Adult Learners’ Critical Role in the New Economy

Employers say they can't find enough skilled workers. Colleges and employers have important roles to play in addressing that problem.

Much of the analysis following this year's presidential election has focused on the message sent to Washington that change is needed. Many of the voters sending that message have seen their quality of life eroded as they and their communities lost well-paying jobs. They weren't alone. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, more than 95 percent of the jobs created during the recovery have gone to workers with at least some college education, while those with a high-school diploma or less are being left behind.

Proposed initiatives to improve our country's infrastructure could be an opening for many of these workers, helping them back into meaningful high-paying jobs. Yet owing to our nation's skills gap, the pool from which to draw those workers is shallow. That's why adult learners are key.

There is no question that our country lacks the number of qualified workers needed to fill current positions, much less those created as a result of any additional infrastructure enhancement we may undertake. According to the 2014 Talent Shortage Survey by the consulting firm ManpowerGroup, 40 percent of U.S. employers are reporting difficulties filling positions, with skilled trade positions being the hardest to fill. Employers everywhere are reporting that thousands of job openings remain unfilled because workers lack the necessary skills or credentials.

This trend looks likely to endure. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require a college degree or postsecondary credential -- jobs like medical coding, welding, computer technology and manufacturing in our increasingly automated factories. We're facing a shortage of five million skilled workers for these types of jobs.

Today, there are more than 36 million adults in this country with some college education but no degree, compared to only about three million new high-school graduates. Yet higher education and its governing state policies remain focused on this younger, smaller group while neglecting to place the necessary emphasis on adults. If we are to create a workforce that can fill these jobs, we must change the way we think about adult learners.

Legislators and other policy makers need to understand that full-time students between the ages of 18 and 22 comprise only about a third of today's students attending college -- a trend that isn't going away. The reality is eye-opening: 38 percent of all undergraduate students are older than 25. This growing population of adult students deserves our full support.

Progress is being made by organizations like ours, the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, and our partners, but there is much more to be done. We can continue to help colleges become more friendly to adult learners and more willing to encourage adults to demonstrate knowledge and competencies that will accelerate their progress toward graduation. We should develop workforce initiatives that give employees access to the resources and the time they need to pursue a postsecondary credential. We should also implement policies that pay as much attention to educating adults as to K-12 students.

Education could very well be the key that unlocks the prosperity that the American Dream promises to every citizen, but only if we implement policies that ensure we have a qualified workforce that can build it. Adult learners will be a large and growing part of that workforce. With our support, they will drive our economy and ensure our nation's competitiveness.

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Pamela Tate is the president and CEO of the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning.