The Path to Prosperity

By Dennis Boone

If you’re in the business of higher-education, the numbers at first glance may be sobering:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 25 fastest-growing occupations nationwide between now and 2020 include exactly three jobs that require more than a bachelor’s degree.

Eleven require attainment of only a high school diploma, some post-high school certification, or an associates degree.

And nearly a third of the jobs on that list have median salaries below the current national average of $35,293.

This is hardly the stuff we talk about in discussions of shaping a nimble, highly educated 21st-century work force.

But do figures like those imply a disconnect between educational policy that is sharply focused on the STEM disciplines, life sciences and other fields that hold the promise of a highly compensated work force? To a degree, yes, but for the most part though, area educators and work-force professionals say, the BLS figures tell only a very small portion of a larger, and changing, narrative woven with threads of employment, skill sets, career duration, technological change and other factors.

“We look at the long-term benefits rather than the first five years in a career,” says April Mason, provost and senior vice president at Kansas State University. “There is some data out there recently that shows that a major from a liberal-arts institution doesn’t make quite a bit in their first years out, but with a master’s degree, or with increasing time from commencement, they are some of the top earners in society.”

Indeed, according to other BLS figures, the 100 highest-paying occupations in the Kansas City area account for more than 110,000 jobs, out of a work force slightly more than 1 million strong. They are the people earning at least $75,000 a year—and every single one of those jobs requires at least a bachelor’s degree; many require a graduate or professional degree.

Many of those positions, especially at the top of the compensation scale, are in health-care delivery. But in a metropolitan area of 2.37 million, there’s a practical limit to the number of physicians who can be employed, just as there are limits to the numbers of bricklayers and electricians who can find work.

It’s worth noting, educators say, that what’s happening with employers—even at the level of jobs long considered manual labor—is changing the types of educational attainment needed.

“Jobs that now don’t require a degree will require them in the near future, especially in construction crafts—even for those who have completed apprenticeship programs,” says Bob Jacobi, executive director of the Labor-Management Council of Greater Kansas City.

Increasingly, he notes, apprenticeship programs have community college credits attached to them, and there are greater requirements for tech skills in manufacturing and utility jobs. “If you go to a manufacturing plant, you’re not just screwing in a widget 800 times a day,” he said. “You’re working with robotics, programming machinery—there’s a great deal more sophistication and technology in manufacturing today, and the same is coming to construction.”

What’s happening there, said Metropolitan Community College’s chancellor, Mark James, has spawned a whole new way of thinking about work-force training and the role played by educational systems—from K-12 to community colleges to the degree-granting institutions.

“What’s needed today are certain skills, and the skills need to change as the technology changes,” James said. “Workers need nimbleness and stackable credentials,” which are educational paths that get people into a job and lead them to higher educational levels that can be leveraged into higher incomes.

Citing the work that MCC has done, particularly through its Business & Technology campus, James said community colleges are strengthening their ties to business leaders to gain important new insights into how job roles are changing—and, consequently, how educational programming must change to keep up with the demand for qualified workers.

“Sometimes they send workers to us, sometimes we go on site to do training” for those businesses, he said. “All of it is non-college credit, but if an industry certification is needed, we’ll design a course to grant that. We’ve moved under and into the college-credit operation, with the goal being that our people will build these non-college credit, stackable credits, in consultation with college instructors who are teaching the college credit toward degrees, so that those credentials do become building blocks for the person taking them, and that will translate towards a degree.”

His counterpart at Johnson County Community College, Joe Sopcich, said that trend was being driven by what’s happening in the broader economy. “What we’re really talking about is, the workplace is changing,” Sopcich said. “Community colleges are all about putting people to work and giving them the opportunity to get a job and be solid, contributing member of society,” so that change is right in the wheelhouse of institutions that issue certifications and award two-year degrees.

But it’s still a big wheel to turn. “One of the most significant challenges we have today is the need to stay ahead of the curve; otherwise, we become irrelevant,” Sopcich said. “We need the resources to get it done, not just the money, but the people resources. There’s a tendency in higher education, or at any organization, to latch onto the status quo and not let go. But if you do that today, you’re at great risk to the organization—in the business community, you’re out of business.”


Higher education, he says, “has survived because the money has always come in, but that’s not the case any more. The degree of competition is intense: We compete with everyone, on the Internet, with the for-profit institution, and if we’re not relevant, we won’t compete much longer. We talk about these challenges every day, trying to develop programs locally with different business sectors to maintain relevance.”

That kind of introspection, said David Cook, vice chancellor at the KU Edwards Campus in Overland Park, is leading to significant changes in the ways colleges present their programming.

“One of the things we’re proud of—it’s new, we just started in August—is what we call Degree in Three, to get that four-year degree in three years, partnering with the Blue Valley School District’s CAPS program and JCCC.”

Under that approach, students can knock out a year’s worth of academic credit while still in high school, transition to the community college, then finish out just down Quivira Road at the Edwards campus. The neighboring Olathe district is now on board, and KU hopes to bring others into the fold. “We started with an IT degree, but we’re exploring others,” said Cook, “and it has a ton of potential. It’s had an extremely positive reception from the community and from business leaders.”

K-State’s Mason notes the impact that these and other trends are having on higher education in general.

“The average age of an undergrad student has been going up for a number of years,” she says. “We are not a traditional institution of higher education for 18-to-22-year-olds any longer. I’m encouraged by that. As that 18-to-22 number has been going down nationally, people are taking what education they might have started and coming back to school, so we’re meeting them where they are—with distance-learning and on-line programming that allows them to not disrupt their living situation, whatever it might be, so they can continue toward a degree with completion programs.”

In addition, she said, K-State also has the so-called “plus-2” agreements with all 19 of the state’s community colleges, allowing students to finish on-line or come to campus for face-to-face learning.

Cook also noted that the degree-completion factor would remain huge for liberal-arts institutions and their graduates.

“We don’t know what jobs will be like in 2025,” he says, “so the value of liberal arts is in the critical-thinking skills, working in teams, learning how to communicate better or write better. For those jobs and sectors that don’t exist today, that’s a big cornerstone of what’s going to be needed. But it’s also a balancing act: We have to understand what the work-force needs are right now, and we have to educate to what those needs are. We, have to be responsive to both.”