Obama's State of the Union Address: A Call to Action for L&D Professionals

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During the January 24th Presidential State of the Union address, United States President Barrack Obama addressed a burning issue for recruiters, hiring managers and business leaders alike when he proposed a national commitment to train two million Americans with skills that will lead directly to a job.

Although businesses have created more than three million jobs in less than two years, millions of Americans are still out of work. It may be seemingly incongruous to those outside of HR and business development that many companies—especially those in the science and technology arena—are struggling to close the infamous "skills gap" presented by a lack of trade-specific training.

"Now you need to give more community colleges the resources they need to become community career centers -– places that teach people skills that businesses are looking for right now, from data management to high-tech manufacturing," President Obama said.

This is a call to action meant to address some of the key challenges facing the U.S. labor market. In order to solve this problem, it is important to understand how the nation ended up here.

"For some decades now, the U.S. labor market has experienced increased demand for skilled workers," says David Autor, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, faculty research associate of the National Bureau of Economic Research and Editor in Chief of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. "During times like the 1950s and 1960s, a rising level of educational attainment kept up with this rising demand for skill. But since the late 1970s and early 1980s, the rise in U.S. education levels has not kept up with the rising demand for skilled workers....The result has been a sharp rise in the inequality of wages."

Organizations often take on the task of training employees within an internal corporate university to equip new-hires with the skills necessary to do the job. But there are other opportunities companies can take to preemptively ensure workers are ready and able to perform necessary duties from the first day of hire. President Obama cited the successful example of Siemens’ partnership with a community college in North Carolina. Siemens not only helped the college to design the curricula in industry-specific training courses, it also helps the student/prospective employee by paying for the tuition of new-hire from the college.

HR practitioners and business leaders across various positions and industries weigh in on the proposal and how organizations can cultivate a trained workforce by partnering with educational institutions.

Bob Dick,
Manager of Instructional Technology, eLearning and Distance Learning for Humana Inc.

"The idea of colleges partnering with colleges to design programs to prep students for specific skill needs is not new in any way, shape, or form. The community and tech college systems, in particular, have long reached out to major employers in their market areas to do exactly that. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as determining future needs, and building a curriculum to fit those needs.

Challenges include:

Most businesses will not pull the trigger on a new venture until they know the necessary skills are in the market, while most colleges find it hard to attract students to a career path for which there is no ready market. Colleges compete with one another to no small degree on the basis of percentage of students they place, and one misstep in anticipating what skills will be required or what skills may actually be required could have an extremely negative impact on this placement percentage.

We are often asking our colleges in some areas to teach to technologies that don’t even exist yet. How you find and hire qualified people to write curriculum and teach this is not particularly simple or budget friendly.

Even if our colleges are able to produce workers the skills necessary to handle the growing needs of our businesses, they (the graduates) are still competing with labor forces where 60-70 hour, seven day work weeks are the accepted norm, and where a salary of $22 a day for an engineer to work those hours is considered progressive.

Bottom line: The existing system is already set up for, and to a degree is already actively engaged in doing what the president suggested – and they should continue to travel and strengthen that path. But unless and until the entire system can be structured in such a way that it is not far more profitable for American business to ship these jobs off shore, they will continue to go."

Peggy O’Brien, Vice President of Talent Acquisition, Covance

"I really like the notion of business and community colleges working together to get skilled staff. I know many organizations already have efforts underway to do this. We do something similar with a local community college and it's been a great partnership. We've also seen commitment from the local community to support the expansion of the community college to provide more education in health care and technical careers. Educating and retraining is critical to every business."

Keith Zakarin, Chair of the Education Practice Group of Duane Morris, LLP

"The Obama administration’s comments on training skilled workers are completely inconsistent with its policies and actions. This administration is profoundly, mortally hostile to any private sector career training, especially if the institution is for-profit. The Dept. of Education, acting in accordance with administration policy, has rammed through terrible new regulations that are destroying the private sector of career education and limiting student opportunity. The Department of Justice has become involved in litigation against the sector (EDMC in Pittsburgh). Recently, the Administration signed legislation stripping Title IV eligibility for non-High School graduates and making it harder to qualify for Pell Grants.

The private sector of higher education is the only part of that community producing consistent employment outcomes for graduates. In particular, the nationally accredited private institutions have graduation rates that exceed 60 percent in non-degree programs, and employment rates that average over 70 percent within a year of graduation. These are the national accreditors’ benchmarks.

The Obama administration has focused its support for job training almost exclusively on the community colleges. Although the community colleges clearly are important institutions, their record in career training is abysmal. Their graduation and placement rates (which are not disclosed to enrolling students) are horrible. They by and large have little or no connection with the employer community and have no incentive (or ability) to innovate with new programs that meet changing market needs. They are not held accountable for outcomes to anyone, and act accordingly. Unlike the private sector institutions, the public sector has never substantially partnered with private employers, does almost nothing in the way of placement, and their results unfortunately show it.

I agree that preparing students for career outcomes is a critical national mission. In the depth of a recession, with almost 10 percent unemployment, supporting occupational education would be a great thing to do. But this administration’s hostility to private education, and more generally, to any profit-making enterprise, reveals the President’s comments this week as profoundly hypocritical."

Dr. Laurie Bassi, Author and CEO of McBassi & Co.

"President Obama was spot on with his remarks on education and training in the State of the Union address. The U.S. has quickly fallen from being Number One in this regard to being in the middle of the pack. I am a big fan of the community college system, and efforts to strengthen that system should be a high priority. As an ex-university professor, I am also in favor of creating incentives for universities to control costs. However, I’m not terribly optimistic about any real success on that front – which makes progress on the community college front all the more important."
Mark Farley, J.D., Education Management Consultant
at InOv8 Inc.

"Most employers and educators simply continue to do what they have always done. The President's comments are a call to action but without identifying the tools and steps that must be taken. I believe that educators and employers can work together to build competency models that are clear and measurable. Once this is done (especially in emerging disciplines) then students can be taught more efficiently, learning can be measured promptly, and students can be placed (in jobs) with confidence - that is how the process should be 're-invented'."

Ashehadh Faizy, Senior Specialist of Talent Acquisition at Integrated Telecom Company of Saudi Arabia

"Colleges partnering with companies; companies participating in career fairs at colleges; campus recruitment, etc. These are not new things. These practices are being followed by companies for some time now. What has changed is the number of potential recruits and their quality, which has dropped. Companies started saying no to being training grounds. They wanted people who could deliver results in short time spans. Recession added fuel where unskilled people got fired and companies started looking for multi-taskers.

This arose as a result of poor education / training in schools / colleges. Education these days are focused more on getting a job rather than learning and development. People also run behind success rather than to become efficient and smart. Once you become efficient, success will follow. This is what we should teach the new generation. The L&D programs for tomorrow should focus on making students smart. It should give the tools to be efficient in workplace rather than just enabling them to secure a job for the short term. If that remains the focus for short term, then a long term commitment is to be made for continuous development programs, and recruiters will follow."

Kacie J Walters, Global Knowledge Manager, GE Healthcare, Performance Solutions

"I am a huge proponent of public-private partnerships to provide continuous learning opportunities for our workforces. In my early days working for smaller, private companies, I would often partner with local community colleges to provide managerial and technology training. It was more affordable for the business and the curriculums were proven.

I believe if business and academia can partner on the development of workforce training programs, they would truly be set up to meet the needs of the business and give local colleges the ability to expand its audience, potential student base and revenue opportunities. Integrating business knowledge into the classroom already has a deep history with adjunct business professionals developing and bringing in their business content at the collegiate level.

Harvard Business School does an excellent job of providing content and programs that can be integrated into a business setting to further the skills development of their leaders. The same model could be applied to more technical skills programs where an Engineering school, for example, could provide programs to companies in the science and technology industry. But, unfortunately, not every organization can afford Harvard.

Learning can happen on a local level. I think trade schools and community colleges have a role to play here. Colleges could create offices that strictly work with businesses to co-create curriculums specific to industries and hire instructional designers to execute the work. Businesses could sponsor the development of these curriculums and integrate them into their onboarding efforts. This is not a replacement for the company’s internal training department. But, for certain technical skills a program may be better suited from a college with a certification attached to it that could be leveraged for multiple companies and multiple types of workers – new workers entering the workforce and veterans who need to develop a new set of skills."

Michelle Burke,
Director Learning & Development, Sears Holdings Corporation

"I think President Obama’s direction on training skilled workers to fill open jobs is spot on. Too often we overlook potential job candidates because they don’t currently have the skills necessary for a position without giving enough thought to the potential of a given candidate. We should be assessing learning agility and ‘coachability’ more often than we do.

In my opinion, the biggest barrier we have in pursuing the direction laid out by President Obama is mindset. We must open our minds to the possibilities of college partnerships and prepare appropriate pipelines of talent so that the speed with which business moves is not hampered while we build up those pipelines."


According to Preisdent Obama’s address, many of these partnerships are in place and more companies have already lined up to participate in similar initiatives. However, as presented by HR leaders, these potentially mutually beneficent affiliations present new challenges that will be the responsibility of learning and development professionals and HR partners.

How will this proposal affect industry in the United States? What are some tips for executing this initiative? Please feel free to share your comments, stories and ideas below.