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Middle Skills Gap Initiative Announced

By Jill Anderson on January 19, 2016 10:41 AM

Harvard Graduate School of Education Dean James Ryan and Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria announced today the launch of the Middle Skills Gap Initiative led by HGSE Senior Research Fellow Robert Schwartz and HBS Professor Joseph Fuller. The three-year initiative, supported by a $1 million gift from the James and Judith K. Dimon Foundation, will help engage employers with educators to build career pathways that prepare young people with the skills and credentials necessary to fill the projected millions of middle-skill jobs over the next decade.

“A quality education is absolutely critical to both an individual’s success in the labor market and our nation’s economic competitiveness more broadly. I am thrilled that HGSE and HBS — under the esteemed leadership of Professors Bob Schwartz and Joseph Fuller — will be working side-by-side on such an important initiative,” Ryan said. “I am incredibly appreciative of the Dimon Foundation for making this partnership possible.”

Employers in the United States have long struggled to fill certain jobs — particularly technician-level jobs that require more education and training than a high school diploma but less time to complete than a four-year college degree program. This lack of well-trained, highly-skilled middle-level workers weakens the ability of American businesses to compete on a global level. The Middle Skills Gap Initiative will work to change this on two fronts: first, by educating business, education, and policy leaders about the economic and social costs of failing to close this skills gap; and, second, by creating programs that increase connections between employers and educators with the purpose of closing the skills gap in order to improve America’s competitive position and helping put millions of young Americans on path to the middle class.

“Over the past 30 years, we’ve witnessed huge structural changes in the labor market that require employers to rethink their hiring processes and educators to rethink how young people are educated. A high school degree is no longer the ticket to the middle class and success in life. Yet, pushing all youth to get a four-year degree after high school is not necessarily the answer either. We need employers and educators to partner to develop rigorous curriculum, work-based learning opportunities, and paid internships so that all youth are career and college ready with an employer recognized credential,” said Judy Dimon. “Jamie and I are excited to support the partnership between HGSE and HBS, to work in collaboration and directly with business and education leaders to build career pathways to family-sustaining, middle skill jobs throughout the country and particularly in low-income neighborhoods such as the South Bronx. Articulated career pathways assure every young person a real chance at economic opportunity while also boosting the competitiveness of the United States.”

This new initiative will also further align the work of Fuller and Schwartz’s respective research projects: the U.S. Competitiveness Project and the Pathways to Prosperity Network.

Since 2012 the Pathways to Prosperity Network, a collaboration between the Pathways to Prosperity Project at HGSE, Jobs for the Future, and 12 states, has focused on ensuring that many more young people complete high school, attain a postsecondary credential with currency in the labor market, and launch a career while leaving open the prospect of further education.

The U.S. Competitiveness Project is a research-led effort to understand and improve the competitiveness of the United States — that is, the ability of firms operating in the United States to compete successfully in the global economy while supporting high and rising living standards for Americans. The project focuses especially on the roles that business leaders can and do play in promoting U.S. competitiveness. As part of this research effort, Fuller analyzes America’s middle-skills jobs market focusing on what employers, policymakers, and educators  can do to close the skills gap, especially in areas critical to U.S. competitiveness.

“The skills gap problem that employers talk so much about can only be addressed by working on both sides of the equation: supply and demand,” said Schwartz. “Joe Fuller’s work is focused on the demand side, helping employers understand why it is in their long-term economic self-interest to invest in building a talent pipeline rather than sitting back and complaining that they cannot find the workers they need. The Pathways Network is aimed primarily at working with high schools and community colleges to build that pipeline. This very generous gift will enable us to develop a more integrated strategy to narrow the gap.”

”America’s system for workforce development is inefficient,” said Fuller. “Employers complain they can’t find talent. At the same time, labor force participation rates are at an all-time low and wages are stagnant. This is undermining U.S. competitiveness. We need new approaches for matching the supply of skills with the demand for skills.”

In the next three years, Fuller will review the “supply chain” for middle skills in America and identify the key nodes where businesses and policymakers can take action in order to close the skills gap. His focus will be on identifying areas where efficiencies can be increased and the gains sustained over the long term. Instead of short-term strategies for fixing transitory needs, Fuller’s research will focus on practices and solutions that help companies compete and at the same time provide a lifetime employment opportunity to the average American.

“The Middle Skills Gap Initiative exemplifies the kind of action-oriented research that can have a significant impact in the world,” said Harvard Business School Dean Nitin Nohria. “We are grateful to have generous alumni like the Dimons who recognize the importance of supporting these efforts and we are fortunate to be part of community where collaboration flourishes in service to solving important societal problems.”

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