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Putting college degrees to work

As many as 120,000 job openings are going unfilled in this state because employers can’t find qualified applicants. What has higher education done wrong, and what is it now doing to make things right?

By Jon Marcus
March 4, 2012
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Bob Britt goes to college every day not in a classroom building hung with ivy on a peaceful quadrangle, but behind the high-security gates of a noisy, sprawling factory studded with smokestacks that makes engines for F-18 fighter jets, helicopters, and electronic surveillance aircraft.

After seven hours working on the shop floor, Britt and his fellow students gather to discuss the math and physics of precision manufacturing – blueprint reading, shop theory, geometric tolerance – not with tenured faculty, but with union machinists who have spent their careers at this Lynn plant.

Britt, 35, who ran his own business in North Reading restoring classic motorcycles, went back to school when the recession started picking off his customers. “I was hanging in there, hoping it would turn around,” he says. “In the end, I realized I needed to get a skill doing something that was solid and that wasn’t in danger of going away.”

Britt had watched as friends and relatives went to college only because it was expected. “They were 18, and so they went,” he says. “And when they got out, there wasn’t anything for them.” So when Britt enrolled at North Shore Community College, it was for a new kind of program that is being closely watched by industry executives and policy makers alike. It’s a program connected to the real world of work that all but guarantees its students something universities and colleges are being pressed to provide in exchange for their spiraling costs, and at a time when employers complain they can’t find workers for high-tech jobs in a fast-changing economy: useful skills.

Britt’s two-year associate’s degree program in manufacturing technology is a collaboration between the college – which furnishes faculty for classroom work – and General Electric. GE needs highly trained machinists to replace the large number of employees nearing retirement at its River Works aircraft engine plant in Lynn, which has been chugging along while recovering from the 1980s recession. GE pays the students while they learn and covers the costs of their academic courses in advanced manufacturing. That’s a high-growth field, one in which Britt is virtually assured a job after graduation that pays an average of $62,400, with ample opportunity for advancement.

“It’s not a dead end,” Britt says.

And yet this idea of matching college study with industry needs remains a rare innovation at a time when other people are reaching the same conclusion Britt did: that a conventional college education can actually be a dead end. In Boston last month, for example, no less an authority than US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made the stunning pronouncement that he finds more and more graduates of four-year universities going to community colleges “to get that technical training to get a real job.”

Duncan is the most visible member of a growing chorus of policy makers, economists, and business leaders who can’t understand why graduates of four-year universities don’t have job skills. This, they say, is not just a disservice to students; it’s a threat to the nation’s economic viability. And it collides head-on with the question of whether higher education’s purpose should be knowledge or vocation.

In Massachusetts, the world capital of higher education, there are 119,600 jobs employers can’t fill because applicants don’t have the right skills, according to the governor’s office. Some economists dispute this number, which comes from a December study of vacancies advertised online conducted by the Conference Board, an independent research group. But most would agree there are tens of thousands of high-paying, skilled jobs going unfilled, and this in a state where 240,000 people can’t find work. And the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston reports that New England has consistently performed below [the national] average” in turning out a workforce with the skills to work in places like the GE plant.

This disconnect between graduates’ skills and available jobs also means that students are majoring in disciplines for which there’s little or no work – a modern-day and much more complicated extension of the old joke about how you get an English major off your porch. (By paying him for the pizza.) They may be employed, but it’s often in occupations for which their expensive degrees make them vastly overqualified and give them almost no financial advantage.

“There’s a mismatch between the jobs we’re trying to create and the graduates that are being produced,” says JD Chesloff, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, an association of leaders of about 70 companies. “This is an immediate problem that needs to be a focus of the education system.” Verizon New England regional president Donna Cupelo, who chairs the Roundtable, says that the GE partnership in Lynn is a good model but that Massachusetts needs a lot more programs like it. “Tremendous change in technology and in our businesses themselves is really presenting a challenge for our education system to keep up,” Cupelo says.

Yet at a time when higher education and industry should be talking to each other, they speak different languages – and work at vastly different speeds. It can take a year or more for a college or university to approve a new program. When GE talked to community college administrators about teaming up, company spokesman Rich Gorham says, “We asked, ‘Do you think you guys could try to react at the speed of industry, like we’re used to?’ ” The kind of small, fast-growing companies fueling economic growth in Massachusetts “would gladly hire graduates who had the right skill set,” says Andrew Tarsy, president of the Alliance for Business Leadership. “But they’re not finding them, and they don’t have a year and a half to spend on creating a program.”

On the other side of the divide, good luck to any college president who utters words like “workforce skills” at a faculty meeting. “The college people want to teach Shakespeare,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “They say, ‘We’re not here to make foot soldiers for American capitalism.’ But young people go to college to take the things that will get them jobs.”

Colleges and universities aren’t taking this kind of criticism sitting down. They fire back that industry demands are often vague. Surveys of company executives find that what they really want in their employees is creative thinking, innovation, and an ability to write and speak well – all products not of technical training, higher education leaders say, but of the liberal arts. The universities also complain that the same companies that talk about the value of employee education have been cutting tuition reimbursement. In the past five years, the number of employers nationwide that provide this benefit has fallen from nearly 70 percent to less than 60 percent, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Meanwhile, a tax deduction for employee educational expenses is set to expire at the end of this year.

Something has to give, says Wayne Burton, president of North Shore Community College. “Those of us who come at this from the perspective of empowering students have to get together with the people who need employees,” he says, “because we all have the same goal.”


For now, it’s community colleges that are being counted on to shoulder much of this work. That’s because many of those vacant jobs turn out to be in so-called middle-skills occupations – lab technicians, early childhood educators, radiation therapists, machinists – for which professional certification or an associate’s degree is often adequate.

President Barack Obama has proposed an $8 billion “community college-to-career fund” to help schools train 2 million people for high-growth jobs. In Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick wants to reorganize the state’s 15 community colleges into a single streamlined system to help them do the same thing. Patrick would increase the colleges’ collective budget by $10 million to be allocated according to their success at synching up with labor market needs, among other measures.

There are already a few promising developments. North Shore Community College turns out students with skills they need for jobs not only at GE but also at National Grid. Berkshire Community College works in the same way with General Dynamics and GlobalFoundries. Bunker Hill Community College has teamed up with NStar, and Northern Essex Community College with Raytheon.

But even the biggest supporters of this state’s community colleges concede that they are a barely acknowledged part of its vaunted higher education system. “They have been an orphan of an orphan,” says Boston Foundation president Paul Grogan, who is pushing for the reorganization. “Public higher education has never been supported, and within that, the community colleges have been supported even less.” Taxpayer funding for the colleges has inched up 1.4 percent over the last five years, for instance, while enrollment has ballooned 19 percent. This has helped push tuition and fees at these schools to 45 percent more than the national average. And, yet, the graduation rate is only 16.2 percent, although that doesn’t take into account the many students who transferred to other schools.

Products of Massachusetts’s territorial political history, the community colleges are run separately by 15 different governing boards, to which their presidents report. There’s almost no consistency in course numbering among them, which makes transferring credits an exercise in exasperation. Some course content is out of date, according to employers surveyed for a report the Boston Foundation published in November.

“Whatever faculty member or administrator in our system likes doing things the way they already do it – it’s not working,” says Dale Allen, vice president for community engagement at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester.

Not even joblessness seems enough to push some residents into Massachusetts’s community colleges. Of people who took advantage of training benefits while unemployed in 2010 – the last year for which the figure is available – only 11 percent chose community colleges. The rest opted for traditional universities or proprietary schools, such as the University of Phoenix.

Those for-profit schools may be criticized, but they are indisputably better than conventional higher education at providing what students increasingly want – accelerated study at convenient times and places that is geared toward landing a job. Students can start their programs at proprietary schools on almost any given Monday, for example, and not have to wait for the next semester to roll around at a community college. “If you lose a job today, you can’t wait till August to go to college,” says Mark Brenner, spokesman for the Apollo Group, whose University of Phoenix reports a 170 percent increase in enrollment in Massachusetts in the past 10 years. Federal figures show that an estimated 8 percent of college and university students in Massachusetts are now in private, for-profit schools.

It’s not just community colleges that have to change, Grogan says. But they are easier to transform than long-established, fiercely independent private four-year universities and colleges over which the state has no real control. “That’s why the community college reform makes all the sense in the world,” he says. “Because you can move it and counter the inertia of these institutions.”

And yet some four-year universities and colleges are being far from inert. They’re adapting to these new demands without many people even noticing.


It may be small, but Regis College, which has an established program in the biomedical sciences, is unusually well connected to this area’s fast-growing biotechnology sector. And what Regis faculty kept hearing was that there was a need for workers who could manage increasingly complex clinical trials and navigate the tangle of emerging regulations. The school confirmed this need with Biogen Idec, Genzyme, and other companies, which then collaborated with the 1,700-student Roman Catholic college to create a master’s degree program in the obscure but high-demand field of regulatory and clinical research management. Most colleges would take a year or two to start such a program; Regis did it in six months.

Small private colleges like Regis have to adapt quickly to the changing education market – not because the governor or the business sector thinks they should, but because their students and their students’ parents do. And they’re the ones who pay the bills. “If people know there will be jobs for them when they graduate, you’re more likely to have higher enrollment,” Regis president Antoinette Hays says simply.

Even Harvard Business School this semester introduced its biggest curriculum change in 90 years, sending its entire first-year class abroad to get experience working with companies that are launching real-world products and services. And at Clark University in Worcester, students learn job skills by tackling concrete, hands-on projects, such as helping craft the marketing plan a New York-based sporting goods company used when it expanded into Massachusetts. “You don’t build those skills just in theory. You have to build them in practice, in real, authentic problem-solving situations,” Clark’s president, David Angel, says. “The bigger risk is for us not to be responsive.”

But Clark’s new emphasis is not only on giving its students technical know-how. It is also involved in a broader campaign by some private universities to produce what the corporate sector – when it’s pressed to give an answer – says it really needs: people who can think.

Nearly 90 percent of employers want employees with verbal and written communication skills, according to a survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities. Seventy-five percent want graduates who understand ethical decision making, and 70 percent say they need workers who are creative and innovative. “We’re taking on that challenge of how do you rebuild an undergraduate education to teach such things as the ability to make decisions, resilience, and persistence,” Angel says. At a time when employers are pushing for better skills in science, technology, engineering, and math – the so-called STEM disciplines – Clark, Bentley, Babson, Wheaton, and other universities and colleges around the country are rallying around their own acronym: LEAP, which stands for Liberal Education and America’s Promise. The idea is to demonstrate the value of what they call “liberal education.”

“There has been a little bit of pushback now from the liberal arts world saying: ‘Wait a second. If you’re really talking about making sure we have a well-prepared workforce, one of the strongest courses of education you can pursue is a liberal arts education,’ ” says Richard Doherty, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Massachusetts.

In the end, says Wheaton president Ronald Crutcher, employers largely want what schools like his already teach, although he admits “it sometimes gets lost in translation.” He points out that Bureau of Labor Statistics research suggests that students graduating this year will have held more than 10 different jobs by the time they’re 38. “The truth is, things are changing so rapidly that, to thrive, you have to be an agile learner,” Crutcher says. “You have to be able to think critically, and narrow training for a specific job doesn’t do that. If you’re not focusing on those other knowledge-based skills, you’re going to be doomed to entry-level jobs.”

In Lynn, for exactly that reason, David Scranton is hedging his bets. He’s finished his work in the program at GE and now hovers over the coffee dispenser in the cinder-block cafeteria at North Shore Community College’s Lynn campus, just 2 miles from the plant. After working on his associate’s degree in manufacturing technology during the day, he goes to class three nights a week to study toward a further degree in engineering.

Scranton still works at his father’s mechanic shop in Lynn, but enrolled in school with the hope of graduating to bigger and better things. Though he knows he has a long way to go, he’s all but certain that a job is waiting for him at the end.

“There is going to be a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says.

Jon Marcus is a Boston-based writer who covers higher education, including as US correspondent for the Times Higher Education magazine in the United Kingdom. Send comments to

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