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Commentary: Higher education must respond to changing workforce


Texas’ dynamic economy is something we should embrace — a changing and growing economy based on the diversity of both jobs and our workforce. From health care to education, the oil patch to technology and cybersecurity, the jobs are there, but how will we fill them?

How Texas addresses that dynamism and the accompanying challenges it poses is key to our long-term prosperity. And, higher education should be front and center in that discussion.

We can and must do more to make higher education not simply a dream, but a reality for more Texans.

Pause for a moment and consider today’s Texas job market and especially those high-demand, high-skilled fields where much of today’s job growth and hiring occurs.

Across Texas, business owners are facing a skills gap with more jobs requiring skilled workers than there are applicants for those jobs.

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently published a study that examined the job market in the years since the last recession. Of the 11.6 million new jobs that did not exist when the recession began in late 2007, 11.5 million of those jobs require some form of post-secondary education.

Right here in Texas, such findings are clear. Take far South Texas, for example, where home health care jobs represent more than one in 10 jobs in Brownsville. That’s five times the Texas average and the greatest concentration of home health-related jobs in the country, per the U.S. Labor Department and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. We must make it a priority to ensure we have enough skilled, qualified workers to fill health care-related careers that dominate the job markets across Texas.

The National Skills Coalition found so-called “middle-skill jobs” — those requiring more than a high school diploma and some advanced education, certification or training — comprise 55 percent of the state’s labor market. However, only 43 percent of Texas workers have the degrees or training that these high-demand fields require. In some parts of our state like El Paso, the gap is even greater, with only 13 percent of workers meeting job qualifications, per the Brookings Institution.

The message is clear: we must get more Texans on the path to higher education and through to completion of those degrees.

In our annual survey of Texans’ attitudes and views on higher education, the WGU Texas Poll illustrates the value Texans place on post-secondary education while clearly underscoring their concerns about its rising costs.

While a majority of Texans surveyed view student loan debt and the increasing cost of a degree as major issues in higher education (93 percent), they overwhelmingly (95 percent) agree that having a college degree is important. Texans realize a college education is important for improving one’s quality of life and that an educated workforce is essential for Texas’ economic health.

In short, Texans get it when it comes to the importance and value of higher education in furthering their careers and improving their lives. But, how do we help them “get it” in terms of obtaining a college degree?

The WGU Texas track record provides one such road map. A combined focus on non-traditional students — those who tend to be older, with some college but no degree and who juggle work, family and financial concerns — and the employers who need highly-skilled workers is crucial to our state’s long-term success.

Ensuring responsible borrowing — a priority for WGU Texas — and providing competency-based education to meet the students where they are in terms of skills, knowledge, experience and time are also critical.

Texans are right to keep pressing state policy leaders to address access and affordability in higher education. Higher education that reflects the diversity of our state’s students, along with the diversity and demands of employers, should remain a priority. It is the key to maintaining our dynamic economy.

Vargas Stidvent is Chancellor of WGU Texas, a non-profit university that provides competency-based, online and accredited undergraduate and graduate degrees in high-demand fields.



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