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November 13, 2014

Loss of jobs, underemployment, and hard-to-fill positions are issues that have plagued the American economy since the recession in 2008.

Joe Fuller is a researcher at Harvard Business School and the author of a recent report on closing America's middle-skills gap.

Part of the focus of his report is the role higher education plays in providing the workforce America needs for those middle-class jobs.

Fuller discussed his report with WGBH's Morning Edition host Bob Seay. You can listen to that entire interview here, and read a partial transcript below.


SEAY: What about our education system? There's been a lot of talk about 'Are we providing the education system needed for the workforce that we need?'

FULLER: Educators have a very tough challenge in preparing people for the workforce. First of all, our K-12 system doesn't create a steady flow of graduates who are both literate and highly numerate.

So community colleges, when they are bringing in students, often have to remediate students' skills in those areas. And in fact, the requirements for getting an associates degree at a community college often include a significant number of hours spent on altering those skills. That leaves little time available to develop the type of specific work skills that middle-class employers need.

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Another problem with the system is that often schools are insufficiently engaged with employers. So they don't really know what employers are looking for, what the state-of-the-art skills are that will cause an employer to hire their graduates. Frequently, they just don't have access to the resources, for example the physical equipment that students will be expected to be able to operate. It just isn't available to a community college.

Now that's a two-way street. Employers are not engaging community colleges and other educational resources in a way that equip them to provide the type of workers those employers are looking for. But the education system often isn't sufficiently attentive to, or engaged with, employers to really understand what it's going to take to generate graduates who are going to find successful employment opportunities. 

SEAY: Anyone with a young child, looking ahead to the future as to what careers they might pursue, the landscape is changing pretty quickly. Is there anything you can count on in the years ahead? 

FULLER: I hope we're going to see some changes in the system. It's one of those very unusual systems where all the primary players, educators, employers, industry associations... they all acknowledge that there is a significant problem and the problem is not correcting itself. So what we'd like to see is an evolution of the system, where businesses accept the requirement that they lead this system. And by leadership, I don't mean that they have dictatorial authority and that they're telling educators how to work with students, but rather that they create a vision of what they need and work together to define what are the requirements to do certain work in their industries.

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We're also hopeful that educators will engage in that dialogue willingly. It's not necessarily a natural or comfortable act for a lot of our educators to say, 'Business people are customers, what we're trying to do is give them a product -- a student who is ready to work, to be productive quickly, and start on a path to success.'

And we think government has quite an important role, but a different one than it's tried to play historically. Historically government has wanted to be almost an independent actor in the system, running its own training programs, developing its own curricula. Rather, we think government, particularly at the federal level, ought to focus its attention on trying to make the market between educators and employers work better.

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