Getting ahead — staying ahead: Helping America's workforce succeed in the 21st century


Dec 10, 2009

Business Roundtable created The Springboard Project as an independent commission to explore how Americans can obtain knowledge and skills they need to compete and succeed in the global economy. The commission was charged with focusing on adults, from age 18 to whenever they choose to leave the workforce, and with developing specific recommendations that would:

  • Encourage the building of relevant skills for today’s and tomorrow’s markets;
  • Institutionalize lifelong learning as an individual and collective imperative; and
  • Facilitate workers’ capacity to adapt to dislocation and evolving labor markets.

The American workforce has reached a critical juncture; even when the unemployment rate declines, new jobs will require higher levels of education and skills than many of the jobs of the past. Our workforce increasingly finds itself lacking the skills and education demanded by the growing needs and challenges of today’s global marketplace.

Our vision for a new approach to workforce education and training no longer accepts our nation’s abysmal completion rates of two- and four-year degrees or the inadequate supply of nationally recognized workforce skill certifications and apprenticeships. These credentials matter — for personal earning potential, for companies that put a premium on innovation and talent, and for the overall competitiveness of our economy.

As important as it is to earn degrees or workforce skills certifications, it is not enough. Getting ahead and staying ahead also requires that we all become “learning workers” who continually improve and update existing skills and who are willing to keep learning as new knowledge emerges and new skills are in demand.

Even in the midst of a historically deep recession and soaring unemployment, jobs go unfilled because of a mismatch between the skills and experience of job applicants and those in demand by employers. The Springboard Project American Workforce Survey found that 61% of U.S. employers said it was difficult to find qualified workers to fill vacancies at their companies.

It is workers themselves who suffer the most from this situation. Workers with the least education have been hit hardest by the current recession, as those with less than a high school diploma are three times as likely to be unemployed than those with a bachelor’s degree or more.

American workers are highly receptive to the message that lifelong learning is a must in today’s world, with 81% of those surveyed saying they are interested in taking training or courses outside the workplace. However they face obstacles that limit both participation and completion. Convenience, cost and time are the most problematic; 62% would be very likely to pursue training or education if they were offered greater flexibility such as classes offered year-round and at times that accommodate their work schedules. The growth of online courses and virtual training is helping to meet that need.

A significant number, 41% of surveyed workers, are reluctant to invest the time because they are unsure about what their jobs will require in the future. They also are concerned whether programs are accredited, how they can find out if the degrees and certificates offered will be valued by employers, and why courses they have already taken often are not accepted by other schools. At the same time, the cost continues to increase faster than the rate of inflation.

For more than 50 years, federal and state policies helped the United States achieve the world’s highest postsecondary education participation rates by increasing access to higher education. It is now clear that enabling access is no longer sufficient; it must be paired with program completion and a credential valued in the marketplace.

In addition to traditional associate and bachelor’s degrees, workforce skill certificates, certifications and apprenticeships also can signal attainment of in-demand skills to employers and educators. However, unless they are nationally recognized and portable within an industry, students and workers who earn them cannot be assured that they are worth the investment.

Federal and state governments currently collect volumes of data about labor market trends that are useful to economists and researchers. However, these pieces of data frequently are difficult for students, workers and educators to access and use. Currently, students and workers do not know how to find out which education and training programs have the best outcomes for completion and employment. Educators also need better information on industry trends and job outlooks to more effectively match their programs to the needs of their students and the realities of the marketplace.

The Springboard Project recommends six goals to help our workforce succeed in the 21st-century marketplace. The first three goals include near-term recommendations to get better outcomes from the current system; the second three goals require a longer horizon and more fundamental changes.

  1. Create incentives to build a better-educated and trained workforce. Increase postsecondary education and training attainment rates to meet market demand and provide personal opportunity by rewarding institutions and individuals.
  2. Develop nationally recognized workforce certifications and credentials. Empower students and workers by creating nationally portable workforce skill credentials that are credible to educators and valued by employers.
  3. Communicate timely and consumer-friendly information to workers. Provide valuable labor market and related education information in ways that are easily accessible, understandable and timely.
  4. Bring 21st-century innovation to education and training. Reinvent the delivery systems of postsecondary education and training to get better and more costeffective outcomes for more people.
  5. Unlock the value of community colleges and two-year institutions. Build on the untapped potential of community colleges and two-year institutions to encourage more people to embrace postsecondary education and to revitalize local economies.
  6. Foster lifelong learning. Encourage a new mindset that values lifelong learning as an essential priority for personal and national success.
To view the complete report, click here.