For companies across America, the struggle to find and retain qualified employees is more difficult than ever. There are nearly 10 million job openings in the United States but only 5.8 million unemployed workers, and economists predict that our current labor shortage may last for years. According to the Harvard Business Review:
“Between 2011 and 2021, nearly every county in the U.S. saw its working-age population decline. … The Pew Research Center estimates that 1.1 million more people retired than expected in 2020, while Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that 2.4 million women dropped out of the workforce during the first 12 months of the pandemic. The number of 18 year olds joining the workforce is also shrinking, which portends even less availability ahead.“
Filling that labor gap will require plenty of different strategies—but the best way to create a sustainable talent pipeline is to ensure that the three million Americans who graduate from high school every year can follow their chosen path to become trained, skilled and certified members of the workforce.
Unfortunately, the high school-to-career pathway is littered with barriers, especially for those from historically marginalized populations and those who come from the lowest income quartile. The cost of college—including community college and trade school—is out of reach for many, and attending school can easily lose out to work, family or caregiving priorities.
Even when students have the drive, determination and plans to achieve their educational goals, it’s far too easy to slip through the cracks. Only 64% of students who start a bachelor’s degree program graduate within six years, with Black, Pacific Islander and American Indian/Alaska Native students experiencing the highest dropout rates. At community colleges, less than 40% of those who start an associate’s degree ever complete it.
So what can we do, and how can scholarships help?
Higher education has a significant role to play—and so do employers.
The HBR article cited above makes a key point: “If employers want to ensure that they have the workers they need not only for the present but also the future, they’re going to have to get better at sourcing their own talent and actively developing their employees’ skills.” In other words, talent pipeline development isn’t just an issue for higher ed, but for employers as well.
To kickstart the private-sector side of the discussion, the Biden administration’s Talent Pipeline Challenge is putting federal funds and infrastructure behind a program to encourage employers to invest in equitable recruitment and training initiatives, particularly in the fields of construction, EV and battery development and broadband infrastructure.
At colleges across the country, career-focused education partnerships are also helping those students who are able to access them, as pointed out in this article from NSPA: “In a recent survey, ‘88% of students feel prepared to enter the workforce, and 81% said that’s thanks to their school’s career development office, resources or programs.’”
But in spite of these successes, there’s still a missing piece. Every year, American high school graduating classes are getting more diverse—but neither college graduating classes or corporate C-suites are reflecting that shift, and the potential chilling effect of the Supreme Court’s affirmative action ruling threatens to widen the gap even further. Already, Black, Indigenous and Latino/a students are more than 25% less likely to complete a college degree than their white and Asian peers; when they do, they’re more likely to face mountains of debt, making it still more difficult to settle into good careers and begin building generational wealth.
That’s where private scholarships can do the most good.
For employers who want to get a step ahead in developing a sustainable talent pipeline and a diverse future workforce, equity-focused private scholarships are a perfect tool.
One of the points the HBR authors make is that “our education and training system, the market’s primary pipeline of talent, also isn’t in sync with demand.” The skills students are learning, particularly in technical and digital courses, aren’t always keeping up with employers’ current and anticipated future needs, and that means even a decorated college grad isn’t always prepared for life on the job.
By funding scholarships geared toward specific fields or skill sets, private-sector companies can do much more to cultivate graduates with the skills that really matter—and by coupling those scholarships with mentoring, internship or work-shadowing opportunities, they’re able to give students an invaluable insight into real world operations while they’re still in school.
In addition, private scholarships can be targeted to the exact population that companies want to recruit. Organizations who fund scholarships aren’t just giving dollars to an institution to parcel out. Instead, they’re reaching out to their ideal candidates, whose barrier to success may simply be a few thousand dollars in unmet need or potential loan debt.
What does success look like?
By ensuring those students don’t have to give up on their dreams, private scholarships provide a massive benefit to companies, their communities and their talent.
The PepsiCo S.M.I.L.E. program is a powerful example: administered by Scholarship America, the scholarship is open to Black and Hispanic students at community colleges who plan to transfer to four-year schools. These are the future members of a more diverse workforce, but only about 1 in 6 community college enrollees ends up successfully pursuing this path to a bachelor’s degree.
To boost that percentage, PepsiCo S.M.I.L.E provides financial support, and this year they brought recipients together for a summit at PepsiCo HQ to do professional development work, network, take headshots and meet company leaders—all the things that more privileged students may have had the chance to do before, and that can make a candidate stand out as they transition from college to work.
If every company in America created a program like this, there’s no telling how much we could boost the next generation of talent, and that’s a boost to us all. As Lumina Foundation CEO Jamie Merisotis pointed out in a recent piece for Forbes, “the more we increase our nation’s educational attainment, the more we boost national prosperity and global competitiveness. That means if we make higher education fairer for those who have been shut out of the system, we’ll all be better off, not just them.”
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