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Economists might not seem to agree on much, but they do agree on one central tenet: Jobs are at the center of economic development. When meaningful job growth matches population growth, businesses get the talent they need and are able to expand, individuals make a living, pay taxes, buy goods and services that promote business growth, and don’t typically draw on governmental social assistance. There just isn’t a downside.

Our region needs roughly 5,600 new jobs a year to match the growth of our working-age population. We’ve met that threshold since 2013, although this has not been true of all cities even during this prolonged economic expansion.

And yet, many local and statewide employers say they can’t find the talent they need. Surveys from the National Federation of Small Businesses state inability to find qualified workers is now the number one challenge facing U.S. businesses. It used to be taxation and regulations.

Meanwhile, many graduates, especially with four-year liberal arts degrees, say they can’t find jobs they thought they could get with their degrees. Clearly, there is a disconnect.

This “skills gap” is widely discussed not only in academic and business circles, but also in homes where tough decisions are made about whether to attend a four-year college or university, and whether the investment is worth it. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, from 1987 to 2016, the average price of an undergraduate degree increased 161 percent from $39,643 to $103,616 for tuition, room and board across the 2,312 public and private institutions in the United States.

Families now weigh the high cost of university attendance and the shackles of student debt against the nebulous career path of students with liberal arts degrees who struggle to find jobs that justify the investment. This is much of the reason that undergraduate enrollment in four-year institutions has essentially flattened out since 2010.

Projections are that enrollment will barely keep pace with population growth despite being a developed nation with strong demand for high and middle-skill jobs.

Experts can quibble about why higher education has become so expensive and why we have a skills gap, but what if we instead increased student’s return on investment for a four-year degree, particularly for the liberal arts degree? What if we did this while fulfilling employers’ dreams about having qualified workers and economists’ dreams about job growth, perpetual full employment and unending economic expansions? This might seem lofty, but it is doable.

First, a community must be aware of its labor demand, and it has to disseminate the information to children in the K-12 system so they know what their viable job and career options are. I would argue that Colorado Springs is ahead of the nation on this count.

Through the collective efforts of various workforce-related organizations, the online workforce asset map went live in 2017, and it includes the top job postings in our region today as well as local, statewide and nationwide job demand projections through 2027. A “WAMbassador” will be hired by the end of this year, and one of their main tasks will be to educate kids on the future of work and the high-demand occupations.

Second, incoming university-level freshmen, especially in liberal arts fields, could have intensive one-on-one counseling before classes start that focuses not only on their graduation requirements, but also informs them of the local, statewide and nationwide job openings — today’s and tomorrow’s.

Counselors can ask students targeted questions to gauge interest around high-demand occupations. The typical liberal arts degree has a large proportion of its credits that are electives. Perhaps some or most of those electives could be targeted toward training in a high-demand occupation.

For example, what if you have a communications major who likes and has aptitude with computers? Perhaps that student can use electives to learn database design and Javascript to become a certified web development professional or network administrator. Or an art major who likes brick and mortar development and takes classes in construction project management. Or a political science major who feels passionately about climate change and learns how to be a wind turbine technician.

Students can learn from career counselors how to obtain these skills and/or certifications during their four years, how many job openings are projected to be in those occupational categories, and how much they will earn. They can even get a list from counselors of the top local and state employers for their chosen occupation.

This would indeed require a paradigm shift for universities, but it need not happen overnight. Universities could partner with other local training institutions such as community colleges, coding bootcamps, paraprofessional medical institutions, and others to provide some of the specialized courses and/or certificates.

Government-sponsored entities such as the Pikes Peak Workforce Center could step in with their robust employability skill building such as the intensive mock interviews. In some cases, universities might decide to hire specialized instructors and bring the training in-house. Working with occupational in-the-field experts, existing curricula can sometimes be honed to include in-demand competencies.

On the supply side, employers will have access to more workers for the critical jobs and they will also gain a student who has soft and critical thinking skills that I believe will always justify the four-year degree for students who are so inclined. Employers often state they want workers who know how to talk to each other and to customers, who know how to learn, who can write a memo or do a presentation, who can problem solve, think outside the box, and innovate.

Third, expand linkages within communities to have the applied students engage in apprenticeships or internships during their last year. This increases the access points between employers and students, gives employers an inexpensive test run for future employees, and enables the student to prove an acquired range of skills. There isn’t a downside.

Some modest variations of this model are slowly emerging. New York University has highly applied professional and occupational tracks. Denison University has an OnBoard program with eleven different tracks. The College of Business at UCCS has had the Office of Professional and Executive Development and now has a Data Analytics Minor to target the new world of big data. These are important steps. The question is whether four-year institutions can make the leap to applied liberal arts degrees in a systemic fashion and quickly enough to meet the rapidly shifting sands of today’s complex labor market.

Tatiana Bailey will be addressing workforce in the upcoming UCCS Economic Forum event on Thursday. Go to http://www.uccseconomicforum.com/ to register.

Thank you to Lisa Keenan for her assistance with finding examples of similar programs across the nation.

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