When great minds work together they can unravel even the most complex problems. At SXSWEDU, a panel of experts looked at ways to close the skills gap for millions of middle-skills workers and students. Panel members included Penn Foster graduate Markcus Perez, Christine Mikulski of Guild Education, an organization that partners with Penn Foster, Erica Pandey of Axios, and Ivy Love of New America.

During their wide-ranging discussion, four topics arose again and again. These are the areas that employers, educators, and policy-makers must address to successfully close the skills gap.

1. Exposure to middle-skills opportunities

In the last few decades, the conversation about post-secondary education has focused almost exclusively on paths to college. The first step toward closing the skills gap is helping workers and students understand that middle-skills jobs represent a real opportunity.

"I think that there's a lost piece of the conversation around what it means to go into the skilled trades, what that pathway looks like," Mikulski said. "We do still have college very much on a pedestal in our country."

And while, in many cases, college offers economic mobility, it may also demand a time and financial investment that students are simply unable to make.

Educators should provide more alternative solutions, like Penn Foster's high school diploma + career pathways program, which enables students to customize electives to work toward a specific career while pursuing their diploma.

Even beyond high school, students may not know what they don't know. Perez took the career readiness bootcamp course while working at a DXL, a men's big and tall store. He said the course showed him that he didn't know as much as he thought he did about the workplace.  

"I thought that I was doing everything that I possibly could," Perez said. "It really actually prepared me for [a job] that I was already doing."

Improving workers performance on the job is just one effect of quality middle-skills training. Mikulski mentioned the example of one partner in the traditionally high-turnover industry of fast food.

"We saw 90% of workers who enrolled in a Guild program were with that employer for 9 months," Mikulski said.

The immediate return on investment was clear for that employer. They didn't have to shoulder the burden of a continuous hiring cycle and they had better trained employees over all. As more employers realize the value of continuous training, we may see the middle-skills gap begin to close.

2. Building a structure that works

The traditional college system was built for young students who would go to college, get all of their education in two or four years, and then venture out into the workforce. But rapidly changing skills needs make that model, if not obsolete, at least incomplete.

According to our research1, 60% of middle skills adult learners earn less than $30,000 per year. To complicate matters further, more than 65% of them are working at least part time and many have families to support. They don't have a lot of disposable income or free time to invest in education. To close the skills gap, we need to create an educational structure that works for these students. That starts with examining who is taking out student loans and how much they cost.

"If the income payoff is good, that's great," Love said. "But if students are digging themselves into a huge hole to get a certificate, licensure, or any kind of middle-skills credential that's a big problem."  

Making middle skills training accessible in an equitable way will require investment by someone other than the student themselves. Governments and employers will need to step up to provide the necessary funding.

Love believes that public investment by state and federal agencies will be an essential piece of the puzzle. One way that might happen is through the proposal to expand Pell grants to include programs shorter than 15 weeks. But quality control concerns may delay or prevent the expansion.

In the meantime, a new structure for middle-skills education is emerging from employers partnering with education providers. Organizations like Penn Foster or Guild Education provide expertise in delivering classes, course design and student support that most businesses simply don't have on their own. Choosing partners with expertise in online learning and adult education can make all the difference.

3. Providing regionalized solutions

While some changes are universal, the specifics of which programs to pursue and how best to implement them will likely come down to regional demands. For example, in more rural areas, healthcare is a big issue, while in larger cities there may be more opportunity for trades jobs.

Educational institutions should work closely with employers to identify the job opportunities in a particular state or region, and then create programs to realize those opportunities. In Detroit, businesses, educators and organizations have partnered to create middle-skills training solutions that work for their region-a resilient city in the process of rebuilding.

Employers can also connect with each other to pool resources on a larger scale. A single, well-developed training program can improve the overall talent pool for all of the businesses within an industry. The National Retail Federation is a good example of this. They've partnered with Penn Foster to launch RISE Up, a training and credentialing initiative, to prepare workers for a career in retail. Rather than each retail establishment creating their own training systems, they've banded together to create a program that works for all.   

4. Renewed focus on apprenticeships

Apprenticeships may just be the gold standard for middle-skills education. Not only do registered apprenticeships include reliable quality controls, but the student worker is paid while they learn.

The federal government is well-aware of the value of internships.  A June 2017 executive order created a task force to explore apprenticeship expansion. Already, businesses have taken matters into their own hands. Their building out apprenticeship programs in non-traditional areas like nursing.

Bipartisan interest in apprenticeships coupled with the clear benefits for businesses mean that more businesses are likely to invest in them soon. That's good news for students, because apprenticeship models ease their financial burden while preparing them for career.  

The ultimate question

For businesses, organizations and governments that want to close the skills gap, the ultimate question is: how can we give the right people the right training at the right time? The answer seems to be some combination of helping students see their options and removing their financial barriers. To do so, businesses and organizations must partner with education providers and government agencies to tell them exactly what skills are needed, where. And then work together to build programs that teach those skills.

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Resources: (1) Data from 2016 Penn Foster Student Benchmark Survey