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Education and Employment – Evolving to Bridge the Workforce Gap

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City Alive
By Angelo Gonzales | Chief Strategy Officer, United Way of Central New Mexico
Jessica Nojek | Executive Director, Mission: Graduate, United Way of Central New Mexico
Originally published in the City Alive website, May 22, 2019

Graduation season is upon us, and with that, we asked the experts at Mission: Graduate to give us a window into their evolving work to cultivate talent in New Mexico’s workforce. Hear from Angelo Gonzales, Chief Strategy Officer at United Way of Central New Mexico and Jessica Nojek, Executive Director of Mission: Graduate.

The skills gap has been a topic of conversation in New Mexico for years, if not decades. Yet still we find ourselves trying to find systemic solutions to bridge the gap between the educations our students receive, and the skills demanded by local employers.

Bridging the skills gap is complex. It is about growing skills and competencies in K-12. It is about raising graduation rates. However, research is showing that now more than ever, success in the workforce has a lot to do with credentials.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, 63 percent of all jobs in New Mexico will require some post-high school education by the year 2020. In addition, the demand for higher education has only increased since the Great Recession, with the vast majority of new jobs created during the recovery going to workers with a post-high school credential versus those with only a high school diploma. Our own research with local employers points to similar conclusions. Our survey through Mission: Graduate, known as Bridging the Talent Gap, showed that over the next five years, 41 percent of New Mexico employers anticipated needing employees with a Bachelor’s degree. An even higher percentage of employers – 45 percent – cited a need for employees with industry and professional association credentials.

This last data point is key. When we talk about post-high school education, we don’t just mean degrees. Increasingly, other forms of credentials are becoming important indicators of readiness for the workforce.

Adult Education – Breaking Down Barriers

We knew that the only way we can achieve our audacious goal at Mission: Graduate – 60,000 new graduates with college degrees and certificates by 2020 – is by having a dual focus on both young people and adults. There are over 200,000 working adults in central New Mexico who finished high school but never went any further. These individuals represent a huge opportunity for workforce development. However, they face significant barriers to returning to school.

According to the Bridging the Talent Gap survey, the top three impediments are time, money, and information. Therefore, if we want to strengthen our workforce by helping more of our adult population return to school, we need to help them break down these barriers.

At Graduate! ABQ (Mission: Graduate’s adult-focused initiative), we’re doing just that. Graduate! ABQ is a free service for any adult in central New Mexico who wants to pursue post-high school education. Graduate! ABQ is not just a service, however. It’s a partnership that seeks to connect our workforce and higher education systems to systematically address the major barriers that adults face when returning to school. Working with NM Workforce Connection Central Region, the NM Department of Workforce Solutions, CNM, local employers, and many others, we are attempting to redesign the system of supports available to working adults to encourage and support lifelong learning and the development talent within our existing workforce.

Graduate! ABQ is built on a coaching model. Interested adults work one-on-one with a coach to navigate through key transition points: accessing financial resources to pay for college, learning about career interests and setting career goals, and connecting to the people who can support their success at CNM, UNM, and other postsecondary institutions in our region.

Toward a New Focus on Talent

We are proud to be part of a growing network of local communities designated as Talent Hubs by the Lumina Foundation that are bringing together cross-sector voices to drive a conversation that goes beyond education and skills to a new approach that elevates talent development as one of the top priorities in our community.

In his book, America Needs Talent, Jamie Merisotis, the President and CEO of Lumina Foundation, describes talent as follows:

“Talent reflects the amalgam of capabilities that lead to successes in personal lives and careers…[T]alent is much more than innate ability: It is knowledge of particular domains and the human contexts that give it meaning. Knowledge without meaning is aimless and ineffectual. Talent is skill—the ability to use knowledge to learn more or solve problems. Talent is rooted in values: a deep belief in discovery, personal fulfillment, and service to others. And talent has a complicated personality: It is by turns conscientious, reflective, and engaged with others.” (p. 8)

As we reflect on our work in Mission: Graduate over the years and the strategic agenda that will carry us forward into the future, we believe that the concept of talent encapsulates best what we are trying to cultivate in our current and future workforce. Developing the talent of our community requires a comprehensive approach that starts early in a child’s life and also recognizes that there are many adults in our community who could benefit from opportunities to gain new knowledge and hone their skills.

In short, if we’re going to meet the comprehensive talent needs of employers, we can’t forget about the adults in our community, and we need to do more, collectively, to support their success.

Connect the Dots

We believe that a thriving and supported workforce leads to a thriving economy. By connecting resources and leveraging partnerships, UWCNM is breaking down barriers to help people achieve their full potential in New Mexico.

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