US: Universities and the future of work

The United States was facing a massive shortfall of workers with the educational background to support further economic growth, Dr Tracey Wilen-Daugenti told the congress. She said America would have to produce "64 million degrees" by 2025 to remain competitive in the global economy but, at current degree-completion rates, the nation faced a shortage of 16 million qualified workers.

The Managing Director of the University of Phoenix Research Institute said there were two basic reasons for this shortfall.

First, baby boomers were aging and there were fewer young workers to replace them: the proportion of Americans aged 65 and older would grow from 12% to 18% by 2025. And whereas in 2005 there were 4.3 working age people for every retiree, by 2025 there would only be 2.7 for each retiree.

"But the second directly relates to developmental and societal changes," Wilen-Daugenti said. "Young workers are so mobile they have a harder time getting what they need to meet the rising educational expectations of employers. When employees stayed with a single firm for life, companies could make educational investment in individuals and reap the benefits for the decades they continued to work.

"In a mobile workforce, there is no reason to expect an employee will still be with the same firm in a matter of years and therefore less incentive for companies to make educational investments. Some companies are under pressure to decrease spending on employee education while the demand for that education continues to rise."

She said eventually the shortfall of educated workers would result in an economic displacement: workers without the advanced specialisation and other skills to compete would fall behind while young, educated workers with specialised technological skills would be in higher demand and receive a high premium for their services. The US faced the possibility of falling behind economically if this educational gap was not filled.

"As the primary tension point, higher education will be strongly influenced by these societal changes and economic displacements. At the foundation, education must adjust because of the sharp increase of people seeking education while remaining in the workforce. This results in the need for flexible, adaptable programmes to fit their schedules."

Wilen-Daugenti said workers were also beginning to recognise the need for lifelong learning. In a society and business world that had changed completely in 20 years, how could a graduate remain relevant and competitive 40 years later?

At a time when an increasing number of students were balancing their education with work, Wilen-Daugenti said past education models were no longer best. This raised the questions: why should students be required to go to classes, and why should each course be rigid instead of adapted to the needs of a specific student?

She said unfortunately few universities were adjusting to the reality of these educational needs. As technology rapidly changed society, many universities were responding at a glacial pace.

In contrast, the University of Phoenix was adapting to help the next generation of worker-learners differentiate themselves competitively. Phoenix now had 80 campuses and 114 learning centres across the US, Wilen-Daugenti said. Students could either take classes in residence or study online using the same telecommuting technology that drove innovation in the business world.