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US Colleges Struggle to Keep Up with New Technical Skills

  • Jim Randle

Despite recent improvements, U.S. unemployment remains high. But at the same time, experts say a lack of computer-savvy workers means several million technology jobs could go unfilled.

The president of a college that grants thousands of technical degrees each year says schools are struggling to keep up with the new skills needed for technical professions that didn't exist a couple of years ago.

Northern Virginia Community College near Washington has several campuses and 75,000 students. It offers a two year associate degree. Many of its students, including Marc McCarthy, hope to turn computer skills into a new profession and a good salary.

“Fortunately in this industry, we are really blessed with a lot of openings,” McCarthy said.

McCarthy is back in college after decades working in hotels and restaurants - an industry, he said, that offers few good opportunities in the future.

Experts said many U.S. manufacturing, administrative, and middle management jobs have been eliminated by automation and foreign competition in recent years. Cornell University Labor Economist Sharon Poczter said they were once a ticket to a secure middle class salary. But the job market has changed.

“This growth in jobs has been either towards the low skill, low income jobs, or the higher skill, higher income jobs and that’s why we have seen this hollowing out of the middle class, of the factory jobs, of the office jobs," Poczter said.

Educators tell students it's more important than ever to develop math, science and computer skills because technological change is accelerating, and the demand for highly-specialized skills is growing.

School administrators are also trying to identify skills needed for emerging professions, and figure out ways to teach them.

The president of Northern Virginia Community College, Robert Templin, said it's difficult for schools to hit this “moving target.”

"Just in the last five years, new careers in fields like health information technology, cyber security, geospatial systems, these are fields [that] a decade ago didn't even exist. So trying to prepare someone for a job that is not yet there is pretty difficult," Templin said.

But Templin said it's worth the effort because it makes it more likely that graduates will find good jobs. Computer Science graduates, he said, can start at $60,000 a year.

Unemployment for U.S. college graduates is low, but a recent survey shows that four out of 10 recent graduates say they are under-employed, doing jobs, like in retail sales, that do not require the degrees they have earned. They are disappointed because these jobs do not bring the kinds of salaries they were hoping to earn.