Educating workers of the future
"There will never be enough money to take care of people who graduate without skills for the work force,"
Leaders of Rhode Island’s public and private colleges got together yesterday for an unprecedented discussion of their role in the new economy, their
own futures, and the need to work more closely with one another, with K-12 schools, and with industry.
The day-long event, organized by the state Board of Governors for Higher Education, drew hundreds of people to the Rhode Island Convention Center —
including 10 college presidents and at least two provosts, Governor Almond, legislators, and top economic policymakers.
Almond, who was honored as a strong supporter of education, said it holds the answer to Rhode Island’s socioeconomic problems because it can lift
people out of poverty and spur economic growth.
"There will never be enough money to take care of people who graduate without skills for the work force," Almond said. All Rhode Islanders need to have
access to college, he said. And if educators and economic-development leaders work together, Rhode Island’s potential is endless.
The question of how to realize that potential, yesterday’s discussion revealed, has taken center stage on public and private campuses alike. The
answers that colleges have found so far vary depending on their priorities and missions, but they also have much in common.
Across the board, there are concerns about the skyrocketing cost of higher education, and about keeping college accessible to disadvantaged students.
All want to ensure that their graduates will be competitive in tomorrow’s economy. And all feel a need to evolve, to adapt to a fast-changing environment.
Paul Harrington, associate director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, used Rhode Island employment statistics to show
how dramatically the economy has changed in recent years, and what a crucial role educators play in shaping the future.
Until the 1970s, Harrington said, Rhode Island’s economy — like the nation’s — centered on manufacturing, which offered numerous opportunities for
people to earn good wages even without a high school diploma. In 1950, about 60 percent of Rhode Island’s workers were high school dropouts, he
said. They learned on the job, and rose up the career ladder.
But manufacturing has been on the decline for decades, Harrington said. Between 1983 and 2000, manufacturing jobs in Rhode Island decreased by
37.3 percent, Harrington said. The biggest growth sectors, meanwhile, were the service industry — which grew by 75.3 percent — and finance,
insurance and real estate, which grew by 42.2 percent.
In the new environment, education does count, a lot.
While overall, high school dropouts made up 20.2 percent of the work force in 1983, by 2000 they were only 7.5 percent, Harrington said. High school
graduates’ share of the jobs declined from 39.8 percent to 31.2 percent. People with some college education, meanwhile, held 25.7 percent of the jobs,
up from 16.9 percent. People with college degrees had captured 35.7 percent of the jobs, up from 23.1 percent.
The earning potential of workers with no college education has "dropped like a rock," Harrington said. And "if you’re a high school dropout, there is no
room at the inn for you."
But Rhode Island’s work force is not prepared for this new environment, Harrington said.
First of all, the state is losing workers. From 1990 to 2000, the work force shrank by 3.3 percent, Harrington said. And the new workers are, to a great
extent, immigrants who don’t speak English well and may not have a lot of education, he said.
Nationwide, 14 percent of the total population growth from 1990 to 2000 was non-English-speaking immigrants, he said. In Rhode Island, it was 43.2
percent. The state’s work force is "very mismatched" with its labor needs.
To secure its economic future, Harrington argued, Rhode Island has to reach its neediest population and ensure that it gets a good education. Part of
that will entail making college affordable, he said, but the state also has to ensure the K-12 system prepares young people for college.
Gerald Williams, director of the University of Rhode Island’s talent development program, which serves disadvantaged students, made a similar point in
a breakout session yesterday.
High schools do a disservice to youths when they force them to decide, in ninth grade, whether they want to go to college, he said. Instead of tracking
them so narrowly, he said, schools should offer everyone — even vocational students — a college-preparatory curriculum.
Several people yesterday also expressed concern about older students — including many immigrants and welfare recipients — who need a college
education to succeed, but are too intimidated.
"The research will show you that adults on campus feel like imposters, that they’re waiting to be caught any day," said Brenda Dann-Messier, executive
director of Dorcas Place, an adult-literacy center.
Older students need to feel supported, Dann-Messier said, so they’re not overwhelmed, and can realize their potential. One good approach, she said, is
a new partnership between her agency and the Community College of Rhode Island, which has allowed a group of Dorcas Place GED graduates to
take a course together, with a professor conscious of their special needs.
Looking at the big picture of economic development, CCRI President Thomas Sepe urged policymakers and dealmakers to bring colleges to the table
when they’re discussing how to attract new businesses to Rhode Island.
A well-trained work force is essential to any business that comes here, Sepe argued, and colleges can help to ensure that businesses get what they
need. They can also prepare Rhode Islanders for new jobs, as CCRI is beginning to do at Quonset Point, training welders to fill openings at Electric
Boat, for example.
Jeffrey Seeman, dean of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences at URI, spoke about the economic-development role of research institutions.
His specialty, biotechnology, has enormous potential for Rhode Island, he said — it’s already starting to show with Dow and Wyeth Pharmaceuticals.
URI researchers are involved in a wide range of biotechnology-related projects that can be applied to industry and attract new businesses, Seeman
said. Investing in top-quality faculty and facilities, he said, is crucial. "It is the start of a massive economic pipeline" for Rhode Island.
With its focus on the future, yesterday’s discussion also offered plenty of room for speculation about how colleges will evolve in the next decade.
Arthur Levine, president of the Teachers College at Columbia University, said major changes are occurring that could threaten colleges, but also offer
Clearly the demand for education has grown, Levine said, but colleges are not the only ones meeting the public’s needs. With its fast growth and heavy
cash flow, higher education is a "very attractive" sector for private investors, and for-profit schools, online publishers, and corporate programs are
increasingly competing with colleges.
Technology is central to the new world, Levine added, and colleges’ uses of technology are still "primitive." With an ever-growing supply of customizable
computerized materials, and ever-improving telecommunications, schools will be able to shape their programs to meet students’ individual needs in
ways that wouldn’t have been possible in a traditional college setting.
As all of this happens, Levine said, and as the demand for training in specific skills grows, the structure of education will also change. If what matters is
what a student knows — not how much time he spent in college — then degrees will lose their importance.
In the future, Levine said, Americans may build up their educational credentials as a series of certificates in specific areas, documented in "educational
passports" they carry throughout their lifetimes.
Levine acknowledged that it’s too early to know how many of those predictions will come true, but he urged his colleagues to take them seriously,
because they "may be the ghost of Christmas future." "
If educators look ahead, Levine added, they can make the best of all the changes.
"No generation has had a chance to put its stamp on the future of higher education in the way that we have," he said. "That’s an enormous opportunity."
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