Why Skills Training Can’t Replace Higher Education

Much of the current media-reported posturing by policy makers and pundits about the failure of U.S. colleges and universities to adequately prepare people for the 21st workplace is either ill informed or misguided, in my opinion.

One of the dominant narratives in the media is that we need to produce more workers now who can do whatever is needed now, using short-term postsecondary certification programs. The focus is typically on “vocational” skills, contrasted with what too often are characterized as relatively useless liberal education outcomes, including knowledge of world history and cultures and other “indulgences” such as crafting understandable prose and judging the veracity and utility of information.

To make it easier for employers to identify competent workers, a litany of badges, certificates, and the like will purportedly signal proficiency. In some yet-to-be-demonstrated manner, these proxies will then be stacked and sewn together by a trusted entity to warrant conferral of what traditionally has been considered a college degree. Along the way, it’s assumed that learners of any age will independently bring coherence to and cultivate depth of understanding from these various experiences.

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Another narrative is framed by a chorus of CEOs and managers who bemoan that too many job applicants with associate and baccalaureate degrees cannot write coherent paragraphs, clearly explain complex problems, or work effectively with people who differ from themselves. And this is after several years of postsecondary study, not the few weeks or months needed to earn a badge.  At the same time, many business leaders say that they prefer candidates who not only can do today’s work, but who will be able to continue to learn on their own in real time to do tomorrow’s work — jobs that have not yet been invented. Is there a badge or certificate to certify skills for jobs that haven’t even been invented yet?!

Of course, short-term vocational skills-based programs are critically important and well suited for many people. This has always been true and will continue to be so. But is this an acceptable policy choice for addressing the demands of the 21st century workplace and fixing the shortcomings of American higher education at this point?

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