The need for a higher-skilled workforce is real.
by Gary Kaplan, JFYNetWorks Executive Director
The March state employment report (released in late April) focuses on two concerns: weak job growth and a shortage of skilled workers. Job growth waxes and wanes from month to month, but the skilled worker shortage has been a constant refrain for years. The Federal Reserve regional summary (the Beige Book) for April seconds the call for more workers at every skill level.
It’s no news that Massachusetts—like the region and the entire country—needs to upskill its workforce. Weak population growth and accelerating baby boom retirements intensify the need for more and higher-skilled workers. But the number of college graduates—the statistical proxy for skilled workers—has been flat for years, and college enrollments are actually declining. The Department of Higher Education says that Massachusetts is producing 6000 too few post-secondary graduates each year to satisfy labor market demand. In order to keep the economy booming, we need to increase the number of college graduates.
The place to do that is in high school. Our education system, from K-12 through higher education, is our workforce development pipeline. 90% of our young people rise through the public schools. High school is the transition and launching pad. Those four years are our last chance to fill in the skill gaps that will become opportunity gaps if not remedied. We have been struggling to improve public schools for decades. Progress has been made, but the skill demands of the labor market have risen faster than the skill profiles of our high school graduates. The new standards of the developing economy are varied, but one baseline is accepted by virtually every industry sector: post-secondary education or training. Not every job requires a bachelor’s degree: associate degrees and technical certificates are appropriate for many jobs. But the shorthand summary of today’s labor market is that a college degree is the new high school diploma.
Massachusetts is taking on the workforce challenge with a new early college initiative designed to raise the number of college graduates by beginning college courses in high school. In order to reach that goal, the college-going population will have to be expanded by including groups who have not historically participated at high rates in higher education. But raising the skills of “underrepresented” students to college level is not a trivial task. Remediation rates at community colleges, the best available gauge of the skills of this group, have hovered over 60% since the 1990s. The opportunity gap between high school and post-secondary education has a persistent academic foundation.
The state’s success in meeting workforce needs will depend on strong embedded academic supports in high school to bring students to college readiness and then support them through early college courses and on through a degree. If Massachusetts wants to keep its competitive edge, we need to raise the skills of our emerging workers—all of them.