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With the majority of the current United States labor market falling somewhere in the vast space between high school graduate and college graduate, those trained to fill roles in this education-gap are often labeled as "middle-skilled." Jobs either require a degree, or they don't and those who are stuck in the middle can find themselves locked out because of the all- or- nothing approach of many employers. 
The culmination of months or years of focus, rearranged schedules, and late night studying is a noteworthy achievement for any graduate, but is often even more so for those learners who pursue their goals outside of a traditional school setting. Whether through employer-sponsored upskilling and workforce development initiatives or personal efforts to start a new career path or advance within their current company, these learners are working toward a tangible outcome: improving their lives through education. And though that outcome alone is acknowledgement of success, there's nothing that feels quite the same as walking across a stage with fellow graduates, family and friends: a cheering cacophony in the background. In fact, commencement ceremonies have become so ingrained in the culture of education that, without it, the dedication and work that lead a student to successfully complete their course almost feels like a cliffhanger ending in a movie with no sequel.
"There is an old African proverb: If you don't embrace the young in your village, they will return later to burn it down for its warmth."
It's no secret that the modern workforce is in flux. Advances in automation and technology continue to transform the American economy and with it, the skills required to secure meaningful work. Combined with a growing skills gap, the workforce landscape in the United States is changing at a rapid pace. The solution is complicated. It will require government reform and creating educational pathways that lead to a secure future, and will take the joined efforts of industry experts in education, training, and workforce development, in tandem with policy makers, to navigate the new skills economy. 
The concept that a four-year university degree is the only path that leads to meaningful, lucrative employment is outdated. In many ways, it's an ideal that can't keep pace with the swift technological advancement that is impacting employers and workers in a variety of industries. Employers struggle to find trained talent to fill skilled or middle-skilled roles. Workers, many of whom rely on steady employment and income, can't afford to take time from that work to learn in a classroom setting, let alone pay the exorbitant tuition of colleges and universities. And, if they do take that time, the degree earned doesn't necessarily provide them with the skills that employers look for, leaving many workers underemployed at best.
On March 20, 2019, yet another successful class of Penn Foster graduates walked the stage to receive their high school diplomas at Red Rock Job Corps in Lopez, PA. These students worked tirelessly over the course of several months to finally realize their goal and take a meaningful step toward creating better lives for themselves.
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.
The labor force participation rate might seem like one of those statistics that's more interesting to governments than it is to business leaders. However, in a tight labor market, with an unemployment rate of just 4%, employers should be concerned to learn that there are millions of potential employees in the prime of their working life who don't have a job and aren't looking for one. What's worse, a disproportionate number of these people are middle skills workers.
When engaged stakeholders gather to discuss the future of teaching and learning, Penn Foster is naturally right in the middle of things. We'll be sharing what we know, learning from other industry leaders, and contributing to two programs at this year's SXSW EDU conference in Austin, TX.

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