By Carol D’Amico, Executive Vice President, National Engagement and Philanthropy, USA Funds
The common perception is that the nation’s mayors don’t hold much sway over the higher education system or the quality of the workforce in their communities. I beg to differ with that perception, however.
I believe that city leaders have both strong motivation for improving the so-called talent pipeline through college and into the workplace, and the authority to spur meaningful change. Every mayor is concerned about the economic vitality of his or her community. Ensuring that both existing employers and potential new employers have access to the talent they need to run their businesses is critical to a community’s prosperity.
Likewise, in my experience, mayors are all about getting things done. For example, in the early ’90s, mayors got involved in the reform of K-12 education after they decided they no longer could tolerate very poor high school graduation rates. Their involvement made a huge difference.
Today, communities face another education challenge: Too few students who enroll in postsecondary programs complete them, and too many graduate with skills that don’t mesh with the needs of employers. The result is a high level of unemployment and underemployment among recent college graduates.
Last week at the U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting, I had the honor of participating in a panel discussion of “Talent Development, Access to Postsecondary Education and Student Preparedness for Careers.” Also participating in the discussion were:
- Mayor Christopher Cabaldon of West Sacramento, Calif.
- Mayor Richard Berry of Albuquerque.
- Robert Snyder of InterContinental Hotels, a representative of employers.
I suggested to the nearly 300 mayors in attendance five ways they could work to improve the talent pipeline in their communities:
Engage with local employers to understand local labor market needs. Municipal leaders should engage with the employers in their communities to understand their workforce needs. Then mayors should go to their local community colleges and regional college campuses and ask college leaders how they are addressing those local workforce needs. Mayors should ask for specific information about who is graduating, what programs they are graduating from, and how they know their graduates are actually ready to live and work successfully in their communities.
Work with college leaders and workforce boards on policies that align education programs and demand for talent. I once asked a mayor, “Do you know that you have about $30 million to spend on job training, and do you know how it’s being used?” He said he had no idea and asked who controlled the money. I told him that it was controlled by a workforce board. He asked me who appointed the members of the board. I told him that he did. Mayors have resources in their communities to address the so-called skills gap between employer needs and the current education and skill levels of the local workforce. Mayors need to ensure that they are appointing people who have the best interests of their communities at heart in bringing employers and educators together.
Assign City Hall staff to connect education and workforce issues. Change is unlikely without the commitment of a mayor or someone on the mayor’s staff. Mayors need to have someone on their staff who wakes up every day concerned about whether the community is developing the talent needed to keep its residents employed and its employers able to attract the talent that they need. We see the greatest success in aligning education outcomes with workforce needs in those communities where the mayor has made this commitment and has assigned someone to it.
Encourage community-based organizations to adopt programs that support the connection between education and work. Nearly every community has a nonprofit organization that is working to help those who begin life with significant disadvantages benefit from education, or help those who have fallen off the path through education to career success to get back on track. We at USA Funds® believe that the most meaningful experience these so-called at-risk youth or disconnected young adults can have is to be exposed to the world of work as part of an education or training program. We support a number of organizations engaged in this work, including:
- Bottom Line.
- Bright Prospect.
- Children Youth and Family Collaborative.
- College Bound.
- College Track.
- Genesys Works.
- National Urban League – Project Ready STEM.
- On Point for College.
- Indiana Black Expo.
- Jobs for America’s Graduates.
- Urban Alliance.
- Year Up.
Promote program-level analyses of students’ return on investment in higher education. Many mayors may be aware of the federal College Scorecard, but they may not be aware of a national movement, focused at the state level, to provide better information to consumers, policymakers and educators for postsecondary education and workforce policies and program decisions. If communities are going to do a better job lining up the skills and talents of their citizens with the jobs of today and the future, their citizens need to know which education and training programs are generating the greatest success for their graduates. Mayors can learn more about this national movement on USA Funds’ College Value website.
Many communities already are pursuing one or more of the five action items I’ve suggested. To recognize their efforts and share their successes with other communities, USA Funds and the U.S. Conference of Mayors have teamed up for a second year in a row to sponsor the National Education Pathways With a Purpose competitive grants. This program will award a total of $150,000 to three cities that have demonstrated excellence in mayor-led college- and career-readiness initiatives. We invite mayors and their staffs who would like to share their best practices with other communities to review the guidelines for this program.