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More Innovation and Forward-Thinking Needed to Create a Modern Education and Workforce Training System

At last week’s meeting of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Governors’ Council, of which I am a member, we heard about some of the amazing innovations taking place around the country to better prepare students for the workforce and to better align our workforce programs with the current marketplace. These innovations are far-ranging and aim to provide more options for every type of student, learner and worker as they seek to achieve the skills necessary for gainful employment and career advancement. We wish to promote more of these innovations and are seeking opportunities to promote these ground-breaking approaches to both federal and state decision-makers.

We learned about an innovative effort to create a skills map for veterans. Companies and governments have made a priority of hiring veterans. Yet, they often struggle with locating veterans and identifying their skills. An enterprising and generous group, lead by former White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra created the Veterans Talent: An Open Data Collaboration. Using data readily available to LinkedIn and, the two largest online houses of resumes and job listings, the group first identified over 50,000 skills that employers needed for vacant positions. Then, using state Unemployment Insurance Data, they identified, county by county, where the veterans are and what their skills are. They are now able to literally identify the number of veterans in each county with the right skills for jobs available in their area. Their effort could revolutionize how all job seekers look for and find work.

This is the type of forward thinking the governors suggested was necessary to solve the skills gap – the dilemma of schools and training programs outfitting students with skills that are not needed in today’s workforce while jobs continue to go unfilled. In our February 2014 recommendations, the governors called for federal occupational databases to be improved and more industry-derived data be gathered so that workforce training programs can better target their investments and ensure individuals can access training for actual jobs in the workplace. We look forward to working with Aneesh, the folks at LinkedIn, Monster and the Dave Duffel Family Foundation on how to make more government data available while fully protecting individuals’ privacy to expand their template to all workers.

During our meeting, governors also heard from one of our former colleagues, Jim Geringer, the former Governor from Wyoming and one of the founders of the Western Governors University (WGU). Established in 1997 by 19 governors in the western states, WGU provides online competency based education in four primary areas: health care, business, teaching and technology. Competency based education (CBE) translates real-world work experience into academic credit and measures success by skill completion instead of hours spent in a classroom. It’s an innovative approach that especially helps those students who do not learn best in a traditional academic setting and who may have assumed college wasn’t for them; or the student with a few years of work experience who wants to get a degree so they can advance in their career. You earn your degree through demonstration of skills and knowledge in required subject areas through a series of carefully designed assessments. This is done by taking tests, writing papers, and completing assignments. But rather than focus on seat time or credit hours, WGU makes sure that when you graduate you are a highly competent professional. The average student at WGU is 37 years old and works full time. All courses are online and anyone in the country (or world) can enroll. It is a model we believe more universities could embrace especially if we as a nation reform our accreditation and financial aid systems away from a bias towards traditional brick and mortar four-year universities. With the official education hierarchy built around a hundreds-year old model of higher education, innovators have a very hard time gaining traction and students. With models like WGU and now Southern New Hampshire University, which provides an online competency model in cooperation with specific employers, we are optimistic that more schools will bring on competency based degree programs if we can better align the federal laws and regulations.

My colleagues and I are excited to help foster more innovation and to advance those already underway. Making available more jobs and skills data so that we can create better training programs and adjusting the federal definition of learning to include both inside and outside the classroom experience would be two great first steps.

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