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Corporate Commentary

How Corporations Can Empower the Global Workforce of the Future

Another school year comes to a close, and 1.9 million students will earn a college bachelor’s degree this year. But, for every individual graduating college this year, ten others started college at some point yet didn’t graduate. That’s 37 million people who started college but have been unable to finish. According to our research, nearly 80 percent of these people would be interested in pursuing their education while working.

We know that the main hurdle to college education is the cost of a degree. There are already 44 million people with almost $1.5 trillion in student loan debt, which has made some wary of financing huge tuitions. Research shows that financial incentives and increased student support not only allow people to return to school but also increase graduation rates.

What kind of impact could we have on people’s lives and in our communities if we brought the world’s most visionary employers together with the highest quality global universities to offer low- or even no-cost tuition rates to these future learners?

It’s a question that major global corporations are pondering as they grapple with a dearth of college-educated labor. Companies spend more than $180 billion a year to develop, re-skill, and up-skill their workforce.

Talent is the number-one issue, according to CEOs, and 25% of current jobs may be automated in the next few years, increasing the need for employees to possess more advanced skills and knowledge.  Although some companies have been able to partner and tap into the educational capabilities of universities to source talent for their current workforce, it isn’t easy.

The Corporation / College Chasm

I have had the unique opportunity of seeing this issue from both sides. As a corporate executive, I saw my employees trying to apply decades-old knowledge to the fast-paced challenges of today’s business environment. In most instances, though, as corporations launched efforts to transform themselves into learning enterprises, corporate leaders would not even consider the tremendous capabilities housed inside the university system.

As a professor and educational professional, I would marvel at the deep expertise universities have built, over hundreds of years, to raise a learner’s knowledge base, with well-defined standards on admission, coaching, grading, and graduation. Outside of a few one-off instances of partnerships, universities often do not find it easy to work in a sustainable and scalable manner with leading corporations.

It’s hard to imagine two ecosystems that are so complementary yet, despite years of co-existence, not working harmoniously. Corporations have been unable to tap into the educational capabilities of universities and universities have failed to help educate corporate learners. I believe this is because corporations and universities have different performance measures, different cultures, various stakeholders, and operate at different clock speeds.

That’s why we founded InStride, a new boundary-spanning organization that bridges these two entities to better connect the corporate and university ecosystems for the benefit of millions of potential learners. One of our partners, Arizona State University, named the country’s most innovative university by U.S. News and World Report and the CEOWORLD magazine University ranking, started bringing online educational opportunities to innovative global companies, like Starbucks, Uber, and Adidas to educate employees.

Through their partnership with Arizona State University, Starbucks alone has enrolled more than 12,000 students, with almost 3,000 graduates in the past five years. The significance of that impact caught the attention of The Rise Fund, another one of our partners, and dedicated to achieving measurable, positive social, and environmental outcomes.

This type of thinking is now more than a smart business decision; it’s actually a movement that’s spreading across forward-thinking companies and creating meaningful change in the way we think about higher education.

Creative Solutions for Workforce Development

The social and economic benefits of higher education are well-documented and include higher earnings, increased social mobility, and greater civic participation. In the United States, employees without a degree earn half the pay of those who have a bachelor’s degree or higher ($33,800 vs. $67,700). These additional dollars come back into the communities and create an impact for the learners, their families and the community for generations.

We know corporations have workforce development budgets to attract, retain, and invest in their employees. According to our research, up to 70 percent of employees say they are more likely to stay with an employer or start a job with an employer who offers tuition assistance. However, few companies know how to motivate their employees to utilize these programs.

We also know employees are seeking the chance to significantly impact their lives and the lives of their families. More than 70 percent of employees say they want to earn more, and another 60 percent want access to the additional job options that come with getting a degree. To quote one survey respondent, “I don’t want to be irrelevant in the job market.”

As we applaud the graduating class of 2019, let’s also acknowledge the visionary CEOs who understand that strategic investment in human capital can lead to better attraction, retention and increased ROI (nearly 250%) for their workforce development dollars – executives who are taking steps to reeducate their workforce.

However, we also must acknowledge that we need to do more – for individuals, for organizations, and for society. The imperative has been there, and now we have the means.  Universities have invested in high-quality online learning and student supports to meet working learners where they are.

Smart leaders are feeling the pressure of the tightest labor market in 50 years. It’s not just time to act, it’s time for a movement. The time has come to start learning forward.


Written by Vivek Sharma.

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Vivek Sharma
Vivek Sharma is CEO and founder of InStride, the first global learning service enterprise partnering with employers to provide opportunities for their employees to earn degrees and credentials through the highest-quality global universities. Vivek is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.
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