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The Struggle is Real, for Federal Contractors That Is
Part 2: On Practical Solutions to Diversity Problems
Last time, as we discussed in Part 1, it is near impossible to pinpoint the cause for the lack of qualified workers for federal contractors. The skills gap defines part of the problem, but it cannot be blamed for external variables like automation (artificial intelligence).
Government, industry, educational institutions, and labor all have a part to play in getting us to the solution. Today, we dive into one area to be reformed: not just should we fill the skill gap, but how should we do so.
The advantage of our decentralized education system is that it allows many different institutions to experiment to discover best practices for what is a particularly complex problem. As to actualizing these best practices, well, hopefully discussions like these will help. Here are a few examples of what some American institutions are doing to better prepare young people of all races for the modern needs of today’s employers.
The University of Maryland’s ACES: The (Cyber) Fightin’ Terps!
When you think of an industry to exemplify the constantly-changing needs from its workforce, it is hard to supplant cybersecurity. Just think of all the changes the industry has gone through since the rise of cloud computing and social networks. It is very unlikely that in four years from now, after today’s college freshmen graduate, that the cybersecurity needs of private industry/governments will look anything like they do today, (Moore’s law anyone?). Perhaps, by the early 2020s smartwatch security will be all the rage, who’s to say?
Beyond silly speculation (it’s only silly until the watch has a mind of its own), the University of Maryland has developed a proactive approach to the problem called ACES, or Advanced Cybersecurity Experience for Students. With private (Amazon, Northrop Grumman) and public (the National Security Agency) partners, students receive direct advice from the very employers from which they aspire to work. Additionally, freshmen and sophomores are in what’s called a “living-learning” program where they “live and work closely together both in and out of the classroom,” working through interdisciplinary problems. Not a terrible idea, at least until the world starts throwing us some problems that can be solved with the skills acquired in a single discipline.
With nearly 50% of public college students in community colleges, it would be a darn shame to overlook these fine institutions for possible solutions to our diversity issues.
Lake Area Tech: Like Cal, with a Little Less Traffic
The pride of Watertown, South Dakota! Haven’t been? You’re missing out; President Obama even gave the commencement address here in 2015. With good reason, as we too often overlook the community colleges as the institutions that could help us fill the much-discussed skill gap. Theory is nice, but it is all in the details as you know.
And have these folks really figured something out. Winners of the Aspen Institute’s 2017 Prize for Community College Excellence, Lake Area Tech has a robust 99% job placement rate for its 2,400 students. How? Well, they have a few less empty sportscoats with patches on the elbows and instead, an advisory board of industry professionals that mold the programs to meet the needs of actual employers. This could be (easily?) replicated on a regional level with community colleges preparing local students for the industries right in their own backyard. As Lake Area Tech President Michael Cartney said, “We view college as a pathway, not a destination.”
Wouldn’t it be nice though, if we could condense such pathways from a few years to a few months?
Pretty Sure “Flatiron” means “Coding” in the Original Latin
Named after one of New York’s first skyscrapers, the Flatiron on Fifth Avenue, the Flatiron School is a for-profit institution that works as a 12-week crash-course that teaches people from all walks of life how to code. As they put it, “We are PhDs and college dropouts; poets and analysts; athletes and activists. And together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.”
At a price of $10,000 to $15,000, even if the institution is for-profit (which is just a tax designation by the way), it is still much more affordable than most computer science degrees. Plus, the New York government is assisting with tuition costs for students that make less than $50,000 a year.
As one of the Flatiron students told Katie Couric, “There’s the opportunity to reskill throughout life, through online learning, through various courses offered at universities, through graduate programs. So what you want to do is make sure that your baseline is really strong of skills so that you can build upon that throughout life.” Could not agree more! We need a little more Churchill-esq straight talk with our young people. The future, globalized workforce will be even more competitive than it is now (Ever see how many days a year kids in Asia attend school?). The best course of action would be to supplement this straight talk with avenues to reskill in minimal amounts of time as needed skills will continue to change.
The university, community college, and boot camp options all sound appealing, but with the skyrocketing costs of post-secondary education, they remain out of reach for most Americans.
“The Rent Tuition is too Damn High”
What if I was to tell you that even at a $10,000 price tag, that these retraining programs are out reach for the majority of Americans? It’s shockingly true. According to a survey this year by Career Builder, nearly, (wait for it), 80%(?!) of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck (including 1 in 10 people making more than $100,000 a year. Yikes). Beyond the mental anguish of such a living situation, it is entirely unfeasible to presume the majority, let alone super majority, of Americans have the financial resources to pay for retraining even if they wanted to. (If you are thinking to yourself, “get a loan,” think how likely it is folks living paycheck-to-paycheck to qualify.)
Let’s return to our friends at the federal government. There is lots of talk these days about the best way to grow the economy. Perhaps the answer is not a big supply-side tax cut (forgive me, Art Laffer), but something related to our discussion today. Starting in the last Presidential election cycle, the idea of free college tuition continues to gain more steam. But not all college degrees created equal. Moreover, do people need to spend four whole years acquiring the necessary skills? (I see you, Flatiron).
What if, in the spirit of this year’s Nobel Prize winner in Economics Richard Thaler, we were to “nudge” today’s aspiring young people toward the STEM skills we so desperately need them to acquire? It doesn’t even need to be all that complicated: just significantly discount tuition/costs just for the STEM programs. See? Not too fancy. We could even go one step further and cover the tuition for needy students for proven boot camp type STEM courses; then we wouldn’t have to wait four years to see the results of our efforts in the workforce. If it is the federal government’s sincere desire to diversify the workforce of federal contractors, a program like heavily subsidized tuition in certain disciplines for needy students would do much more than difficult-to-enforce, outdated regulations.
With a Little Help from Our Friends
The diversity issue is a struggle for federal contractors, but instead of pointing fingers and relying on 1960s legislation to govern a completely different world, government, educational institutions, industry, and yes, media, need to work together if we genuinely want to bring more minority and women candidates into these fields. Federal contractors have no desire to shirk their responsibility, but a little help could go a long way. Above are just three examples of different educational institutions working with private enterprise to increase participation in STEM subjects to close the much-maligned skills gap.
It is not unreasonable to think that the solution will come from private industry (doesn’t it always?), but perhaps this time, the federal government can adopt public policy to amplify these successful pilot programs so that federal contractors finally have enough qualified workers to diversify their workforce, hence meeting the goal of affirmative action regulations.
HR Unlimited, Inc. CEO & President