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Guest Voz: It will take innovative education to solve the talent dilemma

By Veronica Vargas Stidvent

Employers know that the challenges businesses face finding workers who are skilled, educated and ready to succeed in some of the high-demand fields such as health care, high tech and STEM fields tempers the good news of a strong economy.

Many existing jobs are evolving and changing, too, with employers needing to keep their workers’ skill sets in technology, engineering and health care current and on pace with new advancements in these fields.

As more and more Americans realize that to advance in their careers they need a college degree or additional training in their chosen fields, we’re reaching a tipping point.

In short, many states, including my home state of Texas, are experiencing a talent dilemma.

Here in Texas, there are an estimated 3.7 million Texans with some college, but no degree.

Without a doubt, we need more graduates with post-secondary degrees, certificates or credentials. Bill Hammond of the Texas Association of Business has long championed this cause on behalf of the business community at the state and national level.

To meet our present and future workforce needs, employers must look beyond the 18-21 year old “traditional student” cohort. In the U.S. in 2011, only 29 percent of students enrolled in a four-year public or non-profit college were full-time students of standard college age.

We need a broader solution, one that provides ample opportunity for non-traditional students—those who work full-time and cannot logistically or financially afford to leave careers to enroll in college full-time.

Many students may have started, but were unable to complete, their undergraduate or graduate degrees for a variety of personal or professional reasons. It isn’t feasible for many of these potential students to stop working to pursue additional education. They need flexibility.

Focusing on the needs of these non-traditional students is how we’ll solve the talent dilemma and keep states competitive. So, what does a broader solution to our workforce shortage really mean?

One way is to leverage technology and emphasize competency-based education that requires students to demonstrate their knowledge rather than simply spending time in a seat in a classroom.

WGU Texas and our parent, non-profit university Western Governors University have been trailblazers in this regard, and we see more universities, including The University of Texas System and other institutions across the country, joining us in embracing competency-based education.

Affordability is always a concern — whether students are paying for their degrees or employers are looking to invest in on-the-job training and tuition reimbursement for their employees. Finding ways for traditional and non-traditional students to access and afford college must be a priority for state leaders, as well as the higher education community.

We’re hopeful that employers, state leaders and our colleagues in higher education will recognize the promise of online learning and competency-based education for a workforce that demands flexibility and affordability. We’re all in this together, and when it comes to solving Texas’ talent dilemma, the future of our state rests on all of us — employers, educators and universities — to get this right.

Veronica Vargas Stidvent is chancellor of WGU Texas, online at Ms. Stidvent previously served as an Assistant Secretary for Policy in the U.S. Department of Labor (2004-2007). The National Association of Hispanic Publishers also honored Chancellor Stidvent as a Latina Role Model.

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