Higher education needed to fill skilled job deficit

Postsecondary credentials are now required to enter the middle class, according to the Illinois Board of Higher Education. As 140,000 high-skilled jobs go unfilled in Illinois each year, Gov. Pat Quinn pushes 60 percent of the state population to hold postsecondary credentials or a degree by 2025. However, officials at the University question how to face these challenges as state funding continues to decline steadily.

Following World War II, the United States saw massive growth in postsecondary education. Now, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s 2012 report, the U.S. ranks 14th in the world in the percentage of 25 to 34-year-olds with higher education. The odds that someone will obtain higher education if their parents do not have a secondary education are 29 percent, which is the lowest among the countries ranked by the organization.

“We need to make sure higher education does not become an opportunity only for the elite and wealthy families,” said Abbas Aminmansour, Illinois Board of Higher Education’s Faculty Advisory Council chair and member of the Urbana-Champaign Senate’s Senate Executive Committee. “We also need to make sure more high school graduates are college ready, pursue postsecondary education and finish their programs.”  

Harry Berman, executive director of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said in contrast to years past, it’s very difficult to have a middle class lifestyle on the earnings that a high school graduate would receive.

“For people from low income families, it can be a challenge for them to move up because they need a postsecondary credential to do so,” Berman said. “This does not necessarily mean they need a four-year degree though. There are many certificates and programs available as well. Students need a credential in order to live a satisfactory and economically stable life.”

Charles Tucker, vice provost for Undergraduate Education and Innovation at the University, said this is something the University has believed to be necessary for a long time.

“Our charge is to educate the children of working class people,” Tucker said. “If you were having this conversation at a high-end private school, they might view their admission a little different, but it’s the mission of the University to educate people broadly across all kinds of backgrounds.”

According to the White House Office of the Press Secretary, average tuition at  a public four-year college has increased by more than 250 percent over the last three decades, while typical family income grew by 16 percent.

Some degrees may or may not allow students to pay off their student loans, said Nicholas Burbules, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership. He explained that going into $100,000 worth of debt as an engineer is offset by a six-figure starting salary. 

140,000 high-skilled unfilled jobs

More than 140,000 high-skilled jobs are unfilled within the state of Illinois, according to Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, because workers lack the necessary skills for these jobs.

“This reflects national trends that, in many areas, there are not enough students going into a certain field,” Burbules said.

Brian Neighbors, the Career Center’s senior assistant director, said most of the increasing job openings are in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM.

“For me, I would like to see the breakdown of 140,000,” Neighbors said. “We know from similar reports that there are companies who cannot find employees for high-skilled positions. We see it a lot with engineering, where there is not enough computer science students on this campus to fill every job posting.”

In fall 2008, more than 5,000 undergraduates were enrolled in the College of Engineering, compared with the 7,112 undergraduates currently enrolled, according to the University’s Division of Management Information.

“We are a big producer of graduates with STEM degrees in comparison to our peers,” Tucker said.

At the University, he said, the computer science department is filled with international students. Last year, President Barack Obama loosened visa requirements for international students so they have more of an opportunity to come and study. 

“This is the history of this country. Some believe domestic jobs should be filled by domestic students, but they are not being filled, and this is part of the American tradition,” Burbules said. “It’s good for the country and this University in particular because we have a large number of international students.”

Quinn recently announced a “Get Skills to Work” coalition, making Illinois the first in the nation to join GE’s training partnership. The collaborative program teams together community colleges and manufacturers to train veterans for in-demand careers.

They will locate employers who want to hire returning veterans and provide the training needed for high-skilled jobs.

“Advanced manufacturing plays an undeniably important role in the U.S. economy, and we need to ensure that today’s workforce can meet tomorrow’s demands in order to maintain America’s competitive edge in the industry,” said Russell Stokes, GE Transportation’s CEO, in a press release.

“60 by 25” goal

Quinn issued a call to state education leaders to develop strategies to ensure that 60 percent of the state’s residents will hold college-level credentials or certificates by 2025.

“It’s a big challenge for higher education, and it’s important to remember that a goal like that involves a full spectrum of education institutions from flagship campuses like ours to community colleges,” Tucker said.  

Neighbors warns that while the goal makes sense, it may increase the number of unemployed college graduates.

“If the 140,000 high-skilled jobs involved getting a college degree, then that goal would make sense,” Neighbors said. “But if those high-skilled jobs are specific to a degree and an industry, then just having more people get a college degree might not do anything.”

Higher education struggles to prove merit

Students and their families now hold an increased responsibility when it comes to college funding, Berman said.

“We are relying more and more on tuition and many students are finishing their degrees in a heavy amount of debt,” Burbules said. “At a certain point, that price point will be undesirable for students to incur.”

Berman said the average student graduates with $26,000 of debt. However, he compares this price to a loan someone would take out to buy a new car.

“We are concerned with student debt, but we also have to recognize that the problem is even worse for those who go to college and do not gain degrees,” Berman said. “Then you not only have student debts, you also have no degree. Most with degrees can repay the debt in a reasonable time.”

Tucker said though the University does not hold firm data on graduate employment rates, he believes graduates from this campus are doing much better in comparison to others nationwide.

“While unemployment is not something you’d expect after receiving a degree, over time those with degrees will do better than those without,” Berman said.

Aminmansour said higher education improves people’s career opportunities and their quality of life. In addition, higher education has numerous positive societal impacts.   

“It’s a win-win situation. But in order to accomplish this goal, we need to make sure higher education is affordable and accessible to qualified students,” Aminmansour said. “With the continued reduction for state support for universities and colleges and reduced financial support such as MAP, we will face difficulties accomplishing this goal.”

Megan can be reached at majones5@dailyillini.com.