Rod Gramer: Idaho students must ‘go on’ to close workforce gap

GUEST OPINION HIGHER EDUCATION

February 16, 2014 

The Statesman recently featured a drawing that it ran in its 50th anniversary edition on July 26, 1914. It showed a youngster contemplating all the inventions the paper had reported on since 1864.

There were drawings of a light bulb, airplane, automobile, gramophone and typewriter. The youngster mused, “I wonder if they have added one iota to human happiness!” Most of us could answer with an emphatic, “Yes!”

But what’s not in the drawing was as interesting to me as the “modern marvels” it celebrates. There were no television, space shuttle, satellite, computer, smartphone or iPad. All of these “marvels” of the last 50 years have changed our lives as much as those contained in the Statesman’s drawing changed the lives of our great-grandparents.

The Statesman’s illustration shows how research, science and technology have changed the world. Hardly any of the inventions of the past 100 years would have been possible without education, specifically higher education.

Yet, unbelievably, some people question the value of higher education. After speaking recently, I was asked why people should go to college since Idaho has one of the highest percentages of “entrepreneurs” in the country. The answer is not everyone will be the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. Most of us will work for companies, large and small.

A workforce study of 466 Idaho businesses conducted by Idaho Business for Education drives this point home. Employers say that 61 percent of jobs in five years will require a postsecondary credential. In fact, 43 percent of them will require a bachelor’s or advanced degree. A high school diploma will qualify only 19 percent of the time.

The trouble is, Idaho’s workforce is behind the curve. A 2012 census report said 36 percent of Idahoans had a high school diploma or less and only about 35 percent of Idahoans had any degree.

That creates a huge gap between the workforce we have and the one we need in five years. If we don’t close that gap Idaho runs the risk of having existing businesses stagnate or leave Idaho. It means that it will be harder to recruit new businesses.

Yet the outlook isn’t promising. Idaho has the worst go-on rate in the country. Fewer than 50 percent of our young people go on to postsecondary education, and even most of those drop out before obtaining a degree.

Last week, when IBE presented its study to legislators, the question arose: Why don’t more young people go on? Unfortunately, we don’t have a solid answer. Some believe we don’t have a higher-education culture. Others say our young people are not prepared to go on, which our remediation and dropout statistics would support.

Another answer is that college is too costly for many. In 1980, the state picked up 93 percent of the cost of higher education and tuition covered 7 percent. Today those numbers have shifted dramatically — the state picks up 53 percent and tuition 47 percent.

Some states recognize the need for a more educated workforce. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, recently proposed that the state pay the tuition for students to attend community college. He said Tennessee needs more highly educated workers for its economy to grow.

The governor’s Task Force for Improving Education’s recommendations will help prepare our students for postsecondary education, especially the Idaho Core Standards. But we also need to look at why more aren’t going on and examine the affordability of higher education. Until we do, Idaho will increasingly fall behind the states that are figuring this out.

Educated workers are the lifeblood of Idaho business, just as water is the lifeblood of its farmers. The IBE study shows the urgency for creating a more highly educated workforce if we want our economy to prosper in the years ahead.

Gramer is president of Idaho Business for Education.

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