Employers are a critical piece of higher education reform

Companies are finding it difficult to fill open positions, saying they simply can’t find workers with the right qualifications. The half-life of skills continues to shrink, with many technical skills losing their usefulness after just five years. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of all working adults now say it is necessary to receive continuous training throughout their careers, and learning and development are the most popular workplace benefits among millennials.

This is the reality of the landscape during which changes to the Higher Education Act are being considered. While policymakers and educators discuss how the law should evolve to better reflect today’s students, schools, and our rapidly changing economy, employers too must make sure they are a meaningful part of the conversation.

More adequately preparing students to enter the workforce is a major concern for lawmakers and higher education leaders. And with good reason. A survey from the Association of American Colleges & Universities found that while 59 percent of recent college graduates say they are ready to enter the workforce, less than a quarter of employers think graduates are prepared. Some companies are showing a way forward, however, by helping pay for their employees to enroll in popular coding bootcamps or other programs, or by offering their own on-the-job training and apprenticeships.

Adobe, for example, has begun hiring talented workers from underserved communities and providing them with training to prepare them for full-time positions in design and web development. Other companies, such as Facebook and Intel, are partnering directly with colleges and universities to offer programs better aligned with today’s most in-demand skills.

In 2017, Google teamed up with Howard University to open a campus at the tech giant’s headquarters. Students can enroll in a three month program in which they learn from both Howard faculty and Google engineers. Howard leaders say the partnership helped lead to a 40 percent jump in computer science enrollment. In 2016, JetBlue launched its JetBlue Scholars program, which provides high-quality online courses to employees. JetBlue covers most of the costs, and students can graduate with a degree from Thomas Edison State University. More than 150 crew members have earned a college degree since the program started.

With policymakers already exploring ways to incentivize companies to offer meaningful job training, employers are in a prime position to ensure that the Higher Education Act reflects the importance of — and lessons learned from — these kinds of partnerships, such as how student can succeed in alternative learning settings and how to break down federal financial aid barriers for such partnerships.

Employers may also have an important role to play in the student debt conversation. About 44 million people in the United States have student debt, collectively owing $1.5 trillion. A recent survey of about 500 millennial workers found that 86 percent of young employees say they would commit to working for a company for five years if the employer helped them pay off their student loans.

That same survey also suggested that student debt could be impacting young employees’ abilities to focus on their jobs. More than half of the workers in the survey reported worrying about student loan debt most or all of the time, and more than 65 percent say they have considered getting a second job to help pay off their loans. A survey of more than 7,000 students last year found that nearly 40 percent of borrowers believe student debt has prevented them from reaching their career goals.

Last month, Senators Mark Warner and John Thune re-introduced legislation that would make employer student loan repayments tax-exempt. The current Employer Education Assistance Program limits employers to providing tax-exempt assistance only to workers who are seeking additional education, not those who have already incurred debt. Related proposals, including those to facilitate student loan payments through employer withholding, are worth exploring further as discussions around reauthorizing the Higher Education Act continue.

Employers are a critical of part these — and any — conversations around how to better support today’s students so they become valuable members of our 21st century workforce, and should be at the table.