Solving the Middle Skills Gap at Harvard University

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

Joseph Fuller, Professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, joined the podcast to talk about the “Middle Skills” jobs employers have a consistently difficult time filling, and higher ed’s opportunity to serve and credential this critical market.

We need to always reinforce a message that there's dignity and work, that being someone, being a real person, doesn't hinge on having that four year degree. It hinges on the type of citizen, neighbor, productive, contributing member to society. Or you're listening to enrollment growth university from Helix Education, the best professional development podcast for higher education leaders looking to grow enrollment at their college or university. Whether you're looking for fresh enrollment growth techniques and strategies or tools and resources, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. Welcome back to enrollment growth university, a proud member of the connect ETU podcast network. I'm Eric Olson with Helix Education and we're here today with Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School. Joe, welcome to the show. Thank you, rich, delighted to be with you. Delighted to have you here and talk to you today about solving the middle skills gap. Before we dig in, can you get the listeners a quick background on your role at HBS? Well, I'm a professor of manage from practice and teaching our MBA program. I also lead a long term project at the school called managing the future of work, in which we examine the issues affecting the evolution of work, mostly in the developed world, that a policy maker, or particularly a business executive or institutional leader, should be taking into account. So we don't just focus on skills or that's a major area of our work. We talked about and examine automation, how Carr Economics and and familial concerns influence productivity and work, skilled immigration, the relationship between higher read and skills and work readiness. So it's pretty broad product, but we're trying to give...

...decision makers practical insights into how they ought to think about adapting their organizations to be ready for the way work is evolving. Yeah, and it is that future of work focused and I'm excited to dig in with you today, specifically in an area that I don't hear talked about potentially enough, in higher read job perhaps to kick us off today, can you start us off with that high level definition of middle skills and perhaps their correlation with consistently hard to fill jobs for employers? Middle Skills is commonly defined as a skill base, set of competencies and individual that can only be obtained by getting some type of post secondary education or certification but that simultaneously don't require a college degree. Gree so, an example of a middle skills job, in a classic one, would be a skilled construction worker, carpenter, a pipe fit or electrician, a welder, where you have to get to become a journeyman, you have to get through a certification program where you learn those skills. No one wants a self taught amateur electrician to do the wiring their home or, for that matter, a self taught dental hygenist. Right. So, whether it's a vet tech a dental high genist, also skills like the ability to repair a heavy duty truck engine or lots of skills in business like bookkeepers or account payable or kind of receivable clerks or market at, marketing analyst. They don't necessarily have to have a four year degree, although the trend over time in the United States has been to have more jobs and more employers who offer those jobs requiring a four year degree for jobs that are historically in a gray area or did...

...not require college degree. Yeah, Joe, you've done some really incredible and fascinating research in this middle skills space, going back to the great recession what do we know so far about the pandemics effects on these middle skills jobs? Well, it's like most things. It's a pretty broad based, systemic effect. Like the first thing is it knocked back the education plans of a significant number of aspiring workers. So there were dramatic increase in the number of people that either suspended permanently or postponed plans go to school. Of course we saw that in the enrollment numbers at community colleges, which are the really the evely the biggest source of middle skills talent in the United States. The second thing is that certain middle skills jobs, like the ability to repair a truck engine or, for that matter, to drive up eighteen wheeler over the road heavy duty truck, demand really picked up. But other middle skills jobs, let's say those in the hospitality sector or an aviation tech, someone repairs jet engines. As engine hours went down in the in the travel industry, significant reduction of demand, certainly for new workers, and emotions has furloughs or layoffs for incumbent workers. So it's been a it's been a very uneven distribution. You mentioned this concept of this kind of falls into a gray space and I think when I asked you that question about boy I'm surprised Hira doesn't talk about this more. I think you potentially answered that in terms of yet well, we're not sure that's the market that we serve. So I'm curious, as you've studied this group and part of the economy so carefully, how should hire read think about serving ideally credentialing this middle skills gap? Do we force upon them? Are Four your degrees that we're accustomed to, or do we think about something different? Well, it's a very interesting time because, of course,...

...the worth what paid for debate in higher it especially for four year institutions, is raging and more parents and learners want a representation that investing their time and money in getting a degree is going to lead to an economic outcome that justifies the investment. Strangely, a lot of the disciplines taught it through or off associated with middle skills fit with a lot of the jobs of tomorrow. So often times middle skills jobs have to do with learning a technology. And if digital technology becomes ubiquitous in all sorts of jobs of all different colors, white collar, blue collar and everything in between, having the capacity of an educational institution to impart those what are generally called hard skills becomes more important. So I think that for four year institutions, being cognizant of the fact that the attributes we attributed to college graduates historically that they would have high self efficacy and work ethic, that have good written oral communication skills, they would know how to tackle a problem, those are now being supplemented by a requirements to have some inability, if some ability or some some aptitude for both learning and working with technology, and that's often limited to our computer science programs in a higher institution. Let's distinguish also two year institutions from four year institutions. Community colleges historically have been the font of a lot of middle skills workers and in a about half the states cte programs and competency based programs are still a significant part of community college curricula. In the other half of the state there's states there's...

...a higher emphasis on general studies and preparing students to matriculate two or four year institution to get on that more normative path that we associate with with the American dream. I think what's very important thing for educational leaders is to dignify in in the way they describe what their institutions do and and in their commentary on education issues, especially with an administration that seems to be very, very inclined to do some big things in the sector, to really dignify the types of jobs that are associated with middle kills, with only forty percent of today's eighteen year olds likely to graduate from a four year institution, and that's of course an average which in which Asian Americans and Caucasians historically will have been overrepresented and African Americans and his Spanish will be underrepresented. We need to always reinforce the message that there's dignity and work, that being someone, being a real person, don't hinge on having that four year degree. It hinges on the type of citizen, neighbor, productive, contributing member to society. Or let's talk about that posture of dignity specifically when we're talking with local employers. You mentioned the systemic nature of the pandemic and how hard it was equally, or at least, on everyone to varying degrees. When we're looking at employers who may be in our communities, who are going through a lot and trying to navigate and figure out what next looks like for them dealing with critical, critical retention issues which, in our posture, be from a partnership standpoint, from a consultation standpoint, in terms of should we not only see our for year, you know, degrees as good upskilling credentials, which we think about this middle...

...skills group and this idea of Hey, employer, let's think about how to upskial your entry level workers to this middle skilled jobs in order to create a better pathway program within your organization to increase your retention. What should that posture and conversation look like with our local employers? Well, I think it's really an important issue you're touching on here, Eric, because the velocity of change in jobs is such now and and particularly the technological requirements and the actual technology being used turning over so fast that is more or less impossible to expect an institution of Higher Education to keep up with that, to know what the state of the art is, to be able to change curriculum that quickly in many cases where you have to have hands on learning, to be able to change the software license as your own the hardware, you've got to teach people on. So we absolutely need to convey, not just two employers but to educators and to policy makers, is we need a significant increase in the availability of work based learning that is part of degree attainment, whether it's associates degree attainment or bachelor for Cretainment, that it's only in the workplace that people really master skills and it's increasingly only in the workplace where the approaches and the technologies you need to master to be qualified to get a job are accessible to learn. So whether it's a co OP program of course, I'm from Boston, where or northeastern university is is the absolute platinum standard in terms of cooperative education, whether it's something like that or a much greater broadening of what constitutes apprenticeship in the United States, or work based learning, even starting in high school,...

...where you have innovative programs like careerwise Colorado, where you've got kids, as part of their high school degree completion, are working for an employer, often at the same time doing some dual enrollment studying at a local community college. The kind of very serial aid to be to see you go to high school, you graduate, you go to community college and then matriculate to a four year college or you go to humunity college and then enter the workforce and it's all very linear and and the educational resources of the country are expected to create and kind of, at the end of the diploma line, deliver to the workforce someone who is able to get a life, household sustaining level job. That kind of rote railroad track model just doesn't fit anymore with where technology is. So what we need is to both get it more flexibility on educators and more receptivity and effort by educators to encourage employers and are in that type of relationship. We need more employers to stop expecting that the way the world is supposed to work is they're supposed to be able to enter the spot market for talent and find exactly what they were looking for on demand. And we should be saying to policy makers, particularly now at the federal level, look, you can do things like have free community college, and their pros and cons to that, but you're just changing the Coefficient on one variable in the equation that is increasingly out of sink with what we need as an economy and as a society, which is more people in good paying households sustaining level jobs which...

...have a future and that really, really benefits from compensated work based learning that is part of degree completion. So the learner understands that. You know, I am getting articulation into course credits for this and I'm earning enough because over fifty percent of community college students are working learners. So I'm earning enough to pay my bills, to stay in school, to complete this program so that I can get a good, full time job. And that requires everybody rethinking their definition of success. Educators can't say we're all about education and you know, we're not a trade school and and the you know, the employer really have to understand what we need from them. Yep, fair enough, and vice versa. Joe. Tremendous, tremendous thoughts. Finally, can you leave us with some next steps? Advice here for institutions listening to this excited a about it, slightly nervous about where to move forward, but they want to better serve and better solve for the middle skills gap, both to better serve their own student population as well as to help service their local employers. Where should they start first? Well, first they should be very active and engaging employers and trying to understand how employers view the product they currently create in the form of their graduates. And the second thing they should do is understand that merely creating a more mature young adult who has good communication skills, good to self avocas a good research skills for some level of presentability, that's not enough anymore. Employers are saying regularly graduates from college don't know how to manage a project. They know how to take a course and they think in hundred day in increments because that's the length of a semester, and they think about I have eight weeks to get this done as and therefore I can maybe take this...

...week off because I want to watch the European Soccer Championship, because I'm a soccer fan, and but that's okay. I'll still have in seven weeks to do my turn. Paper business is about being productive or being in a government agency, but being doing a job every day. They're not good and not skilled, not experience, UN working in teams, especially teams of people not like them. But that I don't mean so much racial or gender diversity. As a sixty year old, a fifty year old, of forty year old, somebody calling in from the Mumbi office, you know, a gig were skilled gig worker, complicated teams. I think the the other thing they should be doing is is experimenting, and educational institutions generally aren't good at the experiments. Strangely enough, maybe they are in the Camel AB, but they're not in terms of curriculum, and I think trying some experiments with employers or partnering with outside, Non Traditional vendors. Are Not talking about textbook suppliers or whatnot, but I'm talking about technology companies or others that to see if they can create new curriculum that really equips equips people to have a better launch into the workplace. Final thing I would do I would be upgrading my career and Professional Services Office by Placement Office, and one of the things S I be doing is getting data from, and making it accessible of the students about things like what jobs are available in healthcare, in high tech, in manufacturing, in professional services, what are the job descriptions actually say, and how can we help students map what employers say they're seeking with our course catalog so that it's we're not just leaving the students to muddle through and and submit resumes to the...

...employers who happened to hired our institution. Expand that population of suppliers, give the stud of recruiters, give the students much better access to market data about what jobs are actually on offer in a community you want to live in, what do they pay and then what do they require? So and that freshman should be having that conversation and more data, more engagement employers and more experimentation with curriculum and particularly aggressive experimentation and moves into work based learning too. Thanks so much for your time, your thoughts and your continued research in the space. What's the best place for listeners to connect with you if they have any follow up questions? Well, Eric, they can contact me through the faculty landing page of my my bio at the Harvard Business School. So if you go to the Harvard Business School website and go to the Faculty Tab, you will find me at the end of the F's fuller. And then also we have a project work site managing the future of work. So of just Google that at Harvard Business School managed the future work hard business school. All my research is up there. Our podcast series, we have almost two hundred now up, is available there and searchable there, and we have a news letter people can sign up for. Awesome, Joe. Thanks so much for joining us today. Eric, my pleasure. Attracting today's new post traditional learners means adopting new enrollment strategies. Helix educations data driven, enterprise wide approach to enrollment growth is uniquely helping colleges and universities thrive in this new education landscape, and Helix has just published the second edition of their enrollment growth playbook with fifty percent brand new content on how institutions can solve today's most pressing enrollment growth challenges. Downloaded today for free at Helix Educationcom. Playbook. You've been listening to enrollment...

...growth university from Helix Education. To ensure that you never miss an episode, subscribe to the show in Itunes or your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time,.

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