Obama Unveils New Education Initiative to Boost Worker Skills


In an effort to boost worker skills to better match the needs of employers, President Barack Obama unveiled a new initiative that seeks to increase workforce development, worker training and job placement. The program, known as Skills For America's Future, will promote partnerships between companies and community colleges to promote the president's goal of churning out 5 million more community college graduates by 2020.

"We want to make it easier to join students looking for jobs with businesses looking to hire," Obama said Monday in prepared remarks. "We want to put community colleges and employers together to create programs that match curricula in the classroom with the needs of the boardroom."

Big Business Signs Up

PG&E (PCG), Gap (GPS), McDonald's (MCD), United Technologies (UTX) and Accenture (ACN) are among the first companies to sign on to the program. The corporations already offer worker-skills training programs and will expand their efforts under the initiative, the White House said.

Gap, for example, plans to expand its efforts by introducing a new program with community colleges in seven cities that emphasizes interview and leadership training and scholarships. "Our in-house training materials will be made available to all community college students and applicable to many industries," said Glenn Murphy, Gap's chairman and CEO.

Gap expects to hire 1,200 students from community colleges next year, or about 5% of its annual hiring. The program will be offered in Las Vegas, Denver, Houston, Atlanta, Detroit, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., but may be extended to other markets and units of the company, such as Old Navy and Banana Republic stores.

Skills For America's Future builds on the administration's "Educate to Innovate" campaign to increase learning in science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- disciplines pursued by about only 10% of American students.

The Wisdom of Engaging Employers

Obama's idea holds great promise, said Christopher Collins, professor of human resource management at Cornell University's ILR School. Instead of merely throwing money at the problem, the administration has taken the extra step to engage employers.

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"The fact that the employers are actively engaged as participants to think about how they can best support the program -- whether that's by offering their own training [or] partnering with community colleges in specific programs -- is great," Collins said. Still, whether the effort is ambitious enough remains to be seen, he said.

The U.S. has a huge jobs hole to fill, and despite the lingering recession and high unemployment, many employers report having difficulty finding the workers they need to fill specific jobs. In the U.S., 52% of companies reported problems attracting critical-skill employees, while nearly the same number say it's tough to find high-performing, talented workers, according to a recent survey.

The lack of qualified workers is in part caused by too few young people expressing interest in learning science, technology, engineering and math, despite ample job openings and lucrative salaries. Those already employed often lack the education and skills necessary to pursue careers in computer science, information systems or information technology -- three in-demand career fields.