Microsoft’s Innovation and Policy Center – New England hosted an event last week entitled “Educating your Future Workforce: A Forum for Employers,” sponsored by the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, and the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. The event, kicked off by Microsoft’s Director of Government Affairs Brian Burke, highlighted the challenges employers face in finding workers with the skills needed to fill open positions, actions that are required, and the roles that the state’s K-12 education system, public colleges and universities must play to address the challenge. The conversation, led by the state’s Commissioner of Higher Education, Richard Freeland, included remarks from employers who all agreed on a common theme: there is a disconnect between the education system and employer needs, and progress is dependent upon better understanding and communication between the two.
A survey of employers across Massachusetts, conducted by the sponsors of the event, found that 69% have difficulty in finding employees with the skills necessary to fill open jobs. While the panel acknowledged there are pockets of excellence in vocational technical education and on some Community College campuses, systemic change is needed to bridge this divide.
There is a side effect to this disconnect, however, that is not directly related to the workforce pipeline: if business feels disconnected from public education, particularly higher education, it is less inclined to be an active and vocal advocate for it. Employer panelists at the event talked about strategies they are undertaking to meet their own workforce needs, such as in-house training or partnerships with individual institutions to define curricula and, essentially, create their own pipeline. While these strategies meet the needs of employers, they circumvent the public system and are not systemic change. Yet given the current landscape, employers feel like these strategies are their best option.
Commissioner Freeland noted that, due to a perfect storm of circumstances, the public higher education system needs close to $500M in new state investment. In order for business to be invested in advocating for the public education system, the disconnect must be addressed. Two-way communication, a mutual understanding of needs, and genuine partnerships between business and education throughout the system, scaled to incorporate best practices, would be a start.