every high-growth job category. That’s one of the reasons that we support directly the Job Corps, YouthBuild USA, and career colleges to implement academically rigorous programs for at-risk youth across the country.
Finally, we remain rooted to our ongoing commitment to important social purpose enterprises such as our non-profit human services, workforce and government partners that are providing essential opportunities for the underserved and unemployed in local communities including: JEVS, our partnerships with Workforce Investment Boards, the National Job Corps Association, and Goodwill Industries.
Making progress towards closing the skills gap by providing high quality, affordable, flexible and cost-efficient online education is a win-win – good for middle-skilled career seekers and incumbents in high-growth industries, and great for the organizations who are investing in them.
The key insight however is that no single organization can address the scale of the challenge alone. Instead, we see the next generation as an environment where worker upskilling is a subscription delivered by coalition of providers and partners that become a workforce-as-a-service. While acknowledging that elite colleges and universities will continue to serve elite students, we see the rest of the workforce development marketplace shifting to a new paradigm powered by partnerships, and the creation of a skills keiretsu of interlocking and like-minded organizations. This is when the premise that opportunities grow as more people succeed will be fully affirmed.
Frank Britt is the CEO of Penn Foster, which in 2016, through direct enrollment and via partnerships with hundreds of leading employers, youth organizations, unions, workforce boards, non-profits and academic institutions, served more than 150,000 learners, graduated 44,000 students, and enabled thousands of alumni to secure employment – more than any year in its 127-year history.