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It’s all about skills

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Winston Churchill once opined, “Americans and British are one people separated only by a common language.” While Americans and British spell words differently and use different colloquialisms, the many similarities between our two countries far outweigh our differences. So too the similar imperative to ensure our respective young people have the requisite skills to secure gainful employment in the ever-changing economic system.

Take for instance the January 2014 British Chambers of Commerce’s Skills and Employment Manifesto. The BCC Manifesto “includes recommendations to improve young people’s transition from education to work, boost employers’ investment in in-work training and help them to find skilled workers among the nation’s jobseekers.” Implicit in the recommendation is the growing recognition, and frankly frustration, that employers need more from young people than just credentials – they need skills, both the hard and soft skills that make the transition to work successful.

Over on our side of “pond,” we grapple with the very same issues. This past January, the Obama Administration issued a Presidential Memorandum — Job-Driven Training for Workers, identifying the same quandary highlighted by the BCC Manifesto – one increasingly shared by employers. The Obama Memorandum calls on the federal government to “ensure that its policies and programs in the workforce and training system are designed to equip the nation’s workers with skills matching the needs of employers looking to hire.”

American and British histories are replete with examples of national investment and strategies targeting education and preparation for work, particular after the Second World War. After prioritizing credentials for decades, both countries now recognize that skills that correlate to the real needs of employers are increasingly paramount to success.
Our governments and employers depend upon workers having the skills to compete successfully if our economies are to grow and support our historical standards of living. And now, not only do governments and employers depend on skills, they are demanding them.

As an employer myself, finding young people with both the hard and soft skills is a constant challenge. It’s not that young people are any less well educated than their older peers, but the ability to acquire and hone the skills needed for success appears harder to come by, perhaps due in part to the “depersonalization” sometimes inherent in our increasingly digital world.

The 2013 Twentieth Century Fox film The Internship provides a humorous, if poignant parable regarding the need to combine both hard and soft skills. The plot focuses on two friends whose sales careers have been sacrificed to the growing preference for Internet-based shopping. Despite their complete paucity of experience and knowledge of the high-tech world, they manage to secure highly coveted internships at Google, which if successful, will result in their employment by the mega Internet-search company. But they must compete against young, digitally savvy Millennials from the best colleges and universities.

In the end, the two salesmen win the team competition for best ideas and innovation, not because they manage to master the digital technology, but because they teach the young people in their team the soft skills of interpersonal relations, verbal presentation, team building, risk-taking and faith in one’s self.

This movie parable aptly describes what our two countries have come to realize – the need for a renewed compact among employers, governments, educators and trainers focusing on that perfect blend of skills that lead to an acceleration of employment and working success for our young people. American community and technical colleges and British colleges of further education increasingly are being evaluated and scrutinized for their efforts to prepare young people for gainful employment—as we should be, while recognizing that in many cases our colleges excel in advancing practical, applicable education. These evaluations are both a challenge and an opportunity for our systems to shine. To do so requires the various sectors to come together and pull in the same direction. Yet another example of how America and Britain share DNA.

I am excited to have this opportunity to share my views with my counterparts in the United Kingdom through regular FEnews.co.uk commentaries. I look forward to continuing the conversation about how American and British colleges can work together to truly further education. Please don’t be shy about sharing your feedback, thoughts and ideas for collaboration by contacting me at [email protected].

J. Noah Brown is the president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees and the author of First in the World: Community Colleges and America’s Future. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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