The Connecticut Business and Industry Association 2023 Survey of Connecticut Businesses found a lot to be positive about, including the state’s fiscal strength and the budget surplus.
In addition, three-quarters of the 3,000 top business executives surveyed said that they experienced their most profitable year in 2022 and two-thirds expect profits to grow this year. It’s great news for economic stability as well as for business leader morale.
Yet, 81% of respondents also said they are struggling to find and retain experienced workers and the labor shortage is their top concern.
Though the unemployment rate (3.6%) is the lowest since February 2002, and only slightly higher than the national average (3.5%), the Connecticut labor shortage is described in the report as the “greatest threat to the state’s economic prospects.” In fact, of top executives surveyed, 46% reported the lack of skilled job applicants is the greatest obstacle to growth.
The aging workforce, stagnant population growth, and Connecticut’s high cost of living are cited as major reasons for the workforce gap, but 33% of surveyed businesses said that applicants generally did not possess the required skills or expertise they need. A majority (50%) of surveyed employers are looking for post high-school education, such as certificate programs (21%), bachelor’s degrees (21%) and master’s degrees (8%). Without a top-notch talent pool prepared with relevant 21st century skills businesses face the possibility of failing to remain viable and competitive.
Affordability persists as a barrier to preventing some from accessing post-secondary education opportunities. In a ranking of states with lowest student debt at time of graduation, Connecticut ranks 46th, with an average students debt of $35,800 compared to the national average of $29,300. The state also ranks 46th in a ranking of the lowest average college tuition and fees required of in-state students at public four-year institutions.
Combating the high cost of a getting a certificate or college degree in Connecticut will require expansive, collaborative efforts on job training and workforce development. Supporting workforce development in the state starts with developing transformative partnerships with local businesses, traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, and local and regional membership-based associations. Though only 38% of business leader respondents are currently engaged with education institutions, including high schools, it’s critical for businesses to establish alliances with education providers to support their human resource objectives and to expand access for their employees.
Another solution to make a college degree more attainable is to address barriers of cost and time. Online, competency-based education measures skills and subject knowledge rather than time or “hours” spent in a classroom. Each student individually progresses through courses as soon as they can prove they have mastered the material, rather than advancing only when the semester or term ends. The flexibility of this approach means that students are able to work full-time while also acquiring skills for a future or current job at a pace that is best for them. This approach benefits both workers and employers by saving time and money and developing a more diverse workforce that meets the needs of our modern economy.
Accredited, nonprofit Western Governors University (WGU) offers a competency-based learning model, as well as a six-month, flat rate tuition in which a student can progress through as many competencies in a term as her schedule and motivation permits at no extra cost. WGU’s annual tuition for two six-month terms is $7,452, and undergraduates have an average debt of $14,995.
The WGU mission includes workforce development efforts like skills mapping to ensure graduates have the skills employers need by aligning curricula closely with what hiring managers need. Led by WGU, the Open Skills Network (OSN) is a coalition of employers, education providers, policy makers, military, non-profits, and other stakeholders dedicated to advancing skills-based education and hiring.
Innovative approaches to college education provide a key long-term strategy for workforce investment. Focusing on skill-based mastery at an affordable cost with a flexible schedule allows learners to stay employed while earning a degree. These innovative learning models are complementary to traditional higher education options in the Constitution State, expanding opportunity to fill existing gaps.
Higher education has a duty to help connect talent with professional opportunity, by offering a variety of ways to train Connecticut’s workforce with the credentials employers trust.
Rebecca L. Watts, Ph.D., serves as a regional vice president for Western Governors University (WGU), a non-profit, accredited online university.