Jonathan Aberman: A regional program to grow ‘new collar’ skills

To fulfill its economic potential, Greater Washington must change how it approaches workforce education.

Tens of thousands of high-paying jobs in the region are currently unfilled because we do not have enough workers with the necessary technical skills. Meanwhile, employers complain that many of the workers they do hire have technical skills but lack soft skills, such as communication and critical thinking.

Why?

A large part of the answer may be that we think of jobs in two categories — white and blue collar — and make a similar distinction in how these workers are educated. Typically, a bachelor’s degree is a prerequisite for a white-collar job and often the specific undergraduate course of study doesn’t matter; what matters is the implicit assumption that the graduate has learned how to assimilate information from a variety of sources, think critically and spit it back it out in the required format. BA graduates are assumed to have developed soft skills, like written and spoken communication and an awareness of social norms. Conversely blue-collar jobs are seen as not requiring a BA because these jobs involve operating machinery or manual labor and are not seen as requiring soft skills.

The problem with this bifurcation is that it no longer reflects our region’s needs. The lines between jobs are no longer clear-cut. As Virginia’s Gov. Ralph Northam has said many times in the last year, it no longer makes sense to talk about white-collar and blue-collar jobs. Instead, we should talk about “new collar” jobs that require that a worker have mastery of both soft and technical skills.

How can we provide students with a cost effective way to obtain new collar skills?

One example can be found in a recent pilot program launched by George Mason University and Northern Virginia Community College. These institutions already closely work together as Mason will automatically accept transfer students from NVCC once they successfully complete a degree at NVCC and satisfy grade requirements. This has provided a way for thousands of students to save money by filling their “general education” and introductory courses at NVCC and then transferring to Mason for upper level courses that earn them a bachelor’s degree.

Because of their successful relationship and seeing the need for preparing our workforce for a new collar future, last year Mason and NVCC  launched a pilot program called “ADVANCE” to more tightly integrate the educational process for a group of students. Through ADVANCE, students will enroll in both institutions on day one, have the same guidance counselor all the way along and can plan their entire four-year education with the class offerings of both institutions available. This approach is expected to provide students with a more satisfying educational experience, and the opportunity to obtain technical and soft skills in one place. It will also save students an average of $15,000 by eliminating some of the inefficiencies that occur when students transfer credits between educational institutions.

Mason President Angel Cabrera pointed out to me that making education affordable and accessible was highly important to Mason and was a big reason it started ADVANCE with NVCC, saying “we know that a college degree is essential in today’s economy.” Scott Ralls, President of NVCC added, “Our goal is to help more students graduate in high-demand fields.”

They would like their respective institutions to take the best parts of technical training and a university curriculum and combine them together into new curricula and degrees that demonstrate the development of white collar skills. Ralls gave me a few examples, such as a student who could graduate with a computer science degree and certification of technical competence in cybersecurity or a history major who could learn how to do basic coding and work with technology as a native.

For Ralls, there are few things more important for our region than finding new ways to train our workforce. He reminded me that our region has one of the nation’s slowest-growing workforces because as he puts it, “potential workers from other regions, particularly technology workers, do not naturally gravitate to our region.”

Mason and NVCC hope to double the number of students in ADVANCE in the coming year and scale it from there to help build a pipeline of highly skilled white-collar workers. This summer, they are specifically looking for further guidance from our business community to help shape curricula and degree requirements.

I am planning on spending some of my time this summer working with them on this project. I’d like to see other businesspeople similarly engaged. Filling our region’s unfilled jobs with locally developed talent is something we can all get behind.

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