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A Regional Approach to Strengthening the Workforce Pipeline
 
Published Friday, September 15, 2017
by MICHELLE BARRY

In the decade since the Great Recession, New England has seen a surge of companies expanding in the region, such as General Electric, and with it, the quest to fill highly skilled positions with good pay and benefits. But to date, many of these attractive jobs are unfilled.

In 2016, the NH High Tech Council estimated more than 3,000 technology jobs in the Granite State remained vacant for at least 18 months.  

It’s a growing problem that’s expected to play out over the next decade, driven by economic recovery, low population growth, an aging workforce lacking advanced technical skills and the trend of New England’s younger generation seeking higher education outside of the region and then staying away after graduation.

So, what can leadership across New England learn to reverse this trend? How can state government, higher education and private business all work together to ensure that the emerging workforce stays here and acquires the right skills to allow the region to compete on the job market stage?

Joining Forces
Many leaders in New England have come to realize that taking an “every state for itself” approach hasn’t proven effective. On June 1, the New England Board of Higher Education (NEBHE) founded the Commission on Higher Education and Employability, a regional endeavor made up of three working groups chaired by Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo. The expected duration of the commission will be 10 months.

The commission’s overarching goal is to increase the career readiness, employability and successful work transitions of graduates from college to the industry sector. Specifically, the commission is working to develop an action agenda, policy recommendations and shared strategies between the states.

From this action plan, they will then issue next steps to align higher education institutions, state policymakers and industry to increase the career readiness of graduates of New England colleges and universities. The members of this commission will be sharing their recommendations with the public this fall.

“New England is internationally known for the quality of its colleges and universities, but there is a regional concern shared by legislative, collegiate and industry stakeholders about a lack of qualified workers, particularly in technology-intensive and growth-oriented industries,” explains John O. Harney, editor of The New England Journal of Higher Education. “The region’s low population growth exacerbates the problem. The gist of the commission’s work is to bring together educators, employers and policymakers to share collaborative ideas and bolster NEBHE’s historical interest in how higher education fuels the region’s workforce and economy.”

According to Harney, the Commission on Higher Education and Employability’s working groups are focusing on several  major initiatives:

• The effective use of regional labor-market data and intelligence, and planning among the six states to better inform policies;

• Improving advising and career services for college students and working adults, increasing the number of work-integrated cooperative opportunities and internship-based learning with industries; and

• Developing “New Economy” skill bundles, such as information technology, coding, data analytics, innovation and entrepreneurship, that will drive the development of curriculums at colleges across
the region.

Additionally, the commission will be looking at current state and collegiate policies related to new credentials, including recognizing and aggregating credits from other institutions, as well as policies recognizing the work experience of adult learners, including veterans. Harney confirmed that the commission intends to issue major recommendations in the fall and spotlight best practices in New England and across the country.

Questions that the commission hopes to answer at the end of the initiative include:

• What are the respective roles of higher education, industry and government in increasing employability?

• Where are the most acute and evident needs in terms of student/graduate populations, industry/sector and demand/supply?

• How can states better align public policy with institutional policy and practice to increase employability?

• What are the primary ways in which New England higher education institutions (HEIs) can improve the career readiness, employability and work transition successes of their students and rethink the ways in which they address such issues?

Shared Strategies
In addition to these penetrating questions, commission member Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System of NH (CCSNH), says he is eager to learn from successful programs in the states of other members.

“I’m hoping we can learn more from other states about more support for educational and training programs in New Hampshire,” he says. “I don’t think New Hampshire has done as good a job with apprenticeships, internships and on-the-job training as some of our neighbors. I’m eager to learn about what they’re doing. We have some good things happening with such companies as GE, but I’d like to see more of a focus on what the employers are looking for so our colleges and universities can respond  effectively with the right educational strategies.”

Gittell says it’s not just about high-tech companies who need software developers. Other industries, such as advanced manufacturing and health care, also require specific skills and experience. He points to companies such as Eversource, Fidelity and Liberty Mutual as businesses that aren’t necessarily high-tech but are hiring candidates with IT networking, digital and engineering skills.

Todd Leach, chancellor of the University System of NH, says he hopes this coalition of the six New England states will give NH a “louder voice” when it comes to policy change at the federal level. He cites the current federal eligibility for a Pell grant as an example.

“The financial assistance of Pell grants from the federal government is only available for students on the traditional college path—those who are starting in the fall and attending a four-year college. That leaves a lot of folks out, including students who transfer from a two-year community college to a four-year college or adult students who are going back to school to finish a degree or change a career path. I’m hoping that through this regional block, we can call on legislators in Washington to change that.”

Leach admits that New England, and particularly NH, will never be positioned as the premier, low-cost place to found a startup or move a large headquarters.

“To compete with other regions, we need to have an eye on innovation, and part of that is making strategic investments in our workforce through development of their skills,” he says. “Right now, New Hampshire does have one of the larger bottlenecks in New England in terms of our rapidly aging workforce. If we can learn from this commission better ways to support our non-traditional students, including adults who never finished college and helping those who are in the workforce already to learn new skills, that will go a long way towards solving that bottleneck.”

The findings of the Commission on Higher Education and Employability should be issued in September.

Commission Membership
There are 51 members of the commission representing each of the New England states:

• Connecticut has seven members.

• Maine has six members.

• Massachusetts has 10 members.

• New Hampshire has four members:
    - Ross Gittell, chancellor of the Community College System of NH
    - Rick Ladd, state representative (R-Haverhill)
    - Todd Leach, chancellor, University System of NH
    - Paul LeBlanc, president, Southern NH University

• Rhode Island has 11 members, as well as Gov. Gina M. Raimondo as chair.

• Vermont has six members.

• There are two regional members:
    - James Brett, president and CEO of the New England Council
    - Kurt Heissenbuttel, VP and head of university relations at Fidelity Investments

• There are five student members, including:
    - Heather Bollinger, alumna of Great Bay Community College
    - Brendon Loranger, student at Manchester Community College


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