Workforce Preparation


The Quest for Quality Jobs

Educators and policy-makers should carefully consider William B. Bonvillian and Sanjay E. Sarma’s article, “The Quest for Quality Jobs(Issues, Fall 2018). Despite unemployment below 4% and billions of dollars invested in educational institutions, the United States has increasing income inequality and a declining middle class. Technology and trade make economic prosperity increasingly dependent on postsecondary education, as reflected in disproportionately high unemployment and underemployment of workers lacking credentials beyond high school. Still, the authors are optimistic. They argue that the upskilling of the workforce required to maintain competitiveness and drive upward mobility is already happening, albeit slowly, and that the will to change is there among the public, the private sector, and policy-makers. So, what are the critical points of leverage?

One barrier slowing the pace of change is that college and career advising is siloed within educational institutions, with counselors who can be responsible for a thousand or more students. Hundreds of websites offer information about colleges and careers, including data about job openings and salaries, but awareness and use of these sites among educators and students are low. Preparation programs focus on the social and emotional supports counselors provide, with little emphasis on career advising. More professional development for counselors and advisers is the typical policy response, but high turnover rates and the limited impact of short-term training without follow-up undermines its efficacy.

In Texas, we are taking a new approach with promising early results. In 2015, the state legislature charged the University of Texas at Austin to work with agencies, nonprofits, and other colleges to leverage digital learning to improve college and career advising. The centerpiece of the Texas OnCourse initiative is a competency-based academy, developed with input from more than 2,500 educators and dozens of employers, partner organizations, and colleges. Today, more than 10,000 secondary counselors participate in the OnCourse Academy, and they serve more than 95% of the state’s secondary students. Counselors use online modules and tools for just-in-time support, and they are linked with each other and supported by a network of senior fellows, practicing counselors with deep expertise who are advisers, and implementation coaches. More than 95% of users report that this infrastructure enables them to serve more students.

The Texas OnCourse approach tackles one of the structural barriers presented by the fragmentation of educational systems. However, this work also illustrates that training and connecting counselors and advisers isn’t sufficient. Educators need better tools that few institutions, systems, or states have developed. These include sequences of courses mapped not only to credentials but also to job opportunities. As students acquire credits from multiple institutions, they need the ability to look across institutions and see what is likely to apply. The most important questions students and advisers are asking are less about counting job postings or individual colleges’ graduation rates, and more about “how do I get there from here?”

A few institutions, systems, and states are working on these issues today. Imagine what might be possible if the will to change were channeled into a serious, networked effort among educators, employers, policy-makers, and the nation’s great colleges.

Deputy to the President for Strategy and Policy
The University of Texas at Austin

Cite this Article

“Workforce Preparation.” Issues in Science and Technology 35, no. 2 (Winter 2019).

Vol. XXXV, No. 2, Winter 2019